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The First Amendment, Yes, But Curricula Too

To allow critical race theory and to bar needed classroom reforms on the basis of academic freedom is to enable our decline.

Credit: BlurryMe/Shutterstock

For as long as I can remember, conservatives have been worried about the “campus problem.” They’ve fretted about it for decades—ever since William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale in 1951—yet actually doing something about the left-wing indoctrination that’s come to characterize our institutions of higher learning has proven a taller order.

Instead what we’ve more often gotten is the affirmative action bake sale. This was an early version of conservative trolling that peaked around the late 2000s. Sniggering young right-wingers would set up a table with cookies for sale at prices that were lower for racial minorities than for whites. Get it?! This is how affirmative action works! Not only was this a reductive representation of an admittedly more complex issue, it accomplished nothing except to piss people off. Which, of course, was the point. Ostentatious stunts, invitations to Milo, viral videos of students being victimized by their Maoist professors—this was how the academic left was to be routed.

And then we’d all get drunk and forget about the campus problem for a while. The upper marginal tax rate wasn’t going to cut itself, after all. And someone had to fight for even more Pentagon funding.

Fast-forward to today and the issue has become both banally familiar and urgently critical. Familiar in that when Bari Weiss tells Jordan Peterson that the core curriculum at her alma mater Columbia University had been taught almost entirely through a lens of colonialism and oppression (she graduated in 2007), we don’t even bat an eyelash. Critical in that we’ve gone beyond even that dismal point into the farcical territory of literally instructing that whiteness is evil. Woke identity politics isn’t just an elective course anymore; it’s an integrated ethos. And it’s filtering down into our high schools, and even grade schools.

It’s here that a line seems at last to have been drawn. The teaching of critical race theory in high school and grade school classrooms, and the sniveling insistence by school officials that they’re doing nothing of the sort, has touched off something like a Tea Party 2.0. Parents have showed up en masse at school board meetings to light up the mikes. Rallies have been held demanding that racism—which is all CRT really is—be kept away from students. Legislatures in some red states have responded by banning critical race theory in schools. The fight against left-wing indoctrination has been joined, after years of conservatives launching showy skirmishes and then melting back into the woods.

So naturally some on the right are already beginning to chafe. In the New York Times, David French of The Dispatch joins three other writers to warn that bans on CRT are a violation of academic freedom. The authors have a point when they say some of these laws are overreaching. Their underlying spirit is also commendable: We don’t always need new rules. The temptation to ban or regulate everything we don’t like is one of the most obnoxious impulses in American politics. There ought to be a law, the old saying goes; how about there ought not to be a law? This mentality is why in Washington, D.C., I can’t smoke a cigarette within 5,000 feet of a fire hydrant or whatever that stupid rule is. It’s why the average American commits multiple crimes per day without even knowing it.

Yet if we are going to have law—and of course we must—can you think of a better use for it than preventing children from being brainwashed with hateful garbage? The pipeline of poison coursing through so many schools is not just an issue of individual rights. Curricula are formative, directly shaping how the young view themselves and the world around them. For that reason, they’re social goods. If schools choose to teach that America is systemically bigoted, that 1776 is irredeemable, that victimization is chic, that your truth supersedes the truth, that everyone the world over is either a racist or an anti-racist, then what will emerge off of the conveyor belt are little monsters. And those monsters will one day make up our society, a society they’ve been given no reason to admire and preserve.

Curricula thus affect us all—our ability to function in our communities, our capacity to exercise our rights. Few things could be more important, yet French and Friends prefer to blush and hold up a legalistic fig leaf. Rather than ban CRT, they say, parents should fall back on existing civil rights laws and sue. It’s as though your average mother of three has millions of dollars stuffed under the bed to blow on a court battle. The real problem, the authors insist, is the anti-CRT statutes themselves. “Let’s not mince words about these laws,” they declare. “They are speech codes. They seek to change public education by banning the expression of ideas.”

Yet what is a curriculum if not the approval for consumption of some ideas and concepts and literature at the expense of others? French et al. say they want children to be brought up in a “culture of American free expression.” And right on. But how far is that principle supposed to go vis-a-vis education? What if a teacher abruptly interrupts trigonometry class to scream antisemitic slurs and goose-step in a circle? What if another teacher decides that 2+2=5? Is that not his right under a “culture of American free expression”? Is Orwellian doublethink just another blessing of liberty?

If those examples sound like reductio ad absurdum, consider that even five years ago teaching “white fragility” and “individualism as a white value” would have too. Yet this is where we are. CRT is just as false as 2+2=5, and far more malicious. The two may not even be that dissimilar: Recently the Oregon Department of Education sent around a newsletter encouraging math teachers to take a course in “ethnomathematics” that downplays a “focus…on getting the ‘right’ answer,” which it says is a symptom of “white supremacy culture.” This assault on the very concept of truth came courtesy of a state-level department; are the elected state representatives of Oregon not allowed to push back? State bodies already regulate curricula all the time—just ask any angry Democrat who has children in the Texas public school system.

Yet the most salient point here isn’t about federalism, important though that is. It’s simply this: These are schools. They don’t exist to facilitate First Amendment-protected dialogue; they exist to facilitate pedagogy. Students go there to be taught, to learn that which is foundational and necessary and true. The classroom is not a public square where students get to stand up and speak truth to power and teachers get to lie without penalty. Free expression in a school must necessarily be tempered by an assumption that the teacher is authoritative and what he instructs is good and right. The alternative is anarchy. And then the machine will keep churning and the monsters will keep coming out, eyes lolling and teeth clacking.

It’s to this end that conservatives should take an interest in curricula. Because the fact is that they’ve been right all along. It isn’t just CRT. Our universities and schools have been broken for years. Standards have plunged; test scores are dropping; the classics have been downplayed and even canceled. Woolly-headed left-wing thinking and postmodernism have too often eclipsed any kind of core academic tradition. High schools are much less rigorous than they once were. Colleges are graduating students saddled with debt, hawked over by diversity administrators, unversed in the humanities but flaunting proud As in electives like “Eggplant Emoji Semiotics 1688-1989.”

A system-wide problem requires system-wide thinking to fix. And this feeds directly into the liberalism that David French prizes. We will never rediscover political restraint and constitutional fidelity if our schools aren’t producing properly educated and adjusted students. That doesn’t mean we need to trample all over federalism. It’s worth pointing out that the last two top-down federal education overhauls were crashing failures (No Child Left Behind turned standardized testing into a fetish while Common Core had everyone adding numbers in 12 dimensions). But it does mean we need to acknowledge that our schools and curricula need fixing, that leaving them to the cool-dad chaperonage of the First Amendment isn’t going to cut it.

First, though, we need to deal with the immediate problem. That means getting CRT out of the classroom.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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