Amid an aggressive campaign by teachers unions to prove that the work public-school teachers do is so essential that they cannot be allowed to do it, it would seem an inopportune time for the New York Times to mount an attack on those schools. But that is what it plans to do—at least, implicitly, and only in the most socially acceptable of ways: by attacking the white parents of white students, who make up a plurality of public-school enrollees.
“[W]hen we look at how our schools are failing, we usually focus on who they’re failing: Black and brown kids,” the Times noted in announcing a new podcast series contemptuously entitled “Nice White Parents.” Indeed, we usually ask that question because those are the demographics public schools are failing—a condition that has gotten worse in the age of distance learning (an objective assessment rendered by no less a source than the New York Times itself). “If you want to understand what’s wrong with our public education system,” the podcast’s pitch continues, “you have to look at what is arguably the most powerful force in our schools: White parents.”
In truth, they’ve got a point, though not the one they’re intent on making. A national effort to purge from the American political landscape even the subtlest remnants of racist thought long ago captured the primarily white educational establishment. “Anti-racism” may be relatively new to the American political vocabulary, but it’s been an objective America’s educators have pursued for some time. Unfortunately, the forms this well-meaning mission has taken look to a skeptical observer like marginally more benign forms of racism.
For example, English grammar is now racist. Or, translated into the inscrutable language of the academy, the expectation that minority students should be as competent as their white counterparts in the syntax and morphology of the written word is an outgrowth of internalized racial constructs.
An initiative by Rutgers University’s English Department Chair Rebecca Walkowitz spells out her contribution to the “eradication of systemic inequities” endured by American minorities in an email outlining changes to the university’s Graduate Writing Program. The college will now incorporate “critical grammar” into the curriculum. “This approach,” she wrote, “challenges the familiar dogma that writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar/sentence-level issues so as to not put students from multilingual, non-standard ‘academic’ English backgrounds at a disadvantage.” The impenetrable sentence that follows announces that the new curriculum “encourages students to develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them with regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on ‘written’ accents.”
The uninitiated reader is left with the inescapable conclusion that certain students are no longer expected to be proficient in this discipline. Rather, the discipline will be modified to comport more closely with the student’s existing proficiencies. We once called this “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
It’s not just grammar that is racist. Math, too, is a subversive vehicle for the promotion of white supremacy.
In late 2019, educators in Seattle resolved to abandon the canon of “Western Math.” The new K-through-12 framework for “math ethnic studies” now involves the teaching of concepts that are entirely unrelated to arithmetic. “Origin, identity, and agency,” “power and oppression,” and the “history of resistance and liberation,” to start. The coursework must begin with an attack on the framework that posits “‘Western’ mathematics as the only legitimate expression of mathematical identity and intelligence.” You see, “This definition of legitimacy is then used to disenfranchise people and communities of color.” To fail to impose a Critical Race Theorist’s perspective on algebra risks perpetuating “oppressive mathematical practices.” Only when we’ve slogged through this dogma can we learn how to calculate a tip.
Philosophy is definitely racist. As I wrote in my book, Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America, the effort by educators and their pliable students to “decolonize” the syllabus is, in fact, an attempt to oversimplify the interdisciplinary and interconnected nature of critical thought. What began as a valuable movement to include more non-European thinkers in the study of philosophical inquiry has transformed into a reactionary effort to devalue or sacrifice the contributions to the discipline made by white thinkers. As the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies averred in 2017, if European philosophers must be taught, it should be done from “a critical standpoint.” I wrote in my book:
The idea that Western and non-Western philosophy can be entirely compartmentalized is a product of ignorance. Some of the most influential works of medieval Islamic philosophy, for example, were composed in Spain—a nation that engaged in a fair bit of colonizing long after its Islamic influences had been integrated into Iberian society. Those Islamic philosophers, heavily influenced by their classical predecessors, in turn had a profound effect on the philosophical minds that came after them. The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza set Europe on a course toward the Enlightenment, but he was also a dark-skinned Sephardic Jew from Portugal. Spinoza’s works are, however, unlikely to appear on the preferred reading list of London’s irate anticolonial student activists. Their objections are less a matter of geography or ethnicity than a self-referential preconception about what they believe ought to constitute white European thought.
Disciplines such as geography, literature, and, most certainly, history are all racist. Works that are a product of their times and topographical features with names that evoke checkered periods in American history were long ago subjected not to critical analysis but banishment from the curricula. The presumption being that students cannot comprehend the milieu that prevailed in their respective time periods—they must be shielded from all that.
As college professor and president of the National Council for the Social Studies, Tina Haefner, told “Good Morning America” last year, it isn’t just that history from the perspective of American minorities is poorly taught in public schools (indeed, it is). It’s that black students cannot possibly maintain any interest in the study of history that isn’t centered around the black experience. “We know that students of color don’t have anything to connect to within [the] American history curriculum,” she said. Anything? That’s right: Anything. It’s difficult to imagine a more condescending view of how minority students engage with their studies.
The expositors of the view that all subjects must be seen through a racial prism fancy themselves the champions of a “holistic and representative” approach to the world. But the educational products they’ve produced and the students they’ve integrated into the world outside demonstrate daily that this is a worldview that rejects context and nuance in favor of a maximalist binary—that which is not explicitly anti-racist is, in part or whole, racist. In their pursuit of an educational experience that maximizes the prospects for minority students, these educators appear to believe that they must simplify the curriculum and talk down to their students. It is probably hard to find a genuine white supremacist who wouldn’t agree.