The Moral Choices We Make

The Attack on Teaching American History by Americans

In a climate charged with scrutinizing what children are taught in public schools, the current culture wars have seen a resurgence of politicization vaunted into the living rooms of Americans that puts democracy under increasing threat of extinction. Scratch a form of political legislation, and you will find underneath a bevy of congealed cultural artifacts. Opposition to abortion and gay rights and defending religious belief – which lumped together can be considered the root and branch of American ‘family values’ among conservatives – are grounded in divine scripture and have marked for decades the main theatre of the culture wars. Designed decades ago by Republican operatives to, in part, deflect attention away from questions about the economy and the absence of economic rights as part and parcel of America’s struggle for human rights, the traditional culture wars have discernibly shifted direction. Making a congressional election all about hot button family values instead of engaging in a debate over geopolitics, economics, and civic duty has proven fruitful for the Republican Party, thanks to the efforts of Newt Gingrich in 1994 through the unveiling of his Contract with America.

Today, the red meat thrown at the general public by Republicans has less to do with the standard fight over secularization, abortion, conservative evangelical Protestants placing the Ten Commandments on school campuses or deciding what grade sex education should be taught in school (if at all) and more to do with fear – a fear of the Other, a fear of progressives dominating the universities, of white people being replaced by immigrants of colour, a fear that the US is no longer the world’s uncontested hegemon and that global capitalism seems to be favouring countries such as China. All these cultural concerns mark for today’s far right a serious decline in America’s greatness and pose an existential threat to what it means for them to be American. They function today less as a means of distraction from serious political debates and more as a struggle for the meaning of one’s very existence and humanity.

A spate of recent and highly controversial legislative measures passed by Republican-controlled Senates and state Houses across the country reveal how the new culture wars are playing out. In the main, they constitute a coiled, spring-loaded invective against the Democratic Party hitherto unsurpassed in the history of the country’s battle over values. Democrats are disparaged by Republicans for a host of reasons that can be summed up by the word ‘woke’ (a code word for ‘politically correct’ or ‘liberal’ or ‘pro-cancel culture’). In response to woke culture, Republicans have called for an illiberal politics that brushes against the grain of anything remotely resembling the modern Enlightenment. One proposed law by Republicans in Florida, known by critics as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, prohibits public school districts from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade, opening the door for a similar ban in higher grade levels. Recently Alabama passed a bill that would force teachers and school staff to out transgender minors to their parents. The bill also makes it a felony crime for doctors to provide care to minors that would help them in their gender transition. Republican lawmakers are keenly aware that the midterm election cycle takes place later this year and are ramping up the culture wars with apparent glee. Attacks on ‘woke’ teachers who teach ‘divisive subjects’ related to LGTBQ issues and Critical Race Theory have changed the landscape of teaching across the country. Very often, such attacks on teachers are justified under the pretence of providing more transparency in the classroom, offering parents more say in their children’s education.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is the current bête noire since it has drawn attention to the persistence of anti-Black racism throughout the United States and the unjustified killings of Black men by the police. CRT (which is taught at the university or college level) developed out of critical legal studies associated with law schools whose researchers borrowed ideas from critical theory, legal realism and Marxist analyses and were interested in the social construction of race, the normalization of racism and the means by which people of colour continue to be systematically exploited through institutions and structures which are race-based, ideologically biased in favour of the dominant class, hierarchical and exceedingly unjust and serve to reproduce structured hierarchies that serve the interests of the rich and powerful. CRT has influenced numerous areas of scholarship, such as gender studies, cultural studies, pedagogy, sociology, and critical social theory.

CRT developed theories of racial formation and revealed the inadequacy of liberal reformist measures to redress the inequitable treatment of people of colour under existing laws and statutes and judicial decision-making in general. CRT has proved crucially important in the teaching of history. In essence, CRT possesses the theoretical means to reveal in granular detail the causes of the failure of Reconstruction, the impact of the Dred Scott decision that outraged abolitionists, and to shed a critical light on the egregious ways that the Jim Crow laws that followed the Civil War are still with us today, although hidden behind the veneer of race neutrality. CRT also explodes the myth that the Civil War was primarily about states’ rights and not slavery. CRT provides clarity to the fact that racist actions are not simply perpetrated by individual acts of bias but are fully and fatefully embedded in unfair systemic discrimination against African Americans and other racial minority groups across a wide swath of the civic commons. CRT not only enhances our understanding of microaggression and differential racialization but illuminates the way society has been systemically organized to serve the interests of the ruling capitalist class. CRT gave rise to theories such as intersectionality and anti-essentialism, and its basic ideas have been incorporated into critical pedagogy.

Unsurprisingly, Trump and his Republican cohorts attack Critical Race Theory as a form of anti-White racism and anti-Americanism. They intensified their attacks after the Black Lives Matter protests were ignited following the murder of George Floyd by the police (protesters were labelled ‘thugs’ by Trump and alleged to have participated in wanton looting and violence.) Others have challenged CRT on the basis of its soiling of liberal ideals of equality historically associated with the greatness of the United States. Given the recent spawn of White militia groups, neo-Nazis, and white supremacist ethno-nationalists in the fascist swamps that now exist throughout the United States – clusters of racists, all of whom remain in the thrall of Donald Trump’s gaslighting and who prosecute the theory of The Great Replacement (Whites are being systematically replaced in the United States by immigrants of colour) by carrying AR-15s into public spaces – it is obvious that many Americans are virulently racist and only too willing to follow the racist dog whistles of politicians such as Trump.

The current anti-CRT legislation is designed to make CRT a catch-all phrase for anti-White sentiment and thus attract Trump’s base of supporters, provoking them to denounce so-called leftist teachers who wish to adopt anti-racism lessons in the classroom. Almost any discussion of racism in the classroom is automatically attacked as promoting divisive CRT ideas that have been designed to blame White children for the history of slavery and to cleave society into two groups: the oppressed (people of colour) and oppressors (White people). Generic ideas related to structural or systemic racism may appear in the curricula of some secondary schools, but the Republican lawmakers are disingenuously hyping CRT up as initiating some kind of racial epidemic designed to traumatize White students by convincing them that they are not only the historical recipients of unearned ‘white privilege’ but are equivalent to whip-wielding slave masters. The new legislation is broadly interpreted by conservative groups, provoking parents to demand more oversight into what is being taught in their children’s classrooms. Some parents feel that any criticism of racism is tantamount to implicating all White people in racial crimes, and, as such, racism should not be discussed at all. In some cases, White students complaining of discomfort in classroom discussions of race can report their teachers to their parents, who, in turn, are able to sue the teachers through a ‘right of private action’ made possible by newly minted Florida legislation. Teachers are being forced to post all their classroom materials in advance so that parents can approve or disapprove of them. At the same time, teachers are being regulated in terms of the ways they can discuss race, gender, LGBTQ issues and transgender issues, if at all.

Banning the discussion of slavery in the United States or the racism of the Founding Fathers, vociferously demanded by Republicans, is essentially an attack on the meaning and purpose of history itself. If we are forced to shroud the civil rights struggle in a blanket of social and historical amnesia, we are lost as a nation in combatting ongoing discrimination against people of colour, including immigrants. The current culture wars are unlike those of the previous decade in that they originate from a ‘fear of extinction’ of the White race. They inflame latent racist, misogynist and sexist sentiments and message them through social media with little accountability. The toxicity of contemporary politics has weaponized race and transformed whiteness into a sacred identity that must be defended at all costs, even at the cost of losing the infrastructure that makes democratic discourse possible. We were unable to be unified around the pandemic, even around Putin’s criminal war against Ukraine. Anti-maskers and anti-vaccine groups abound, as do the pro-Putin wing of the Republican Party and their allies, steeled by conspiracies that proclaim secret paedophile rings that have been set up by congressional Democrats and Hollywood elites working in tandem so that they can harvest plenty of adrenochrome from the blood of children that provides them with necessary sustenance as they shape-shift into reptilian beings. We currently exist in a Hobbesian state of nature, overwhelmed by a tribal politics that some observers believe could lead to civil war. And if pundits like Steve Bannon have their way, we could end up embracing a new medievalism where we consent to be ruled by a demented philosopher king whose political legerdemain leads us into a nuclear apocalypse.

Americans face a choice. Injustice is all around us. Our decisions made in the face of the suffering Other cry out across an endless firmament of pain, suffering and cruelty, as we are summoned to enact justice. The cry of the oppressed does not simply warrant decision on our part; it demands decision. We face a moral imperative that cannot be postponed. Our decisions in the face of the cries of the Other will return, again and again, not through a reversal of linear time but in the face of the eschaton, the final judgement of history. After all, the suffering of others is an absolute cry that echoes from the gates of eternity. We cannot repeat our indifference, over and over, but must judge our actions in anticipation of the end of history. Only then can we stand amidst the shattering ruins of time in solidarity both with the meaning of history and as a witness to justice. Definitive justice for humankind means not adapting to the world but conquering our indifference to the suffering of others. We must work from a compassion that does not fall into condescension, a compassion that assails the cold-blooded audacity of the perpetrators of injustice. We cannot risk endlessly deferring our commitment to others; rather, our decisions must be those that we can live with across eternity. There is a telos underlying our struggles for justice, whether we are on the picket lines with Chicago teachers, or taking a stand against Putin’s atrocities at Bucha, or supporting the rights of LGBTQ and transgender students in Florida. That telos, for critical educators, is the creation of a world that is not driven by profit and exploitation and not fuelled by alienation. Exploitation and oppression are the contingencies of history that can only be repeated by our denial of the future. And we refuse to deny the future. We conceive of the future as possibility. We embody the future in the subjunctive mode of ‘as if’ as we continue to fight today’s guardians of hate.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). The Moral Choices We Make: The Attack on Teaching American History by Americans. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.