On Monday Oklahoma’s State Board of Education approved rules to implement HB 1775, a bill that bans critical race theory from public schools. The announcement renewed debate about CRT and whether it belongs in public school curricula. A fresh batch of op-eds in the Oklahoman criticize the bill as being rooted in unfounded fear. One piece, by the Editorial Board, entreats opponents of CRT to explain their opposition: “Exactly what are they afraid of?”
Rhetorical questions like this only work if your interlocutor has no ready answer. That’s not the case here. CRT may be harmless as an academic hobby, but there is reason to be anxious about CRT being taught in K-12 schools.
Reasoning about matters of fundamental importance in politics – such as whether CRT is a productive way to analyze racial disparities – requires great mental discipline. Human psychology is feeble. “Each man’s stock of reason is small,” Edmund Burke once wrote. Our natural inclination is to form opinions in crudely biased ways, and resisting this inclination – especially in the domain of politics – is hard enough for adults. For kids and young people, it’s even harder.
There’s consensus about this in our culture’s great texts. In Plato’s Republic, he says we must take “every precaution” to avoid introducing philosophy to “lads,” who unlike “more reasonable and moderate” adults, may “misuse it as a form of sport” and ultimately “fall into a violent distrust of all that they formerly held true.” In Aristotle’s great ethical treatise, Nicomachean Ethics, he says it is “futile and useless” for a youth to study political science because, being “young in years” and “immature in character,” he “tends to be guided by his feelings.”
Obviously, Plato and Aristotle were generalizing about the youths of their day, but little seems to have changed. If anything, young people today – considered as a group – are less ready to reason about fundamentally important civic matters.
For one, their civic knowledge is unimpressive. A 2009 survey by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs found that a mere 2.8% of Oklahoma high schoolers would pass the citizenship test, and only a quarter of those surveyed knew that George Washington was the first U.S. president. A 2010 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 78% of high school seniors didn’t know China and North Korea were allies in the Korean War. A 2006 study by the National Geographic Society found that half of 18- to 24-year-olds could not identify New York on a map. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found that 75% of Americans aged 18-29 could not name Condoleezza Rice as the U.S. Secretary of State.
Civic competency may not be sufficient to reason clearly about politics, but certainly it’s necessary.
Also necessary to understand and diagnose complex political problems are certain mental virtues – e.g. critical thinking, and intellectual patience – but young people don’t impress in these areas either. Since the year 2000, the number of children diagnosed with ADHD has increased 40%. How will Oklahoma students patiently discern whether complicated and emotionally-charged theories about ‘systemic racism’ are true or exaggerated if they have attention disorders?
I recently talked to a high school economics teacher who told me a story about how he accidentally brainwashed his class into adopting a rather controversial position in a certain tax debate. He did this by assigning students a TEDx Talk for each side of the debate, but he didn’t realize one was under 5-minutes and presented casually, while the other was nearly 20-minutes long and involved rather rigorous argumentation. Nearly every student reported that they felt the shorter video was clearly better – despite the teacher’s learned assessment that each position in the debate has pros and cons.
A further point: Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explain in their recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind, that teen depression and anxiety are rising alarmingly fast. Roughly one in five girls report symptoms associated with clinical depression or anxiety. That number is much smaller for boys (6.4%), but it has grown in the last decade and is still growing. This is relevant because, as Lukianoff and Haidt explain, people who are depressed and anxious characteristically exhibit ‘cognitive distortions’ (have difficulty perceiving what is and isn’t reality). They ‘catastrophize,’ for example, meaning they assume the worst possible scenario about people, reality, and the future, and they engage in ‘emotional reasoning,’ meaning they trust their feelings over logical analysis.
The upshot of all this is: those who oppose HB 1775, and support presenting CRT in public schools, are asking young students to make a judgment on a matter which they – considered as a group – are unprepared to reliably judge.
Why racial disparities persist is an extremely delicate and complicated question. There are many factors and probably no simple answer. With social problems, this is normal, not exceptional. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. … So let us leave behind all these boys’ philosophies – these over simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either.”
CRT, as it is commonly presented, is exactly that: an over simple, easily graspable explanation of racial disparities. As Thomas Sowell (along with countless others) has noted, there are many facts that the popular presentation CRT simply does not accommodate. For example: the income gap between whites and black immigrants from the West Indies is small or nonexistent; the black poverty rate decreased by 40% from 1940 to 1960, before the civil rights act, then decreased at a slower rate thereafter; in 1960, one in five black children were raised by a single mother (a severe economic disadvantage), but now it’s two thirds – a majority. If all racial disparities are explainable solely by reference to systemic racism, as per CRT, then what explains these facts? They’re flatly incongruous with the CRT hypothesis.
Nevertheless, for reasons already described, students – who lack intellectual virtue – will be drawn to the quick, simple analysis of racial disparities represented in CRT, which essentially says hard work isn’t worth the bother because it won’t be rewarded, due to systemic racism. What will it cost if a generation of students are swindled into the simplistic worldview of CRT?
Luke Tucker is an intern for the 1889 Institute and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.