When I read that Tennessee legislators had passed a ban on teaching critical race theory in public schools, I remembered the oath I swore to the country when I was hired to teach public school in Los Angeles. I had to promise not to promote any ideas that could lead to the overthrow of our government (I was flattered to be suspected of having such power).
I do not live in Tennessee and have only been to the state twice in my life, but this is a concerning trend. Restrictions and prohibitions on what teachers can and cannot say or teach about the ugly and ongoing history of race in the United States are emerging not only in Tennessee but also in Indiana, Texas and other states. In Oklahoma, the governor was kicked off a commission on the 1921 Tulsa race massacre last week for signing a ban.
These measures may satisfy the concerns of white parents who fear a conspiracy of leftist political indoctrination gripping our public schools. Or parents who wish to protect their children from the discomfort or shame of our racial past and present. At the very least, there are political points to be scored from a dunk shot on progressive ideology that simultaneously condemns and censors it.
I teach kids to think for themselves
Censoring K-12 teachers is nothing new, as I know from personal experience. I’ve never been accused of violating the oath I took 30 years ago, but the truth is it wouldn’t have been difficult to build a case against me. Teaching kids to think for themselves – which I proudly do – is a threat to those with political and economic power, albeit a very small one from my small corner of the universe.
I have never explicitly advocated any political or economic ideology, but I certainly have not tried to hide from students any injustices, past or present, nor discouraged them from their own radical thinking. My job is to challenge everything they say. To show them multiple perspectives to anything and everything and demand evidence for any and all claims they make. If they are skeptical of popular or traditional beliefs and anyone in positions of power – including me – then I have done my job.
I do not “teach critical race theory” and I never will. I will teach them about it and help them understand its assertions and the evidence appropriate to support those assertions – but it must always be up to students to arrive at their own conclusions.
An educator’s job is to present ways of thinking. Not – ever – to “teach” children what to think or how to see the world or the history of it. If any teacher’s objective is to convince students of the validity of critical race theory or any other theory on race or anything else, they are not teaching; and those concerned parents are right. That is indoctrination.
Any educator anywhere teaching anything must not only accept but also cultivate dissent from students – or they are not really educators.
Like anyone else, educators have opinions and, yes, biases. And if we believe we are right in our views, then we ought to have confidence that those views, presented objectively along the spectrum of views, will convince their young minds. More important, we should be open-minded enough to accept when a student arrives at a different conclusion.
Put simply, if we won’t listen to reason, why should they?
All ideas are available on the internet
If your objective is to make children of any ethnicity feel shame or guilt, you should not be working with children. You shouldn’t be teaching anywhere.
Our objective should be to open their eyes and trust that they will open their hearts. One of our most effective tools to that end is to listen, to show that we care about our students and respect them as individuals with minds of their own.
I wish someone would explain this to the politicians who believe it’s their obligation to narrow the scope of reality we may present to children, who believe that learning can occur without some discomfort, and who seem not to understand that any idea they seek to ban from our curricular discourse is easily accessed on the internet.
In the information age, abridging the curriculum like this only serves to make school less relevant. Most students, especially if they go on to college, will learn about critical race theory one way or another. If you think it’s a bogus theory, encourage those students to do the research. Otherwise, they’ll know you’re just hiding a truth that angers or embarrasses you.
Real education – authentic, legitimate and meaningful – means providing opportunities for students to wrestle with the ambiguities of the world they are supposed to inherit. The lawmakers of Tennessee are selling out the children they are supposed to represent, ensuring that fewer of them will be prepared to function at a high level in a complex and ambiguous world.
Larry Strauss is a high school English teacher and retired basketball coach in South Los Angeles. A member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, he is the author of more than a dozen books, most recently “Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher” and, on audio, “Now’s the Time” (narrated by Kim Fields). Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss