Tuesday, December 7, 2021

More Good News!


Drawing by Kevin Siers, Charlotte Observer, June 2021.

You know how upset conservatives are about "cancel culture" and how they've reacted to this menace by going on a spree of banning thoughtcrimes like "critical race theory" and their proponents from educational institutions (it's not an attack on freedom of speech, it's just for the children's sake)

It's weird to imagine terms like "culturally responsive teaching" or "abolitionist teaching" or "free radical therapy" or "normativity" in an 8th-grade classroom, or a 12th-grade one either. Why wouldn't they ban them in the teacher training institutions where they might get used? I'm glad they're just banning the words and not the practice—abolitionist teaching sounds like a good thing

practices and approaches to teaching that focus on restoring humanity for all children in schools. Abolitionist teaching is the practice of pursuing educational freedom for all students, eschewing reform in favor of transformation. This practice is rooted in Black critical theory and focused on joy, direct action and abolition.

Oh, but it's critical. That's what they really can't deal with. They'll tell you that's Marxist, or more recently Kantian, because, as the Stanford Encyclopedia explains right at the top of the article,

The fundamental idea of Kant’s “critical philosophy” – especially in his three Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) – is human autonomy. He argues that the human understanding is the source of the general laws of nature that structure all our experience; and that human reason gives itself the moral law, which is our basis for belief in God, freedom, and immortality. Therefore, scientific knowledge, morality, and religious belief are mutually consistent and secure because they all rest on the same foundation of human autonomy, which is also the final end of nature according to the teleological worldview of reflecting judgment that Kant introduces to unify the theoretical and practical parts of his philosophical system.

and we can't have any of that human autonomy, can we? That's practically as bad as abolition. Only conservatives are allowed to use unarguably beneficent-sounding expressions to cover their secret plans for world domination ("pro-life", anybody?). But it's the word "critical" in itself that really gives them the willies, and I think (Jordan and I were going back and forth about this in comments a while ago) it's as simple as fear that somebody's going to feel entitled to criticize them. Conservatism is the philosophy of "I can dish it out but if you expect me to take it I'm going home."

Anyway, the good news, from education and history professor Adam Laats at The Atlantic, is that educational cancel culture has been around for a very long time and it never works:

Back in the 1920s, the vague term that galvanized conservative angst was not critical race theory but evolution. Conservative pundits at the time seized on a cartoonish misrepresentation of evolutionary science and warned their fellow Americans that “evolution” was nothing less than a sinister plot to rob white American children of their religion, their morals, and their sense of innate superiority.

But although the school bans might have changed some school curricula in the short term, in the long run, they backfired. Telling parents you don’t want their kids to have the best possible public schools is never good politics. A full century ago, the most effective school-ban campaign in American history set the pattern: noise, fury, rancor, and fear, but not much change in what schools actually teach.

It's so familiar, too: there was the fear of mockery by heartless atheists

Once the “Evolutionists” robbed children of their faith, (Blue Mountain evangelist T.T.] Martin wrote, they “laugh and jeer, as the rapist laughs and jeers at the bitter tears of the crushed father and mother over the blighted life of their child.”

threatened masculinity

Supporters of evolution, Martin preached, were not real men; they were “sissy”; they had given up their “Christian manhood.”

and of course disloyalty to our nation

They were not even real Americans; they were betraying “the spirit of those who came over in the Mayflower,” Martin said, adding, “Where is the spirit of 1776?”

And the response of cancelation

William Mahoney, the [Atlanta] leader of Supreme Kingdom, a Ku Klux Klan offshoot, attacked school-board members and the city’s teachers. He promised to force the reluctant school board to eliminate five teachers on suspicion of teaching ideas that were “paganistic … atheistic … beastialistic … and anarchistic.”

and furious state legislatures

From 1922 to 1929, legislators proposed at least 53 bills or resolutions in 21 states, plus two bills in Congress. Five of them succeeded.

The Klan connection isn't much of a surprise either.

But some school boards resisted, and even pusillanimous textbook publishers snuck around the restrictions

prominent publishers claimed to have edited out evolutionary content, but many times, they simply didn’t. The best example might be the case of George Hunter’s Civic Biology. This textbook was at the center of the famous Scopes Trial in 1925. After the furious wave of anti-evolution bans had passed, the publisher offered a new edition, supposedly free of objectionable evolutionary content. In fact, however, the “evolution-free” edition was almost exactly the same as the old edition. The publisher merely removed the word evolution and replaced it with similar words such as development.

It strikes me that the current terror is really well suited to this kind of subterfuge, since it is so focused on what words the teacher uses rather than what the teaching accomplishes, "critical race theory" as a subject rather than critical race pedagogy as a methodology. Things are looking pretty grim right now, and I'm afraid a lot of really talented and motivated young teachers are going to be falling out or getting canceled in the next few years, but in the long run, I expect, more will be able to do exactly what they've been trained to do at the more progressive institutions (disclosure: my youngest sister got her Ed.D. from the school where Laats teaches and trains teachers herself in a private college upstate) in the schools where they end up, and it won't be violating the laws dictated by ALEC, because, whatever witch hunters like Christopher Rufo have claimed, that isn't at all how it works:

Ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, status, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex.

Assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex, or claiming that, consciously or unconsciously, and by virtue of persons’ race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or are inherently inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inclined to oppress others.

Because nobody does that, other than undergraduates in the kinds of schools Republicans wanted their kids to go to because they thought the price tag would keep out the riffraff, and most of those don't either.

High school history teachers who "teach the 1619 Project" in states where it's not illegal to do so will use it in the way Valerie Strauss does with Notre Dame freshmen:

While I encourage students to draw their own conclusions about the controversies, we do not attempt to decide collectively which perspectives are more accurate. Instead, we discuss reasons historians disagree, how such disagreements are argued and what this suggests about historical truths. We consider who gets to tell the story of a people and what is at stake in the telling.

And in states where it is illegal, they're going to want to do it too, or surreptitiously use the book's suggestions and bibliographies to inform their lesson plans. Eventually they'll just use it, or it will be replaced by something even better.

Most Americans don't really understand the theory of natural selection very well, a century after the controversy was at boiling point, but it's no longer normal to deny that our ancestors were apes, and everybody has access to the information they might need. There are probably Christian fundamentalists in the teams working right now on the genomic sequencing of the coronavirus and predicting the consequences in human ecology of the virus's mutations, who don't doubt the story of Adam and Eve but still function pretty well in their careers. Most Americans 20 years from now aren't going to have an advanced critical analysis of the origins of systemic racism, but there's a good chance that, as their social environments get more and more diverse, they're going to have more and more access to techniques for not being a schmuck in their relations with people of different races and genders and religious affiliations and so on—even a chance that traditional barriers will have decayed in a wider range of places than the ones where they're collapsing today. I've seen so many kinds of separation and mistrust overcome since I was a kid, even as the most painful ones endured!

If culture is really upstream from politics, that process is already well advanced, and the conservatives are right to be frightened, because the hierarchies they are most attached to are really endangered. But banning words isn't the thing that's going to stop it.

No comments:

Post a Comment