Struggling toward a dream of the American experiment

Marti Crow
Marti Crow

One of the downsides of getting information from the mass media is that we are likely to get a skewed story. These days we are hearing a lot about critical race theory (CRT) and some state legislators are pushing laws to ban any teaching on this subject in schools. CRT is not some new curriculum or movement. It originated in the mid-1970s in the writings of several American legal scholars. They questioned whether laws were being used to maintain society’s unconscious biases against marginalized groups. Their goal was to enhance awareness of cultural stereotypes and unintentional prejudice.

I taught middle schoolers in the late 1960s against a background of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations. That was well before CRT but my students were eager to discuss the history of racism, the speeches of Martin Luther King and the riots in Kansas City in response to the assassination. My teaching method with those students, who were 14 to 16 years old, aimed at encouraging critical thinking about current events and American history.  

My students were in Shawnee Mission, Kansas; there was little diversity in the building. We talked about how the history of the United States is a story of growing and maturing democracy. We also discussed how progress is uneven and cycles of intolerance and violence continue. In the beginning, despite the broad language in the preamble to the Constitution, our country provided full citizenship rights to only white male landowners. Over time, franchise and other civil rights has marched through our history like the pioneers marched across the continent. The expansion has never been easy and quiet. Our history includes massacres and marches, suppression and expansion. Abigale Adams urged her husband, our second president, to “remember the women.” The struggle over the original sin of slavery was debated long before the 13 states formed a union. America was founded by idealists who compromised in order to form an imperfect union, who described ideals that they failed to achieve. We are still struggling to make a “more perfect union.”

One evening last year, I learned about the 1921Tulsa massacre while watching PBS. I was astounded that I had never known about that event. Obviously, my education (in three high schools, majoring in history and social studies in college and studying constitutional law in law school) was lacking. Is the recent suppression of CRT aimed at keeping present students from learning about the less proud actions of our country? The goal, it appears, of some legislators who would limit the curriculum in today’s schools is to deprive today’s and tomorrow’s students of the ability to learn from our nation’s mistakes.

CRT theorists did not all share identical beliefs but their basic claim was not that explicit and intentional prejudices are what causes racial discrimination and marginalized communities. Because the culture and mores of racism are often unconscious and ingrained, CRT strives to open discussions of racism, equality, social justice and the history of race relations. If young people can learn to be bigoted, they can also learn to be broad minded about the attributes that make the human race so richly diverse.

Why has CRT become part of the “culture wars?” Do some Americans want to silence broader discussion of ongoing problems while our country repeats cycle after cycle of prejudice, demonstrations and division. Are we harmed by knowing that American history is rife with mistreatment of minorities and immigrants? Do you believe that Germany and Uganda and other countries with dark histories shouldn’t encourage their youth to learn from the mistakes of the past? How else do we mature as human beings and live together in harmony and peace?

It’s the word “critical” that rings out here. It is time for all Americans to find a way back to truth telling and openness. Perhaps we need more self-criticism and less condemnation of each other. Curriculum is not properly designed by legislators; there are education experts and authorities who are equipped in the field of instruction. Demagoguery has no place in deciding what is taught in our schools.

Today’s students have the opportunity to find an immediate answer to almost any question. Our schools must, more than ever, teach students to question and investigate, to discuss and debate with each other, to form opinions and to question assumptions. Their instruction time must concentrate on the skills and tools they need to find the truth and form reasonable opinions.

Our public forum today is limited by tribalism and narrow-mindedness. As we resume, slowly, our national and community social interaction, I celebrate the rich diversity of our community. Not only is our part of Kansas beautiful and scenic, we live in a place that is rich in history. Best of all, we are privileged to live side by side with people who differ in race, color, religion and ethnic identity. We host military families from all over the globe and American families who travel worldwide but chose this place as their retirement home.

When I hear “God Bless America” I think about an experiment that over the last 245 years has struggled toward a dream. May it be so.

Marti Crow is a Leavenworth Times columnist.