Discover more from A User's Guide to History
More posturing on critical race theory
Here we go again
The faculty council at the University of Texas at Austin recently approved a resolution “defending academic freedom to teach about race and gender justice and critical race theory.” Andrea Gore, the author of the resolution, said she deliberately included “critical race theory” in the title of the resolution. “We could just have put forward a resolution on academic freedom and say, ‘We all affirm the academic freedom to teach in our scholarly areas,’ but we very specifically and intentionally focused on CRT and the other issues because those are the ones that have become politically hot-button issues,” Gore said.
Gore and the faculty council hit the hot button, all right. Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, immediately fired off a tweet: “I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory. We banned it in publicly funded K-12 and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed.”
Patrick followed up with a statement of legislative intent. “During the upcoming 88th Legislative Session, one of my priorities will be eliminating tenure at all public universities in Texas," he declared. "Additionally, we will define teaching Critical Race Theory in statute as a cause for a tenured professor to be dismissed."
The tussle between the professors and Patrick was a winner for both sides, and it had little to do with the education of students. The UT faculty stuck a finger in the eye of the conservative establishment in Texas, thereby confirming their progressive credentials. And Patrick, doubtless thanking his good luck, was handed fresh meat to throw to Republican voters.
The lack of concern for education was revealed in the deliberate employment of the CRT label. "Critical race theory" has become a provocation rather than a description. It's no accident that Patrick tagged the faculty as "Marxists," for "critical race theory" is to the early 2020s what "Marxist theory" was to the 1950s.
The Marxist label covered a spectrum of assertions that ranged from the undeniable to the unbelievable. Material interests matter in history: only the willfully obtuse would deny that. In the coming socialist paradise there will be no need for government: only the impossible innocent would agree.
Likewise with CRT. At the innocuous end of the spectrum it declares that the study of history would benefit from greater attention to the activities of people of African descent. At the inflammatory end it reduces American history to an unrelenting unfolding of white supremacy.
Just as with Marxism, both sides can make their arguments in perfect sincerity. They simply defend the end of the spectrum that suits them, and beat their opponents with the other end.
As Andrea Gore admitted, the faculty council could have affirmed academic freedom and left the matter at that. Professionally, this would have covered the ground. But they chose to pick a fight, or perhaps to continue the fight already in progress. Either way they raised the stakes.
Dan Patrick could have confined himself to insisting on the highest quality education for the young people of Texas. But he's more worried about Republican turnout on election day than about the accomplishments that lead to graduation day.
Patrick's assault on tenure is likely to prove an empty threat. The 88th session of the Texas legislature doesn't begin until January 2023, conveniently after the next elections. He'll get the mileage he wants out of bashing the professors without having to deliver on his threat before then.
And after the elections, the realistic members of his party will remind him that Houston became a world leader in medicine, Austin a midcontinent alternative to Silicon Valley, and Dallas the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country in no small part because of the quality of higher education in the state of Texas. It might please Patrick and some of his followers to make Texas universities mediocre again, as an assault on tenure would certainly do. But the leaders of Texas business still have a powerful voice in the Republican party, and they won't let it happen.
In any event, a year is a long time in politics. Quite likely Patrick will have found other issues with which to stir up his base. Not many people really care what the professors do in their ivory towers; maybe we'll see a revival of angst about who uses which bathrooms.
Some years ago the legislature mandated that professors post their syllabi on a public website. At the time, some of the faculty fretted that the sanctity of their classrooms was being invaded. It turned out to be a non-issue. There's little evidence that anyone besides students read the syllabi. Several years before that, post-tenure review was ordered, with the stated presumption that the rotten and dead wood on the faculties would be weeded out. Again the professors fretted; again nothing happened.
It is a source of concern to some faculty that students these days have a short attention span. It ought to be a source of comfort that the attention span of politicians is even shorter.