Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Pro wrestling and critical race theory
What the one reveals about the other
As the match is about to begin, the wrestlers strut into view. They flex, they grimace, they hurl epithets and sometimes chairs at their opponents. They pose for their fans, who roar approval.
The bell rings and the wrestlers engage. Sort of. They circle each other warily. They growl and flex some more. They grapple. One goes down. The other climbs the ropes and delivers a flying body slam. But the opponent rolls out of the way at the last second. No harm done.
And so it goes. For all posturing, all the effort expended, the wrestlers avoid doing serious damage to each other. Which is the point: it’s all for show.
The debate over critical race theory is much like this. Advocates of CRT argue that its recentering of American history to put black people into sharper focus is essential to modern education and propose to build curricula around it. Opponents decry the demotion of the traditional heroes of the American narrative and work to keep CRT out of the classrooms.
The debate produces sound bites, page views and ad dollars. The opposing champions burnish their reputations among their constituents: CRT supporters with liberals, CRT critics with conservatives. Each side affirms its internal solidarity by identifying the external enemy.
And nothing else happens. In some states, unenforceable legislation tells teachers not to do what almost none had considered doing. Elsewhere the shouting produces nothing but hot air. Which, as with the wrestlers, is the point. It’s all for show.
The wrestlers have their tricks of the trade—the pulled punch, the subtle shift of weight. The CRT brawlers employ similar devices, chief of which is a multilevel definition of CRT. Level one simply asserts that there is more to be said about African Americans and other racial minorities than has been said in standard textbooks. Level two adds that enslaved people were the primary agents of their own emancipation and the true heroes of American democracy. Level three holds white people collectively guilty for the disadvantages black people have suffered, and asserts that past racism requires present and future “antiracism”—measures that deliberately favor black people over whites.
The different levels allow the two sides to talk past each other without having to engage. The opponents of CRT cite level three to allege that white children are being indoctrinated to feel guilty for things done generations before they were born. The supporters of CRT, referring to level one, say it does no such thing. Both sides are right within their own defined limits, and righteous in their own minds.
Neither side shows much interest in actual education. The battle rages over the heads of students and teachers but the combatants almost never enter classrooms. They are simply not interested. Politics, not history or education, is what they care about.
This leaves teachers in a difficult position. A new Texas law declares that no teacher shall be compelled “to discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs.” It goes on to say that teachers who choose to discuss said issues “shall, to the best of their ability, strive to explore such issues from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”
As a longtime teacher—nine years at the high school level, thirty at college—I have to say that the law leaves me underwhelmed. I would be delighted not to be told what to teach, and of course I would explore contending perspectives. That’s what good teachers do.
Yet I have sympathy for new teachers worried about keeping their jobs. Who is going to determine which issues are controversial? Will somebody be watching the teachers to see if they give “deference” to one perspective over another? And what is deference in this context?
To such teachers, I offer this advice:
First, remember that the shouters don’t really care about you or your students. CRT is the cause du jour for those whose priority is keeping themselves in the public eye. A few years ago it was bathrooms—to wit, which ones trans kids would use. Next year it will be something else.
Second, with this in mind, be aware that there won’t be much follow-up. The shouters are actually happy to leave teaching to the teachers; they just don’t want the other side to score a victory. For this reason, the best strategy for teachers is to keep their heads down and concentrate on their teaching.
Third—this for history teachers especially—let facts be your refuge. There will always be people who deny past facts, just as there will always be people who deny present facts. But the former are fewer in number, because claims about the past have less political salience than assertions about the present. And facts are stubborn things. They don’t go away simply because somebody doesn’t like them.
Finally, teach students how to think, not what to think. You do this anyway. Inspire your students; challenge them. Let them see what brought you to history. And let them take it from there, and make their own history as they go forward in life.