Better civics ed is the real answer in critical race theory debate

Written by Derek Monson

June 10, 2021

Both the State Board of Education and the Utah Legislature recently took initial steps to address public concerns over the possibility of the ideas of critical race theory (CRT) showing up in K-12 classrooms. But is the debate actually focusing on solutions to the problem, or symptoms of it?

For instance, many parents express reasonable concern that their children will be presented with elements of critical race theory – such as the idea of structural racism or the approach of revisionist history – before they have been adequately taught to think critically through information and ideas.

But is the problem that teachers are being trained in the approaches and ideas of critical race theory and bringing those into the classroom, or is the real problem that our schools aren’t adequately training students in critical thinking skills?

On another side of the debate, anti-racist leaders and others who resonate with the approach and conclusions of critical race theory want to see a different type of conversation about American civics and history in schools – one that includes the perspective and lived experience of racial minority groups.

But is the problem that civics and history currently lacks sufficient perspective of racial minorities, or is the real problem that the emphasis on civics and history education in K-12 is so inadequate that it is impossible to properly teach any group’s historical experience in America?

Utah parents rank civics education as nearly as important a subject as math and English for K-12 students, and yet rate schools’ performance on civics teaching significantly lower than their performance on math and English teaching. This fact suggests that the real problem driving the disagreement and controversy over CRT may actually be inadequate civics and history education.

Reforming civics and history education may, in fact, lead to solutions for both concerned parents and anti-racist advocates. If school offerings in civics and history were rigorous, sequential, and emphasized in every grade the way that science, math and English currently are, it could respond to parents’ concerns by ensuring that discussion about the current and historical realities of racism happen in age-appropriate settings. It could also respond to anti-racist advocates’ reasonable demand that American history adequately emphasize the experience of America’s minority groups. It could fill the need to train students to think critically about new information, so that students can understand what the minority experience means about America and – just as important – what it does not mean.

If the debate about critical race theory can illuminate the real problems with civics and history education, younger generations can be adequately instructed in both this nation’s irreplaceable accomplishments as well as its tragic failings. Then perhaps, younger generations will have the tools to better address racism and racial divides and disparities than their older counterparts have done.

On the other hand, if the controversy surrounding CRT never turns us toward reform of civics and history education, then it will become a barrier to progress on racial issues. Every step forward will bring with it one step backward somewhere else and every solution will create new problems.

It is essential that we become better informed about critical race theory: what it really is, why it is causing controversy in schools, and what to do about the public’s concern about it. But that issue is a symptom of a deeper problem in civics and history education. Failing to realize that will mean failing to address the needs of parents, teachers and students alike – whatever their race.

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