An Op-Ed caught my eye this week, reminding me that young people often can be remarkably wise. I find myself remembering the phrase, “out of the mouths of babes,” “a shortening and revision of expressions in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In Psalms 8:2, God ordains strength out of the mouth of babes and sucklings; in Matthew 21:16, praise comes from this source. Later generations changed strength and praise to wisdom” [www.dictionary.com].
I’ve written before about the current trend of parents and taxpayers to show up at school board meetings to attack board members verbally over fraught issues like mask and vaccine mandates, as well as their concern that critical race theory [CRT] is being taught to their children, causing them shame and harm. Their position shows a true misunderstanding of what that theory is and where it is taught. A scholarly framework first developed in the late 1970s, its “core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies” [www.edweek.org].
Few K-12 schools teach that theory, but it really doesn’t matter, because opponents simply use the label to identify any teaching about racism. They would deny the systemic racism clearly apparent throughout society or insist that students shouldn’t learn about it anyway.
Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When I was in high school in the 1960s, even though my school was nationally known for excellence, I did not learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre, redlining, the Tuskegee experiment, or most other racist events and tragedies. I knew about Freedom Riders because my parents were involved in the civil rights movement, and because one of the young adults killed was the son of friends of theirs. I didn’t learn about Japanese internment or Stonewall and other LGBTQ assaults either. A colleague taught me about driving while black many years ago, a problem that only received national attention recently. How can we make our society more fair and just if we don’t know our own history?
A black high school junior from Brooklyn, New York, wrote about this more eloquently than I can. In a January 14, 2022, Op-Ed in the Washington Post, “Take it from a high schooler who’s actually learned about CRT: Adults need to chill out,” Christiane Calixte wrote:
Opponents of CRT claim that this academic lens is divisive, anti-White and anti-American. Many have claimed that its teachings are a means of forcing a political agenda onto children in lieu of focusing on subjects deemed more educational.
Don’t be fooled, though. The retaliation against CRT shows that parents have no idea what students are learning — and that their protests are less about education and more about a projection of their own biases and fears [Washington Post].
Calixte’s school offers both a 75-minute workshop and an optional senior elective on CRT. She took the seminar and assures readers that it promoted neither hatred of white people nor their shaming. “In our discussion, CRT also wasn’t presented as absolute and unchangeable truth. Throughout the lesson, teachers emphasized that all students had the right to agree or disagree with the teachings” [Ibid.]. She warns us that CRT is “simply being used as a straw man for those who aim to restrict speech and knowledge — and, in some cases, perpetuate bigoted ideologies” [Ibid.].
Calixte’s closing plea speaks volumes: “Don’t reverse centuries of progress in favor of promoting ignorance. If the goal of schools is to create a well-informed populace, then nuanced discussions of historical racism must be held in classrooms. It is the only way young people will learn to think critically about our country’s institutions, and the only way to create an inclusive America for future generations.” [Ibid.]
Christiane Calixte’s Op-Ed should remind us all that our young people are more capable than we credit them for, that they can and must think critically about our institutions. And she is not alone. According to a 2021 Washington Post IPSOS poll, “Just under 6 in 10 teenagers said that racial discrimination is “a major threat” to their generation, including larger shares of Black (85 percent), Hispanic (69 percent) and Asian teens (68 percent) than White teens (43 percent)” [washingtonpost.com]. Young adults have led the way in other areas of discrimination. For example, a research report from NORC at the University of Chicago describes an growing generation gap in attitudes toward same sex marriage : “While 64 percent of those under 30 back same-sex marriage, only 27 percent of those 70 and older support it” [NORC]. In the Pacific Standard, a nonprofit publication that for more than a decade published award-winning work on social and environmental justice, a sociologist and professor of religion at a Catholic university, describes the tolerance he sees in his daughter and in his students as “ a beacon of hope for all of us” [psmag.com].
Why, then, do so many fear teaching truthful American history? I can’t get the lyrics of a song from the musical South Pacific out of my mind lately:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
Imagine if our careful teaching switched from promoting bigotry to trying to understand the strengths and flaws of our great nation by exploring true history and learning from it? Young people are up to the task. We must be, too.