July 13, 2021

America’s New Frontier: Kindergarten

Teach our kids racial history, not racial division.

Thirteen years ago — inspired by a Ugandan priest temporarily assigned to a nearby Catholic parish — my wife Peggy founded a nonprofit organization to help people there in desperate need. Early on, we made the tactical decision to channel the lion’s share of our organization’s donated funds to financing K-12 education for Ugandan children who would not otherwise be able to attend school. We continue to do so.

Our reasoning was simple. Under the enormous challenges facing that country — extreme poverty, limited employment opportunities, primitive living conditions — we felt that our most effective investment for a better future there would be in the education of today’s youth.

The same is true everywhere, even right here in the U.S.

Right now, our country is severely polarized, and the chasm between us is getting deeper and wider. Dead center on the fault line is the question of racism — the strident accusations from the left that America is systemically racist, and the passionate disagreements on the right about the degree to which that may be true and what to do about it.

How we equip our next generation to deal with that question is a pivotal issue facing the nation.

Every teacher I know is dedicated, hardworking, and wholly committed to his or her students. But unfortunately, we’ve ceded far too much authority over American education to politicized, powerful, and well-funded teachers unions.

Membership in the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) comprises about 90% of public school K-12 teachers in the U.S. Their heavy-handed influence over education policy and content reflects full-on support of progressive ideology and little evident concern for the views of the many parents who disagree.

We’ve seen it coming for a long time. For many years, NEA and AFT have fought school choice, enlisting support of Democrat mayors in restricting the growth of independent schools in the inner cities where they are sorely needed. And during the 2020 pandemic year, unions insisted on keeping schools shuttered across much of the nation, despite mountains of data showing little vulnerability of school-aged children to COVID. We’ll feel the consequences for years to come.

Today’s hot-button education issue is the unions’ proposed approach to teaching about racism in America. At last week’s annual meeting, NEA urged expanded critical race theory (CRT) instruction and ethnic studies from pre-K-12 to higher education, along with professional development for all employees in “cultural responsiveness, implicit bias, anti-racism, trauma-informed practices” and “restorative justice practices.”

In marketing, semantics rule. Sandwiching the word “race” between “critical” and “theory” makes this new subject matter sound logical and well-founded.

It’s not. While “critical theory” (on race or other topics) is a serious analytical construct taught for decades in law schools, today’s pop culture version is a hodgepodge of anti-racist themes organized around the central premise that race is the predominant characteristic of all persons and that it dictates all societal outcomes — in short, that racism is systemic.

CRT’s individual pieces are open to interpretation, but in the main it’s a combative, fight-fire-with-fire formula for confronting racism. Ibram X. Kendi, author of the bestseller How to be an Antiracist, tells us that “the only remedy for racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination.”

That flies in the face of our great American experiment that — although incomplete and far from perfect — has made singular progress in reducing racism and expanding opportunity for all. Worse, its premise is inherently divisive, the exact opposite of the national unity our president promised to pursue.

NEA’s response to the firestorm of criticism is that it’s not pushing CRT per se, just trying to provide our youngsters with a more accurate and balanced understanding of race in America. We can all agree with that objective, but NEA’s specific policy proposal go much further. And in misusing and mismarketing CRT, its proponents are needlessly driving a race-edged wedge into what should be honest discussion about early school curricula.

Teachers tell us that kindergarten children tend not to notice differences in skin color. Isn’t that the best foundation for open-minded, unbiased development? Does the NEA truly believe that we should start early in cementing fear and distrust of other ethnicities? I’m hard-pressed to imagine a more backward approach.

The battle lines are drawn, and the stakes are suddenly higher than ever before. My hat is off to the many parents who are now standing firm against this radical new direction. They’ve got a personal stake — their own children. Our entire nation has the larger, truly critical stake in the outcome.

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