By Peter Oliver

There has been a move afoot in recent years to broaden the perspective of American education, specifically to acknowledge the historical impacts that slavery and race have had in shaping the character, growth and institutions of this country. It is a move that is both noble and necessary.


Unfortunately, liberals have hamstrung this educational movement by doing what they do too often – shouting into a liberal echo chamber of like-minded Americans and cold-shouldering (or demeaning) a broader American population. (Conservatives, of course, engage in similar behavior from the other end of the political spectrum.)

Put another way, liberals have done a terrible sales job. According to ABC News, 16 states have already passed laws to restrict education on race, and 19 other states have similar bills pending. This has been a direct response to a perceived threat that American schoolkids are at risk of being indoctrinated by liberal, ivory-tower poohbahs.

The liberal approach to teaching race – or bringing the impact of race on American history and culture into the curriculum – has been couched largely in two concepts birthed in the cradles of liberal academia: Critical Race Theory (CRT) and The 1619 Project. Nothing offends heartland American conservatives more than the idea of coastal liberals browbeating them with a smug sense of superiority, both culturally and intellectually. No need as a conservative to read the fine print here — just the headline words, “Critical Race Theory” or “The 1619 Project,” scream with elitist pomposity.

After conservatives predictably balked at any idea clearly stewed up in the halls of liberal academia, a secondary, repercussive effect came into play: a conservative presumption (with some justification) that they will be branded racist or white supremist for resisting CRT or The 1619 Project.

Liberalism in America has long been tinged with self-righteousness, imbued with a we-stand-on-higher-moral-ground attitude. True – liberalism historically has strong moral underpinnings, with such stuff as civil rights and anti-slavery policies having liberal (rather than conservative) roots. But with that has come an element of liberal condescension understandably offensive to conservatives. To gain traction at a grassroots, local-school level, CRT and The 1619 Project proponents would be wise to steer clear of anything that smacks of moralistic we-know-better.

It is fair to assume that not all conservatives or those resistant to CRT are racists (even if some, undoubtedly, are). So, listen to conservatives’ objections and be willing to accommodate at least some of their criticisms in order to crack the shell of resistance. If parents, local school boards, and state legislatures believe that they are sharing in the process of reshaping curriculums rather than being dictated to by haughty liberal know-it-alls, progress, even in conservative strongholds like Oklahoma, might be possible. Maybe not giant-step, transformative progress, but change in increments is better than no change at all. You can’t just jump from one side of a river to the other; you need to build a bridge.


A new tagline is also in order, and while there are no specific suggestions forthcoming here, almost anything that steers clear of the resonance of self-righteous academia would work. “Critical Race Theory” not only sounds like something to debate in a grad-school seminar, it’s a descriptive muddle. What the heck is it? You can’t tell from the title. And anything called a “theory” is by definition not set in stone. A theory is a debatable proposition that could be proved wrong, and the historical realities of slavery and racism in America are neither theoretical nor debatable.

It is worth noting that CRT, per se, has yet to percolate into the teaching of American history and civics at the K-12 level. But it is being held as a polestar to guide elementary-school curricula toward a more racially aware – racially realistic – posture. Its principal tenets shouldn’t be ignored or abandoned. Instead, they should, to use a marketing term, be repackaged. Or, to cite another marketing principle: know your audience. If a significant strain of resistance can be found in more than two thirds of all American state legislatures, the sales pitch is clearly off the mark.

Some CRT proponents will undoubtedly label CRT resistance as simply one more indication of systemic racism in American culture. That’s a cop-out -- partly true, maybe, but not wholly true. Rather than point accusatory fingers, liberals would do better to widen the circle in a search for common ground.

“History” is inevitably a subjective matter that can be taught from an almost infinite variety of perspectives. There will never be complete agreement on what should or shouldn’t be taught, although widening the overall perspective seems sensible and worthy. The challenge is clearing away political barriers, some of which liberals have imposed needlessly, to allow it to happen.

Oliver lives in Warren.