Schools should teach American exceptionalism and failure
The rhetoric among those who advocate against the teaching of critical race theory, which posits that racism is not just individual but systemic and endemic, is typically alarmist: "America will fall to Marxism if CRT isn't eradicated" and "a revolution might be necessary to stave off the brainwashing on the minds of our children."
This tenor can be attributed in part to the highly lucrative sensationalism and fear-mongering by certain media outlets, social media and politicians. But in another sense, I can understand the passion.
How we teach kids the history of this country is important and should be taken seriously. Coupled with that, citizens should be encouraged to engage in the curriculum that helps shape their kids' worldview.Â
But the debate over critical race theory has created a false dichotomy: Should we teach our children that America is inherently racist and hardly worth championing, or should we gloss over racism in favor of a myopic notion that America is free of its racist past and that individual successes and failures are purely meritocratic?Â
The truth, as is typical, is somewhere in the middle.Â
One thing I can agree with the anti-CRT folks about is that teachers should also emphasize the unique qualities that make our nation great.Â
In a time when the world was mostly governed and dominated by monarchs, colonial rulers, weak or nonexistent states and nepotistic nobility — and while the French Revolution quickly devolved into despotism and dictatorship and post-Glorious Revolution England still maintained monarchy and aristocratic elements — the American Revolution led to arguably the most liberal and egalitarian society in the world at the time. As a result, the new country helped lead the way to the dispersal of democratic and liberal values in regions far and wide.Â
Unlike in most of the world, an average person could turn an invention or smart concept into a lucrative business while also holding their political leaders accountable at the ballot box or through petitions. And such initiatives were truly great for living standards as the Industrial Revolution and medical advancements paved the way for significantly higher life expectancy and our comparatively cushy 21st century lives. Democratic and liberal values have only expanded since.Â
But we can hold two thoughts at the same time. The American experiment worked and was a harbinger for an advancement of freedom, pluralism and living standards. And also, whole groups of people, especially Native Americans and Black slaves and their descendants, could not benefit from these advancements, were brutalized for centuries and continue to suffer from discriminatory policies that reverberate to this day.Â
In the last 75 years, highways were built through Black neighborhoods. Zoning laws and redlining were imposed as a way to prevent minority families from living near white ones. And school funding systems based on local property tax revenue meant that majority-white schools were flush with cash while majority-Black ones struggled to provide basic educational materials. Meanwhile, broken windows policies, three strikes law and crack and cocaine sentencing disparities (among many other factors) led to the imprisonment of millions of Black and brown folks.Â
Appallingly, in the mid 2010s, the degree of school segregation and the racial wealth gap nationwide were wider than they were in the years shortly after civil rights legislation was passed in the 1960s, according to studies done by The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and UCLA's Civil Rights Project.Â
These developments did not occur by accident, as critical race theory rightly acknowledges.Â
But whether or not CRT is taught in schools is not something I have a strong opinion about.Â
What is important is that we encourage our teachers and curriculum writers to avoid creating a distorted picture of American exceptionalism — as many of us received growing up — while also straying from the idea that America is a terrible place devoid of enduring goodness, as many young people nowadays believe.Â
The goal should be to teach them that American values fortified in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are worth fighting for and that we've never fully lived up to them.Â
It's only when we first acknowledge our warts that we can finally work to remove them.Â
Corey Buchanan is the assistant editor for the West Linn Tidings and Wilsonville Spokesman.
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