The Misinformed Debate Over Critical Race Theory in Utah Schools

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How can teachers avoid stepping on a landmine when teaching history, literature and society?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ty Bellamy speaks during a vigil marking the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd, at the Salt Lake City Murals on Tuesday, May 25, 2021.

While Critical Race Theory is not taught in Utah’s K-12 schools, I am concerned about how the CRT debate has given momentum to oppose all incorrectly related topics. .

For example, an elected education official recently bundled several positive public school programs into a list titled “Euphemisms for CRT,” including Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) among others. SEL focuses on setting and achieving goals, building friendships, managing emotions, and making responsible decisions. It also teaches children to feel and empathize with others. The arguments equating CRT with SEL, as well as other programs promoting life skills, are both flawed and invalid.

CRT has also been confused with reverse discrimination and mistakenly viewed as a lens through which white individuals learn to hate or be ashamed of their whiteness. Although CRT is not in itself a study program, even as a theory it does. not affirm that any race, ethnicity, color or national origin is intrinsically higher or lower. Therefore, by passing a resolution that includes the negation of such language in apparent opposition to CRT, lawmakers have simply “solved” a crisis that they themselves have created.

Last week, the Utah State Board of Education Standards and Assessment Committee proposed a draft rule which will be submitted to the full board for review. This rule emphasizes non-discrimination, prohibits “adverse treatment” on the basis of race, and prohibits teaching that an individual’s moral character is determined by race.

Like its legislative precursor, this rule seems to lead a battle without an adversary. Teachers are already accountable to the State of Utah and the federal government for any discriminatory action against anyone: our students, their parents, our colleagues, and members of the community. The rule’s ambiguous “fairness language” does not address CRT concepts in itself, so that teachers question the real nature of the non-compliant curricula that the board seeks to ban.

No leadership group appears willing to tackle offensive or inappropriate curriculum in any identified district or charter school. Instead, leadership groups want to craft general, unclear resolutions and rules that aren’t likely to prevent or resolve anything. But the language will have the effect of preventing Utah teachers from discussing aspects of the Utah core curriculum that should be taught and discussed, including those related to race. And the language will likely be applied more widely than expected, increasing teachers’ reluctance to ask students to think critically about a wide variety of topics – many of which are unrelated to race.

When legislative and education officials have failed to define a problem precisely and seem reluctant to provide a targeted solution, how can teachers avoid stepping on a landmine when teaching history, literature? and society? If I ask students to consider all of the “mockingbirds” in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, will parents shout “Critical Race Theory” because the text requires discussion of race, and students will naturally conclude? that Maycomb County society needs institutional improvement?

Will I be considered a Marxist in a course in European history because I teach my students about Marxism, its relationship to communism and its significant influence on European and world history?

As I advise at my school’s Safe Allies Club, will I be accused of teaching CRT because the curriculum focuses on individual dignity and tolerance, as well as the practice of volunteerism and good citizenship?

Any attempt to circumscribe critical thinking in public schools, especially with ambiguous language applicable to almost any idea, brings us closer to the dystopian society that Ray Bradbury envisioned nearly 70 years ago in his novel “Fahrenheit 451”. The groups in the society in this book were so enraged by diverse opinions that the citizens, not the government, insisted that every book or form of expression be burned. They preferred the absence of expression to the contrary or diverse expression. What could be more anti-American?

I hope that the legislature and informed voices in education leadership can bring reason to the bewildering debate over CRT and avoid ambiguity and redundancy in related legislation and board regulations. Our students, families and teachers depend on it.

Cynthia Kimball Phillips is a professor of English, History, Latin and Ancient Greek at the Weilenmann School of Discovery.

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