Academic theory subject of fear, misunderstanding

This op ed I wrote was published in the Morning Call on 6/15/22.

Recently, a flyer publicizing “..the Facts about Critical Race Theory in East Penn School District” has been circulating our community. This flyer says that Critical Race Theory (CRT) may be masked using terms including “Social-Emotional Learning,” “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” and “Privilege/Supremacy.” It also lists effects of CRT, including “an elementary student feels guilty for being white.” This is yet another attempt to create or exacerbate fear in white parents who are hesitant to have honest conversations with their white children about the historical and present inequities of life within the United States. 

CRT is a scholarly, political movement that originated in legal studies and points to the struggles to advance made by people of color in the United States (voting rights, school desegregation, etc) and suggests that the law is a viable channel to challenge institutional and structural inequality. Saying that CRT is not being taught in our schools may be disingenuous. One of the core tenets of the movement is that “racism is endemic to the United States and as such is a permanent, though shifting, organizing force of American social and political life.” Racism is present in the history of the United States and in the social structures that facilitate school funding, incarceration rates, lending rules, voting disenfranchisement, and others. Our students should be learning about this, according to their academic ability. Perhaps one of the greatest fears of our community is that our children will come home wishing to speak about things that we, ourselves, are not prepared to discuss. 

Creating a better community requires all of us to do a significant amount of learning, reflection, and consideration of others. Understanding of privilege is not, in fact, a precursor to white guilt. Instead, it is a stepping stone towards advocacy for “the least of these” within our community and an understanding of social structures that block the achievement of our own. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is also, likely, misunderstood. SEL values student coping skills, interactions with others, and other behavioral skills that promote learning. Citizenship, goal-setting, responsible decision making, and work habits are part of the spectrum of skills included in SEL – and are valued by all members of our community. Students aren’t robots that need to be programmed with facts and figures… they are developing humans that need to be supported socially and emotionally to succeed academically. Remove SEL from schools and we are undermining student learning.

The crux of this issue appears to be fear and misunderstanding of language. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are now buzzwords used to trigger fear about human difference. Diversity recognizes that there is a range of human experience, equity is the path towards supporting one another in achieving happy, healthy outcomes – we each need different things based on our differences. And inclusion occurs when every individual feels that they belong. Each of these is an admirable outcome for our children and, incidentally, recognized by governments and corporations alike as requirements for success. The meeting advertised by the flyer in question has happened. None of these issues were discussed in detail, but parents voiced concern that students are not prepared by their education for success. 

So, who do we trust to define success?  We rely on academic expertise for most social advancement and acknowledge the authority of those who achieve degrees from credentialing institutions. Parents, undoubtedly, have a role to play in their children’s education and development, but organizing and seeking influence based on misunderstanding and fear will not benefit our children. Parents who want to engage in their students’ education should model the practices we’d like our students to embody most – communication across differences, acceptance of complexity, personal reflection, and consideration of others. Otherwise we are risking alienation and distrust as our children become the free-thinking adults we would like them to be.

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