Is There a Defense of the Critical Classroom? Part One: Administration and Curriculum

The Critical Classroom, a book published by the Heritage Foundation, makes cogent arguments against structuring the classroom with the lens of critical theory. Still, I would have liked to read an article in the book defending the critical classroom.

Perhaps I could play the role of an imagined interlocutor, but my attempt at exploring the critical classroom would be viewed as disingenuous. It is true that I hold values at odds with a “critical” lens. My liberal lens stands in stark contrast to it.

However, there are many common elements to each lens, or paradigm: different limits to speech, the same word but different meanings, standpoint epistemology, measuring an individual’s achievements, the context of privilege and whether a finger should be placed on the scales of justice, individual versus intersectional identity, and the reality, or illusion, of social change. But these elements mean different things in each paradigm. See Figure 1.

Liberal Lens Critical Lens
● Espouses free speech subject to respect and civility ● Speech needs to be subjected to the rigor of micro-aggressions and intersectionality
● Traditional normative language (e.g., ‘critical thinking’ implies the norms of rationality, systematic analysis, argument, and the open-ended search for truth) ● Neo-Marxian language (e.g., ‘critical thinking’ means ‘critical consciousness’ and implies deconstruction and race-consciousness as overlays to understanding society, systemic problems, and wokeness)
● Objectivity (in research and analysis) ● Subjective narratives (a critique of objectivity as having emerged from white culture)
● Merit (in evaluating performance) ● Authenticity (as a filter for evaluating merit)
● Equality (notably anchored in the 14th  Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) ● Equity (to counter racial and social disparities)
● Individuality frames one’s identity ● Identity essentialism (intersectionality, QTBIPOC, LGBTQIA+)
● Economic opportunity ● Marginalized communities (oppressed in the capitalist economic system)
● Proven value of social reforms over the past half-century ● Superficiality of social reforms (understand society through race-consciousness and oppression)

Figure 1.  A comparison of liberal and critical-conscious lenses or paradigms.

The Critical Classroom hews to a liberal lens. After reading this book, we would dismiss the critical lens as a deluded way of perfecting society: there is more downside to desired social change than progress. Yet, many with a critical lens continue to think of persistent societal ills, disparities, and hatreds, believing that fixing these problems would be more likely to come from solutions imagined with their own lens. But if we are willing to discuss these different ways of understanding society, and ways to change or maintain it, we must go beyond high-level abstractions and metaphorical comparisons. The Critical Classroom, and other articles and books, generally succeed in that regard. Nevertheless, some further interrogation is called for, given the expansive presence of the critical lens in the workplace, in the government, and in non-profit agencies, as well as in the classroom.

Fixing society through the classroom?

Few would claim that contemporary society is perfect. Many hope for societal improvement with this or that elixir. We might well ask, “Where are we on that broad spectrum to correct societal ills?” There are no sufficiently satisfying answers. So, the pragmatist is generally content with reforms; the idealists look about for a path to perfection.

You may want to tweak my generalizations with the views of nihilists, those questing after power and the like. Please do.

The point is the restlessness in trying to fix society. Short of revolution, the ballot box, or entertaining distractions, there is a short list of arenas and processes through which fixes might be attempted. The emphasis here will be on the classroom; the crucible of our imperfect society will be brought into the discussion as the occasion warrants. The four arenas and processes that I will discuss are: administrative practices, curriculum completeness, individual identity, and social relations.

Administrative Practices

Before classroom education, the younger generation learned through play and imitation. Complex society constrained learning largely to the classroom. Yes, there are peers, social media, entertainment technology, membership in organizations, and other opportunities for learning in our modern world. But the classroom captures the young for those developmental years for a substantial part of the day. That makes the classroom a way to fix, transform, and shape society, allowing for the lag time before students grow into their own leadership roles.

This general understanding of how society makes and remakes itself lacks utility until the bricks, mortar, pixels, and information packets—the materiality of change—are filled in along with the metrics of sufficiency. Classroom curriculum and relationships can scale the development of the mind to what society is and can be.

[Related: “A Wicked Inquiry into the National Conversation on Race: Why You Should Read My Book”]

This is where interrogating the critical lens becomes necessary for making the next generation of elders. The following list of words and phrases provides insight into what must be done in the classroom to instill the critical lens: microaggressions, personal pronouns, safe spaces, racial affinity groups, equitable grading, equitable pay, equity, diversity, inclusion, exclusion, racism, implicit bias, whiteness, white-adjacent, white privilege, white fragility, white supremacy, socially constructed, model minority, BIPOC, Latinx, womxn, people of color, gay, intersectional mindfulness, intersectionality, marginalized communities, narratives, oppressed, oppressors, grievance, disparities, mass incarceration, red lining, patriarchy, queer, transgender, gender, misgendered, binary, joy, healing, affirmations, class exploitation, Eurocentric, systemic, standpoint epistemology, woke, essentialism, authenticity, pledge, anti-racist, caste, culturally relevant, underrepresented, underserved, social justice, accessible, demystify, do the work, privilege walk, dismantle, traumatize, and more.

This word matrix—whether used in part or whole—becomes operationalized in critical-lens  administrative requirements. For example, the San Diego State University (SDSU) College of Sciences (CoS) created a detailed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan (DEI Plan). A new requirement for science professors, including those in biology, physics, bioinformatics, and mathematics, must now include the following:

Require the inclusion of equity/inclusion/diversity issues and contributions among the student learning outcomes in the syllabus in all CoS courses . . .

Interrogation of a syllabus requirement

This requirement in the syllabus needs to be understood in light of the SDSU University Senate rescission of a mandatory land acknowledgment. There is no legal problem for individual professors to voluntarily state that the university stands on land that previously belonged to the Kumeyaay tribe. However, once that statement becomes mandatory for all professors, the question become one of free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) entered the discussion and stated:

[The requirement] imposes an institutional orthodoxy .  .  . contraven[ing] the university’s strong commitment to freedom of speech.  .  .  . We urge SDSU to uphold its First Amendment obligations and promise of freedom to express differing perspectives by eliminating this mandate.

The University Senate removed the land acknowledgment mandate for college syllabi, but it remains optional for many and is now part of the university-wide ethos.

The CoS syllabus DEI requirement may face a similar fate. “Equity” is an open-ended slippery slope; it is a talisman to do something more than acknowledging the contributions of scientists by race and gender. But even a minimalist requirement of racial and gender identity may be challenged by faculty who wish to teach science and not be compelled to name scientific contributions by the identity of the marginalized.

The question is whether administrative strategies advance substantive college and/or K–12 educational goals. To what extent does a greater focus on race and gender—in faculty representation, acknowledgment of contributions, and critical curricula—lead to increased student representation, participation, interest, and success? Both the question and the answers are complex. But here are a few areas on which to dwell.

The CoS DEI Plan offers the following remedy to the statistical disparity in the representation of students by race and gender: it would “Increase feelings of belonging among our student population from underrepresented groups in science” because “Research suggests that more diversity among faculty supports student success.” Even if this Plan is no longer required to be placed in faculty syllabi, the Plan itself remains part of the university’s rationale and its attempt to fix their framing of society-wide problems.

The Critical Classroom zeroes in on similar rationales. In one chapter, Ian Rowe incorporates the work of Eric Kaufmann, showing how critical race theory depresses black student agency. Kaufmann provided black students different perspectives in order to see whether there was a noticeable impact. One group read a selection from Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Letter to My Son: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. …”; another group read about African Americans having a praiseworthy heritage. When these groups were asked to respond to a statement probing for agency, those having read the Coates passage did convey a sense of agency, but to a lesser extent that those having read a positive sense of heritage. The critical literature did make a difference, but not in the way intended.

In another chapter, Robert Pondiscio draws our attention to claims of evidence-based strategies—which turn out to be superficial at best—that are intended to promote racial healing by separating white students from those of color. Of course, the method of such “healing” more than likely violates state and federal laws against discrimination.

There are at least two challenges to an administration intent on improving race and gender participation in the classroom. The first is one of figuring out how to take account of differences in perspectives and biases within and between identity groups. This path eschews mandates and litmus tests. The second challenge would seek a less destructive approach to “healing,” favoring respect and civility rather than a rewrite of the perceived power dynamic in the wider society in order to favor a new racial and gender hegemony.

[Related: “Truth in Children’s Literature: A Response to Dr. Siu’s American Ogres”]

Here, the research of Osei Appiah at The Ohio State University offers a more nuanced understanding of variation among white and black students—one that advances a path of respect and civility.

Professor Appiah compared white and black students’ interest in their own and the other’s cultural content (advertisements). The results were intriguing. Black students followed an expected pattern of first seeking out positive information about their own group, then negative information; and when looking at information about whites, first looking to negative information. This pattern underscores the reinforcement of one’s own cultural identity both in terms of prioritizing one’s own culture’s achievements as well as derogating the other (the white culture). While whites followed a similar pattern of prioritizing positive information about white culture, their next priority was interest in positive information about blacks. Here, Appiah describes their interest as “cultural voyeurism.” In this research, whites placed derogatory information about blacks and whites on par with each other.

Appiah argues that this cultural voyeurism would lead to positive interracial interaction. The question is whether the same is necessary, or possible, for black students in order to achieve racial harmony. This discussion separates into further issues: the greater degree of perceived discrimination among blacks and whether there is a meaningful difference between an Afro-centric educational focus and one that is not (the latter issue will be discussed below under curriculum).

Administrators will likely analogize the greater degree of perceived discrimination seen in many surveys with how black students perceive the education they receive in the classroom. Some would argue for a DEI classroom that would remove such perceived discrimination; others would prefer to engage students and faculty in a frank and open discussion rather than stipulate an outcome. When I was a teaching assistant some time ago (1973) at the University of California, San Diego, I was assigned to a black psychology class. I was the only white person in the class. A black student asked if I was going to grade their papers. The professor was diplomatic and said that I was there to learn as well. For many, that student’s anxiety still resonates within the educational field—hence, the administrative attempt to fix a wider societal issue through a critical classroom. For those with a liberal lens, any person can teach any subject, depending on their competence.

What are we missing? A Pew research survey inquired about whether the greater problem is not seeing discrimination where it exists (57%) or, on the contrary, seeing discrimination where it does not exist (39%). When broken down by race, blacks saw the failure to see discrimination (84%) to a larger degree than Hispanics (66%), while whites were fairly split on whether the larger problem was not seeing discrimination or seeing something that was not.

The perception of discrimination is not actual discrimination; at the same time, we know that  discrimination does exist. Judging the difference between perception and reality has sometimes floundered on wildly inaccurate descriptions of reality; it also has led organizations into unconstitutional practices.

In effect, administrators face what are essentially wicked problems. Instead of preemptively taking the DEI path and creating a critical classroom, administrators can follow the liberal protocol—namely, orienting the classroom to the boundaries found in state and federal laws, regulations, and codes that address actual discrimination and harassment. In this manner, I provided advice to my local school board, urging that they follow a civility standard—one that they had already adopted—instead of advancing an antiracist pledge: administrators, or boards of education, can emphasize a behavioral standard (civility) or pledge a belief. The latter is unconstitutional. The temptation remains to follow the illusion of controlling how students think rather than focusing on how they act.

Curriculum Completeness

In separate articles about primary and secondary education, I have argued that the critical lens suffers from subject matter incompleteness and overreaches regulatory guardrails. Pushback against my analysis is to be expected. However, dissenters generally avoid debate, choosing instead to misrepresent the liberal lens as one that simply praises the past instead of critiquing it. Shortfalls in this debate can be found in the New York Times1619 Project (from a critical lens), compared with those engaging a broader analysis such as Red, White, and Black and The Critical Classroom (both from a liberal lens). Needless to say, persistent inequality and racism, as well as antisemitism, educational gaps, and mismatch require explanation from a variety of perspectives and are not simply proofs of structural failures.

[Related: “When Ethnic Studies Education Violates the Law: California’s Guardrails”]

Connie Morgan, writing for the Journal of Free Black Thought, dwells on the persistent dilemma of what meaningful curriculum should look like from the black experience. She traces the growth of the black home education, noting that not only for blacks but also whites, academic achievement in home education surpasses that of the traditional school.

And that may be the lesson of this homeschool exploration. Families of all stripes find traditional school oppressive. Home educating, or in other words taking responsibility for your children’s emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual foundation should be a racially unifying cause beyond politics, religion, or petty differences.

Despite the pancultural benefits of home education, Morgan describes the insistence on fostering a black identity in many Afro-centric home schools. She also finds it puzzling: Why should achieving  cultural identity differ from a universal education?

After going through dozens of these “Afro-centric” education blogs and websites, I couldn’t find a clear definition of the idiom. How do I know if I am getting an Afro-centric education? Does every subject have to relate back to Africa? Does every history lesson have to include a black person? Or if only 25% of the lessons do, is that enough? How does a “black education” differ from a “white education?” If something is valuable enough that one group of American children should learn it, is it not valuable enough that all American children should?

Morgan’s question hovers between a critical and a liberal lens of education. The answers are likely kaleidoscopic. Yet, administrators who advance DEI Plans, such as the one described above, have narrowed that multiplicity into what appears to be a binary dimension—one for race, the other for gender—emerging from the experience of marginalized communities.

Peering through this educational kaleidoscope, one needs to be a daring and committed adventurer. Glenn C. Loury offers some unspeakable truths in order to take up that adventure. Here are two such truths:

Why are some youngsters acquiring these skills and others not? That is a very deep and interesting question, one which I am quite prepared to entertain. But the simple retort “racism” is laughable — as if such disparities have nothing to do with behavior, with cultural patterns, with what peer groups value, with how people spend their time, with what they identify as being critical to their own self-respect. Anyone actually believing such nonsense is a fool, I maintain. . . .

Here, then, is my final unspeakable truth, which I utter now in defiance of “cancel culture.” If we blacks want to walk with dignity, if we want to be truly equal, then we must realize that white people cannot give us equality. We actually have to earn equal status. Please don’t cancel me just yet because I am on the side of black people here. But I feel obliged to report that equality of dignity, equality of standing, equality of honor, equality of security in one’s position in society, equality of being able to command the respect of others — this is not something that can be simply handed over. Rather, it is something that one has to wrest from a cruel and indifferent world with hard work, with our bare hands, inspired by the example of our enslaved and newly freed ancestors. We have to make ourselves equal. No one can do it for us.

So, if we loop back to the administrators creating their DEI Plan, we again encounter the divide between a liberal and a critical lens, the former arguing for “we have to make ourselves equal” while the latter looks for equitable levers to lift up the marginalized. The latter has greater appeal when racial (and other) discrimination persists; the former has greater appeal when individual choice and responsibility pave the road to equality.

In Part Two, we’ll enter two other arenas in which these paradigms play out: individual identity and social relations.


Image: Franny-Anne, Adobe Stock

Joe Nalven

Joe Nalven is a Lecturer of Anthropology and Research Associate at the University of San Diego.

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