Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The (Non-)Prevalence Problem of CRT

Years ago, I remember reading a famous paradox concerning how Americans viewed the subject of foreign aid. If you asked them "should the US spend more or less on foreign aid," most Americans would answer "less" -- they thought we spent way too much money on the issue. But when you asked them to estimate how much the United States spent on foreign aid each year, they gave an answer that was an order of magnitude higher than what we actually spent. And worst of all, if you asked them how much they thought we should spend on foreign aid, their answer was still far higher than what we actually did spend -- and remember, this is from people who thought their position was that we needed to cut foreign aid!

At one level, this confluence mostly just shows that most people are innumerate. But taking it somewhat at face value, there is a nettlesome political puzzle here. What does one do if people say they want to adopt position X, but actually advocate for moving away from X, because they are under the misapprehension that the status quo is on the far side of X and thus believe that moving away from X actually means moving towards it?

This is a problem with some folks who've joined up on the "anti-Critical Race Theory" crusade. Of course, there are plenty of people who make no bones about their position -- they think CRT is a Globalist Marxist Socialist Communist Soros Triple Parenthesis plot, and they want to destroy it. But others at least purport to believe that Critical Race Theory should be taught, it just shouldn't be the only thing that is taught. For instance, David Bernstein of the "Jewish Institute for Liberal Values", a prominent anti-CRT voice in the Jewish community, took the position that any school which teaches a "traditional" narrative about civil rights should also teach a CRT perspective.

Now here's the thing. If your opinion is that every school should teach both a "traditional" and "CRT" style approach to civil rights, you are advocating for a position that is way to the left of the status quo. The vast majority of primary and secondary schools in the United States do not teach "CRT" at all. In some small number, you might get a CRT-influenced approach in conjunction with more traditional accounts. The number of students who are only being exposed to CRT, and no other perspective, is absolutely negligible. Objectively speaking, if your view is "students should hear both traditional and CRT views", you should be pushing for far more inclusion of CRT into public school curricula than is present in the status quo.

In other words, the entirety of the barrier to getting to the world Bernstein claims he wants to see comes from folks like the Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, who's trying to get the University of Wisconsin to rescind its hiring of respected scholar Jennifer Mnookin as Dean because Mnookin (this is a direct quote) "supports critical race theory being taught on campus". It's Texas passing laws limiting what can be taught in the classroom with the express goal of seeking to "abolish" CRT. It's Florida with a veritable cavalcade of legislation seeking to target and suppress "woke" ideologies.

Yet Bernstein, like the ill-informed respondent on foreign aid, has adopted a politics that sprints off in the exact opposite direction from where he claims he wants to go, because he has a wildly off-base assessment of how common Critical Race Theory is. He thinks CRT is everywhere, so getting to a position of even-handedness means pushing back against CRT's hegemony, even if it means making common cause with some unsavory actors. The reality is that CRT is still relatively obscure for most Americans, and so getting to evenhandedness would mean a more aggressive deployment of CRT into the American educational curriculum than would be dreamed by even the philosophy's most fervent supporters. 

Is he actually that ignorant about the true (non-)prevalence of CRT in the American educational system? I think he probably isn't; but there is something to be said for a certain type of elite who forgets the world exists more than 10 miles beyond Brooklyn and so confuses what is commonplace in a Williamsburg coffeeshop with the national status quo. A little of column B, a little (a lot) of column B, I'd wager. 

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