Should bad ideas be banned? Absolutely not. Someday they’ll come for ideas you like. Then it’ll be too late.
There’s no better example of this than the kerfuffle over critical race theory. Like any one narrow way of seeing the world, it’s inadequate in a variety of ways. It bears healthy and poisonous fruit. But because it’s gaining traction, it needs to be examined and understood everywhere, including all institutions of higher education.
Critical race theory began as an obscure legal philosophy in the late ’80s. Its central idea is that laws and social institutions should be viewed through the lens of race. Their racist origins, their racist intentions, and their racist effects can be shown through critical race theory.
It’s one thing to focus on racism in the law. America has certainly had plenty of it: slavery, Jim Crow, the criminalizing of miscegenation and redlining were settled law back in the day. To ignore them or place them off limits would be to cripple our understanding of American history.
But seeing America only through the lens of racism is myopic. Marxism sees everything through the eyes of class struggle. Religions see the world through their sacred texts. Scientists see the world through the physical laws that govern the universe. All these perspectives are important to understand, evaluate and criticize.
What about the fruits of critical race theory? Are they sweet or rotten?
To the extent they force us to engage with our racist past, that’s a good thing. Tom Hanks’ tweet about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is right: That’s a part of our history we should all know about.
When the theory forces to engage our present challenges of racism and unequal treatment of our fellow Americans, that’s sweet fruit indeed.
But to neglect America’s progress in battling racism, as critical race theory does, is to deny reality. The theory claims to advocate for progress. But emphasizing subjective experience and storytelling over analysis, reason and the rule of law, a key feature of critical race theory, is horribly regressive. Seeing even the most innocent human interactions as grounded in racism and privilege poisons the well of our humanity.
So overall, I’m not a big fan of critical race theory. I’m not a big fan of communism either. But should those be banned from higher education? Absolutely not.
I’ve been in higher ed for over 30 years, with literally thousands of hours in the classroom. College students should be taught how to think, not what to think. This has to include exposure to and understanding of every ism and theory that matters in America. I can’t see any other way to tell good ideas from bad ones.
Some members of Congress are apparently concerned about the teaching of critical race theory at military academies. This is precisely where critical thinking matters most. Students at military academies are not mindless robots, blindly accepting whatever they hear from their teachers. Nor, I would argue, do taxpayers want them to be.
For better or worse, critical race theory matters in America at this point in history. That’s why, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff correctly and courageously noted in his testimony before Congress, future officers need to understand it as part of understanding the country they will be called on to defend. Just like they need to understand fascism, communism, authoritarianism, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, and capitalism. That’s part of what being an educated American is all about.
At the risk of stating the obvious, education is not indoctrination. It is possible for controversial subjects to be taught to college students without turning them into mindless zombies. If Congress, university trustees or state legislators think the opposite is happening on their watch, let them make their case. I believe they will fail.
I believe the influence of critical race theory will fade over time, withering in the face of scholarly and popular scrutiny. But silence it? No way. The only thing worse than bad ideas is banning them. That’s the worst idea of all.
Barry Fagin is a former Colorado CASE Professor of the Year and a recipient of the ACLU National Civil Liberties Award. His views are his alone. Readers can write Fagin at firstname.lastname@example.org.