Beware the Culture Wars

Once sleepy school board meetings are erupting in shouting matches. Republican legislators are introducing bills that would ban teaching Critical Race Theory and prevent adding discussions of LGBTQ+ issues to human growth and development classes. There is a roiling debate over what public schools should teach kids, and the answers aren’t as easy as either side wants us to believe.

Clearly, Republican strategists see an advantage in stirring the pot on these issues. I think their bills to ban CRT or discussions of sexuality that goes beyond simple heterosexuality are wrong-headed, in large part because it’s hard to even define what it is they want to ban. I also believe in the maximum free flow of ideas, even ones I don’t personally buy into.

But I also think that liberals are wrong when they want to define all those parents who are concerned about what their children are learning as racists or homophobes. As is often the case, the truth is somewhere in the murky, conflicted middle.

Maybe some parents are, in fact, racists and homophobes, but many simply disagree with the most radical theories of CRT or the LGBTQ+ movement. I have trouble with these things myself.

New York Times image.

For example, while I thoroughly agree that American history and civics need to be taught in a way that is more honest about the treatment of African Americans and other non-white populations, I strongly object to the notion in CRT that our nation is racist to its core and that some of our most cherished democratic institutions are only tools of the oppressors. Slavery, Jim Crow and red lining are facts, while viewing all white people as oppressors, regardless of their personal attitudes and actions, is an opinion — and a highly suspect one at that.

In the same vain, that people have varying sexual orientations is also a fact that shouldn’t be swept under the rug. And in a liberal, pluralistic, tolerant society this is just something that should be accepted. Nobody should be discriminated against or harassed because of it. But one’s sexual orientation does not need to be celebrated. That goes beyond facts and acceptance and moves into the realm of values.

So, some parents have absolutely legitimate concerns about what their children are being taught — or, in some cases, what they fear they might be taught in the near future. Our public schools need to be free to teach facts, but they should not be given carte blanche to overturn the values of parents.

Now, of course, that’s an easy general statement to make and a slipperier thing in practice. What if the parents are Nazis? Should we not want to offend their “values” by teaching kids that the United States was right to defeat Hitler?

Your answer might be that we should align teaching with broadly held community values. Sounds good, but what are those exactly and who gets to define them? Also, isn’t challenging broadly held ideas (at least at the high school and college levels) part of a good liberal education? (It is tradition here in Wisconsin to not turn children against their parents until their freshman year at the UW Madison.)

The trickiness of those questions is what leads me back to being against blanket bans on teaching certain ideas. And it’s not like there’s an easy, one-size-fits-all test that can be applied. Ideas change. Cultural values shift. And what is accepted in one community is controversial in another. What feels obvious to teach in the Madison schools won’t feel right in Cedarburg. And yet, do you really want one version of American history taught in one place and a different version taught in another? Isn’t it a good thing to forge some kind of positive national identity?

Finally, let’s acknowledge that it’s not like the current instruction on history and civics has produced an abundance of reverence for American liberal democracy or for our institutions. After all, 75 million people voted for a man who was a click short of being a fascist and several clicks short of playing with a full deck.

But all that gray area is on the merits of the case. On the politics I think it’s pretty clear that most of the energy is on the conservative side. My own view is that the left is pushing the envelope on these issues and that it is going to come back to bite Democrats and nonpartisan liberals in local school board races in places that are unlike Madison. Republicans see an opening here and they are running a bull dozer through it.

There has to be some balance, tempered by local politics and community values, between teaching the traditional American creed and acknowledging the ways in which we’ve fallen short. While I don’t like to see the disrespect shown to school board members at meetings across the country, it is a sign of a disconnect between public schools and parents. And it’s a further hit to the Democratic brand that is bound to hurt the party come next year’s elections.

Welcome to the 215th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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