In a controversial essay in the UCLA Law Review, Theresa Montaño, a professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge, and Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen, a lecturer at UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz, argued that “Yes, Critical Race Theory Should Be Taught in Your School.”
As the authors put it, “Rather than deny CRT is being taught in schools … embrace CRT as a tool to disrupt the myth that educational decisions, policies and practices are based on objectivity or neutrality.” The article proceeds to avow the importance of naming oppression in the classroom, celebrating racialized intersectional identities and presenting stories counter to the dominant narratives, while engaging “students in social activism to defy majoritarian supremacy.”
The authors subsequently list seven principles that they believe should become ubiquitous. Among those are the following:
- “Center and place high value on pre-colonial, ancestral, indigenous, diasporic, familial and marginalized knowledge”
- “Critique empire, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power at the intersections of our society”
- “Challenge imperialist and colonial hegemonic beliefs and practices on ideological, institutional, interpersonal and internalized levels”
- “Connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice on global and local levels to ensure a truer democracy”
- “Conceptualize, imagine and build new possibilities for post-imperial life that promote collective narratives of transformative resistance, critical hope and radical healing”
Rather than defending or critiquing this argument, I want instead to discuss how we can bring the highly charged issues that Montaño and Gallagher-Geurtsen raise about inequality, systemic and structural racism and historical legacies of oppression into inclusive college classrooms where there are stark differences in student opinions and backgrounds.
Let me begin, however, with a digression.
When I was a graduate student, I and another doctoral candidate had the opportunity to study psychoanalytic theory with Ernst Prelinger, the Viennese-born clinical professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Yale Medical School who served as an expert witness in the case of John Hinkley Jr., the attempted assassin of President Ronald Reagan.
Much of our readings and conversations focused on defense mechanisms, the subconscious psychological strategies that individuals use to avoid anxiety, discomfort and threats to their ego. In our tutorials, we examined the unconscious processes that people deploy to deny or distort disturbing and disconcerting realities.
You are, of course, familiar with these mechanisms: acting out, anticipation, avoidance, compartmentalization, compensation, conversion, denial, displacement, dissociation, distraction, identification, intellectualization, passive aggression, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, sublimination and undoing, among others.
Though difficult to validate empirically and resting on highly contested (and perhaps dubious) notions of the unconscious, defense mechanisms continue to occupy an important place in popular thinking and in psychoanalytic, psychodynamic, cognitive, humanistic and integrative therapy.
However problematic (for example, displacement lacks empirical documentation), various defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions can be seen at work not just among individuals but among groups of people. Think here of scapegoating, the projection of blame onto others or of group psychology, including groupthink and pressures to belong and conform.
I mention this because it bears on one of the hottest teaching problems that many of us face: how to integrate conversations about racism, structural and systemic inequalities, privilege and equity into our classes, without turning our classroom into a struggle session.
You don’t need to teach in Florida or Texas to recognize that these are extraordinarily fraught topics that provoke defensiveness, denial, discomfort and division, as well as anger or silence. Yet ignoring these topics in a history or a social science course isn’t an intellectually defensible option.
We all know why such conversations are fraught. Some students may feel that they stand accused of personal bias or of possessing unearned or unfair advantages. They may fear being called racist. Cognitive dissonance—holding contradictory beliefs, values or perceptions—can also contribute discomfort and mental stress. In addition, any discussion of disparities in income, wealth, educational attainment, health, housing and jobs requires students to confront uncomfortable truths about the nature of American society.
The challenge, as I see it, is to get students to think about inequality and its roots in sophisticated and nuanced ways that go beyond the simplistic dichotomy that pits individual choice, personal behavior, merit and character flaws on the one side against the idea that racism or sexism or xenophobia are unchanging, intractable realities on the other.
Here’s my advice:
- Make your classroom a safe space for discussion. Be clear: our goal isn’t to indoctrinate or create a consensus. Rather, it’s to promote respectful, civil discourse that involves active listening, avoiding ad hominem attacks and encouraging diverse opinions.
- Confront the controversy. The phrase “teach the controversy” is a catchphrase that advocates of pseudo-scientific claims of intelligent design have used to challenge the teaching of evolution in public schools. That, of course, is not what I’m calling for. Instead, introduce your students to the various ways that social scientists have understood the causes of inequality:
- Economic: Including the way market forces, economic incentives, taxation, technology, trade and unions affect inequality.
- Historical: Such as how colonialism, expansion, slavery and segregation contributed to inequality.
- Political: Including how legal and political institutions reflect, produce and sustain inequalities.
- Psychological: Such as how attitudes, cultural norms and cognitive biases can contribute to inequality.
- Sociological: Including the roles of race, class and gender in shaping inequality and of schooling and the labor market in reproducing and maintaining social hierarchies.
In other words, expose students to a range of serious academic perspectives.
- Clarify concepts. Explain, in neutral, nonjudgmental language what scholars mean when they use terms like “structural” or “systemic” inequalities or “intersectionality.”
- Provide historical context. It’s essential that students understand the backstory and the roots of various inequalities and how they have evolved over time.
- Be specific when attributing blame. To avoid oversimplification and gross generalizations, refuse to cast aspersions on entire groups of people who almost certainly disagreed about particular policies and held very different attitudes and motivations and engaged in distinct behaviors.
- Use concrete examples. Excessive abstraction often results in sweeping and unwarranted stereotypes and static generalizations. To avoid such errors, introduce evidence. In a history class, use primary sources and case studies. In a sociology course, present data.
- Make learning active. In addition to engaging in discussion or debate, have students take part in active inquiry, individual or group projects, classroom presentations and various hands-on activities that might include annotation of textual or visual sources, data visualization and analysis, text and dating mining, and timeline construction.
- Encourage reflection. By fostering metacognition—awareness and understanding of one’s thought processes—instructors can help students consolidate and enhance learning, become more self-conscious of what they do and don’t understanding and strengthen their higher-order thinking skills. To that end, dedicate classroom time to reflection over the reading and discussion.
There’s a K-12 concept—learning resistance—that college instructors would do well to understand. Learning resistance refers to the cognitive and experiential barriers that prevent students from engaging effectively with instructional materials. These include, not surprisingly, fear of failure, poor past experiences in a particular discipline and a lack of focus and motivation. In addition, the concept refers to resistance to active, effortful and team-based learning.
But the concept also refers to resistance that is political or ideological in nature: to what is being taught and the perspective that is conveyed. A student might feel marginalized and their opinions or point of view undervalued and even frowned upon.
As instructors, we have a professional and a legal duty to do our best to ensure that all students, irrespective of their background or politics, can fully participate in our class. Therefore, learning resistance—whether to one’s pedagogy or a class’s content and interpretation—is a reality that instructors need to address.
The idea that students should not be made to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” for past injustices or any advantages that they possess has, as you know, been weaponized by those who want to restrict discussions of systemic inequality and racism.
Divisive concepts statutes, under consideration in many Republican-controlled legislatures, seek to prohibit teachers from depicting the United States as “an irredeemably racist and sexist country,” or treating racial and sexual identities as “more important than people’s common status as human beings and Americans.”
They also bar teaching that an “individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” or “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”
The National Coalition for History, a consortium of over 50 organizations representing archivists, historians, museum professionals and political scientists, quite rightly condemns such legislation as an unwarranted attempted to stifle discussion of this nation’s many shortcomings and as a barrier to a comprehensive and critical look at history. To this, I say amen.
My advice is simple and straightforward: don’t dodge today’s controversies over systemic inequality or racism. Don’t sanitize or whitewash the past or avoid discussing serious academic interpretations, including critical race theory or internal colonialism or racial capitalism or dependency theory. Don’t prevaricate, equivocate or fudge ugly facts.
But also don’t treat your classroom as a pulpit or political podium. Our job as a teacher is not to indoctrinate or inculcate. Our word, to educate, comes from the Latin educere, which means “to draw out.” I wholly agree with those who argue that the education’s primary purpose is to draw out students’ potential.
So, design lessons that allow students to construct their own understanding by actively engaging with evidence and data and theory and by processing ideas rigorously and critically. In the end, a real education is not what you cram into a student. It’s what you draw out.