What’s so dangerous about critical thinking?

Open dialogue in schools on race is important

Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.  – John Lewis

ONE CANNOT HELP but be troubled by the events that have transpired across our country over the past few years. The high-profile instances of racism and racial violence we’ve experienced are merely the most recent of in a string of discrimination and injustice brought about by the deeply imbedded systemic racism, violence, and inequity still prevalent in our society today. These incidents dramatically underscore the fact that a substantial amount of work remains to be done for our society to address these issues.

Educators are charged, at least in part, with the responsibility for teaching our students about the ideals and values of our society. In today’s politically polarized environment it is more important than ever to clearly articulate what we stand for. Do we stand against racism, inequity, and oppression regardless of our political affiliation, or will we let polarization keep us from taking the necessary action to end racism and discrimination now? This matter transcends politics and political parties, and how we proceed from this point is a reflection of who we are as a people.

We must move past words and take the action to remove racism, bias, and discrimination, both conscious and unconscious, from our institutions. We need to have difficult conversations, examine our practices, and encourage Black, Indigenous and people of color from a diversity of backgrounds to enter the teaching ranks. It is time for us to come together, understand our differences, and work together for change.

Rather than let fear constrain us, we must encourage and support our teachers in their efforts to talk to students about the events that are transpiring. Teachers must provide perspective, depth, and an historical framework through which to view the upheavals that are occurring across our nation. This is what we do as educators. Education is the most powerful tool we have to fight racism, prejudice, discrimination, and injustice. We must use it to build a better, stronger, and more inclusive society for all who live in our country.

The current environment has individuals, interest groups and some politicians focused on the idea that schools are indoctrinating our youth and pushing a liberal agenda. However, it is important to stress that every action we take is guided by the state curriculum frameworks released by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

As educators, we strive to create an environment where every student and staff member feels safe, supported, and free to be themselves as a proud member of their race, religion, sexual orientation, dis/ability, or gender identity. We take pride in the fact that we have inclusive public schools as the evidence is clear that students learn best when they are fully seen and accepted for every part of who they are.

The actions we take are grounded in these principles and we take the actions we do, not because we are required to, but because we celebrate the fact that it is our differences that help us to see a more full picture of our world. We must push back against misrepresentations and outright lies that create a hostile environment where open dialogue and facts get buried in a landslide of anger and hate.

The most recent iteration of this trend comes from allegations that schools are teaching the doctrine of critical race theory (CRT). However, it is important to note that, prior to the recent uproar surrounding this theory, K-12 educators were not even familiar with the term.

CRT is a graduate level theory which was postulated in the early 1970s and at its core seeks to explain how the foundational bureaucratic structure of our society has worked to build racism into the political, social and cultural framework of our country. This isn’t anything radical or progressive. It is a framework for critical thinking based on the facts of what has already been ingrained in the history of our country.

Our public schools are not “teaching” critical race theory. They are not trying to edit or rewrite history. They are not trying to make white people ashamed of being white as some would claim. The academic dialogue schools embrace merely recognizes that, as a country, we are not without our flaws. It seeks to enlighten and build awareness to the fact that injustice and inequity are deeply ingrained in our society’s political and social power structures, and that together we can change course. These injustices, based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, age, and socioeconomic status, impact us all by preserving social and economic inequality for those historically targeted by discrimination.

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Recognition and acceptance of these facts are the first steps to addressing the past and present barriers to inclusion for historically marginalized groups. We want all students to see individuals who share their personal, social, and cultural identities reflected back to them through the curriculum in a comprehensive array of the human experience; the heroes and villains; people who have succeeded and those who have tried yet failed. We must support our schools to ensure that this is happening in every classroom.

Systemic change is hard, but this work is critical. Together we can dismantle racism and doing this work together makes schools better for everyone ensuring that racism, prejudice, and intolerance have no place in our classrooms, our schools, or our communities.

Todd Gazda is the executive director of the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton and the former superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools.