Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. We begin with a question.
Courtney Plunk: Who won you want the Civil War?
Melissa: That's Courtney Plunk. Back in 2014 Plunk was a student at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas, playing the part of a roving reporter to discover what her fellow students knew about American history and politics.
Courtney: Who won the Civil War?
Speaker 1: Who won the Civil War?
Speaker 2: We did, the south.
Speaker 3: The one in 1965? What civil war?
Speaker 4: Who won it? Who was even in it?
Speaker 3: Who was in it? Just tell me who was in it.
Speaker 5: I don't know.
Speaker 2: Why do want me to do this? [laughs]
Speaker 6: Who won want the Civil War?
Speaker 7: Oh my God. I am drawing a blank. It's one of those things.
Speaker 6: Feel like I'm on the Jimmy Kimmel show.
Speaker 8: America? I don't know.
Speaker 9: That's the Confederates, right?
Speaker 10: I've no clue
Speaker 11: The union. The North.
Melissa: Right, painful, but the video was an instant internet sensation. As entertaining and, yes, horrifying as these person on the street interviews or student on the quad interviews can be, they can't reliably capture the full landscape of American civic knowledge. Unfortunately, in 2014, Texas Tech student responses were uncomfortably close to the dismal state of American political knowledge. The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania has conducted the civics knowledge survey since 2006. Typically the results show just how little basic information Americans can recall about our nation and its political processes.
In 2016, just prior to the election that put Donald Trump in the White House, only a quarter of Americans could name all three branches of government. This was, "the poorest showing on that question in a half dozen years." "Nearly a third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of government." Take heart dear listener, all is not lost. After bottoming out five years ago, something rather stunning happened. American civic knowledge improved, in fact, rather dramatically. In 2020, nearly three-quarters of Americans correctly named freedom of speech as one of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.
Also, in 2020 more than half of those surveyed accurately named all three branches of the federal government, the largest percentage of Americans giving the right answer in the history of the survey. Just how did American civic knowledge improve so rapidly? There's no way to know for certain, but it is reasonable to think that more Americans could identify free speech as a first amendment right in 2020 because media regularly discussed ideological tensions on college campuses as debates about free speech. Now, as for the much higher percentage of Americans who understood the three branches of government, well, it's worth noting that the impeachment of President Trump by the US Congress dominated political news from late 2019 through the first third of 2020.
Nothing like a little impeachment trial to tone up on that separation of powers clarity. If high-profile public battles about free speech and presidential accountability led to a marked improvement in civic knowledge, what might be the outcome of the recent pitched battles in state legislatures about the critical race theory curriculum? Listen to what some state legislators across the country had to say this spring.
Speaker 11: A teacher may not teach one race is inherently superior to another race.
Speaker 12: There are those that believe that certain segments of our society cannot advance because of racism, that the system has to be modified or torn down.
Speaker 12: You see it across the country. I mean, it is tearing communities apart. It's wrong. It should not be taught in school.
Speaker 13: How would anyone have a problem with this? It's amazing.
Melissa: I see what you're trying to do here, but guys, shhh. You might just manage to create a nation of novice critical race theorists. We're joined now by Dr. Prudence Carter, professor and outgoing Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, where she focuses on race, class, gender, and education inequality. She's the author of Stubborn Roots, Race, Culture and Inequality in the US and South African Schools. Recently, she became president-elect of the American Sociological Association. Professor Carter, it's so great to have you back on the show.
Dr. Prudence Carter: It's very nice to be here. Thank you.
Melissa: Now, for the uninitiated, or those who may think they're initiated but are not, can you tell us what is critical race theory?
Dr. Prudence: Well, Melissa, to be honest with you, I didn't know what critical race theory was until I started working on my Ph.D. and was in graduate school. It is a theoretical framework that that was actually created and developed by legal scholars, it comes out of critical Legal Studies in the 1970s, 1980s. It developed and spread into other areas like education and other social sciences. Essentially what critical race theory does is try to show how race and racism can still be promulgated in policies, and politics, and laws in our society.
Even if they seem facially neutral, they can actually engender disparities among races, so that those who have been historically minoritized and disadvantaged, like Black, brown, and other people of color, can still be disadvantaged. It centers structural racism, it centers how white privilege and white supremacy manifest themselves even though our political, social, and economic institutions.
Melissa: Now, I want to go to that point that you made about learning in grad school, I think that's when I certainly used the language of CRT for the first time or was introduced to it in the classroom. Is anybody teaching critical race theory in third grade?
Dr. Prudence: That's what's actually quite humorous, and actually sad about this. I would love to know which elementary and middle schools are teaching critical race theory, and for that matter high schools that are teaching critical race theory. It suggests to me that what we might be talking about is a straw man in American education, both K-12 and higher education. Certainly, there are some undergraduate courses where there may be a reference to critical race theory, but it is something that many of us have learned in graduate school. I wonder if this is really about the fear of teaching about race in a more critical and incisive way in American schooling?
Melissa: I mean, indeed, it feels like it must be about that, right? I mean, and I guess, part of what I've been wondering, and as I started this segment in our conversation, I'm wondering if it might actually have a backfiring effect. Again, our American civic knowledge is really shamefully low. Yet, when we see things that come into the news, like free speech or the separation of powers, then suddenly actually Americans are able to identify and apply those basic concepts more accurately. I'm wondering if that might also happen, not only with actual critical race theory but simply with discussions of race that, in fact, conservative legislators might be doing the opposite of what they think they're doing.
Dr. Prudence: Well, certainly if you look through history around the prohibition of various things in our society, what they do is cultivate interest in that which has been stigmatized or denied. You may actually have more people going to do the research to figure out really what is this big bad wolf that these legislators are talking about? Certainly, if you look at Google searches, they have increased exponentially as people are trying to teach themselves about what critical race theory is, what is all of this controversy about? It's possible that there could be more underground movements, or there could be actually more study groups, consciousness-raising groups, as people try to work outside the bounds of not the narrow bounds of knowledge that these laws are producing.
Melissa: My dad used to put the books that he most wanted us to read on a shelf that said, "Don't read these books," and of course, that's what would we do as soon as he had gone? We'd read those books.
Dr. Prudence: That's right.
Melissa: I'm wondering how we might be able to fit this into a broader set of concerns there have been bipartisan and cross-ideological about what it is Americans do need to know about our history and about how our political systems work?
Dr. Prudence: Well, it is the case that knowledge is socially constructed and it can be politically bounded. What this current state shows us is that politics may infuse what students are learning, political ideology shapes what we learn, and that has been the case throughout human history. What I find a bit difficult about these particular laws is that instead of saying, "Here's a framework that could be critiqued or problematized, and we can juxtapose that next to other understandings of history," and then to teach students critically how to discern a go between them, it's just being thrown out. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
It is a narrowing of history in critical ways. One of my main concerns, particularly since we've just celebrated Juneteenth on Saturday, is how educators are supposed to actually teach and celebrate a federal holiday, but they can't talk about its historical origins in the most penetrating ways. There are some contradictions here, Melissa. There is also little guidance for educators about what they can and cannot talk about because the definitions of critical race theory are now so vague in these state laws.
Melissa: I guess even hearing you say that sentence, educators being told what they can and cannot talk about, just seems so, and perhaps this is the privilege of the academy itself, but it seems so surprising to me as a way to think about how we would want any set of topics addressed within American public education. Isn't it the I don't know curricular ideal to have this free exchange of ideas?
Dr. Prudence: In our nation, historically, we've said we are a country of freedom of expression, we are a country where we are trying to produce the most critical thinkers and promoting individualism, having a tolerance for a variety of ideas, but what these laws do is actually contradict and countervail those very principles. It is the case that we have some academic freedom being, in many ways, suppressed by these new laws in these various states. I would not be surprised if we see a number of lawsuits and sue, particularly because some of these lawsuits are reaching into higher education.
It is the case in public and K 12 education that states have more jurisdiction and can govern the standards of curriculum, but in higher education there is a lot more on academic freedom, particularly for scholars and researchers and professors. There is a narrowing and a tailoring here. It is antithetical, in my opinion, to the various principles and tenants of freedom of expression, freedom of thought that we espouse to believe in this country.
Melissa: Professor Carter, let me step back a little bit exactly this point about the politics of curriculum. If we look back at American history, maybe back to the 1920s when we were first beginning to have a generalized public school system, what was its goal? What were we hoping to do with public school?
Dr. Prudence: To be clear, I am not a historian of education, but from what I know from teaching and bringing together history in various forms, let's be real about the massification of education and its relationship to the development of the American economy. A large part of this was the realization of many employers and large corporate owners about the need for literacy and numeracy skills to have better informed better educated workers. The opening up of schools was really driven a lot in a large part by the needs and the demands of the economy. That did spread, it spread in a separate and not even an equal way.
Then you had the massive migration, immigration of various Southern and Eastern European groups as well as migrants, the great migration of the descendants and those who were formerly enslaved to the northern and rust belt cities. A large part of this was about understanding that there needed to be some education, particularly as we moved into the periods in the areas of the wars and needed an educated populace.
Melissa: Building on that I'm thinking about the world we now live in, which for American workers is much less likely to be a world of manufacturing, much more likely to be a world of ideas. In fact, to the extent that we think of it as an entire world, a quite diverse world of ideas.
Dr. Prudence: That's right.
Melissa: Wouldn't this suggest that some versions of even the mischaracterized critical race theory, but understanding race and its role in our history, would be valuable for the workforce that we're now creating.
Dr. Prudence: Well there are a couple of points here Melissa, another part of the massification of education was also to socialize. Education is a socializing institution to make sure that you could create citizens and patriots because you had these immigrants, people coming from different parts of the world, and that they could all cohere around certain fundamental tenets. You move to this more contemporary period, we have increasingly become more diverse, a more open society, and part of the push in the 1960s and the '70s and '80s was about a deeper inclusion and a widening of an expansion of knowledge, because our society has become so much more diverse.
The problem is social psychologists are showing, and I'm thinking the work of Jennifer Richardson and Marine Craig, they're showing that the more diverse we become, the less tolerant particularly whites become in their attitudes about the inclusion of these groups. Meanwhile, part of having this openness, a multicultural movement is also about trying to maintain the legitimacy of the American Republic. The United States of America, as a place of freedom and justice and liberation. It's really hard to see how we can maintain that identity, or even grow it, if we're going to have a narrow construction of what it means to be a nation.
Melissa: Indeed, I think of Baldwin saying that we can understand his love for the nation, his patriotism, in his willingness to critique the nation. That is actually the evidence of the love, the commitment to the national notions, our aspirational, best ideas of who we can be. It actually requires that we critique that we are not yet that.
Dr. Prudence: That's exactly right. Another part of it is, just let's just be honest about it, is that all of human history is about some form of subjugation. There was that logic that's embedded in these laws, we don't want individuals or groups to feel badly. I can't imagine any aspect of human history that hasn't been about some form of subjugation, from imperialism, to colonialism, settler colonialism, colonization, wars, religious conflict, everything has been, sociologically speaking, about groups subjugating subordinating, marginalizing, oppressing others.
If you use this logic that's currently at play now, it means in theory that you couldn't teach any history. If you think about it, the logic is flawed. It's also, a second point is it erases. We spent a large part of time trying to educate. If you want an educated populace, presumably as we gather more knowledge and discover more things, you share it with the people. Why would you actually legalize or sanction not telling the truth?
Melissa: Is it a version of book burning?
Dr. Prudence: It is. In some ways it's a modern day form of it. It's not unlike, though, the struggles, the curricular and political debates around creationism and evolution. This is how we know education as a social institution is a political institution. It is a social institution, it's constructed, and these lawmakers are trying to create the bounds of knowledge today, very narrowly.
Melissa: Indeed, in some ways, the attack is the thing that lets you know it's worth the fight.
Dr. Prudence: Exactly.
Melissa: Just very swiftly, what do you think classrooms will look like in September in the fall, as compared to what they do right now, in these states that have passed these laws?
Dr. Prudence: Well, I'm very concerned particularly about the lack of guidance for educators, particularly teachers in social studies and civics classes, because as I mentioned earlier, the laws are vague. I've spent a lot of time trying to understand exactly how they define CRT and there is no definition really. There are just these different vague and broad swipes about what things are going to do. It's the question of whether or not teachers can actually talk about race, they can talk about white privilege and white supremacy. Can they talk about slavery in the brutality of that peculiar institution? These are the questions.
Melissa: Prudence Carter is a professor and outgoing Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California Berkeley. Next month she'll be a professor of sociology at Brown University. Thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. Prudence: Thank you for having me.
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