Julia Galef has a great book recently out called The Scout Mindset. The world needs scouts and soldiers but Galef argues the scout approach has unique value. I’d say that’s especially true in a sprawling sector like education. Oversimplifying a bit, scouts seek to see things as they are and have habits around seeking dissenting views, falsification, and so forth. Soldiers are more about narratives. We all have some of each. Recommend.
I haven’t read her book yet, so relying on public accounts. Apparently a few years ago when Couric asked Ginsburg for her take on Colin Kaepernick and his protest at NFL games the justice really leaned into the issue. It was reported at the time that Ginsburg had said she thought the protests were “dumb and disrespectful.” What was not reported is that she apparently also said the protest showed,
“contempt for a government that has made it possible for their parents and grandparents to live a decent life.”
“Which they probably could not have lived in the places they came from,” the justice added, according to Couric. “[A]s they became older they realize that this was youthful folly. And that’s why education is important.”
What does this have to do with education? Perhaps more than it appears.
I don’t agree with Ginsburg here, protest and dissent are important and are exactly why the United States is not like the places many of our grandparents came from. Last week we talked about how our teaching and discussion of American history is undercut by a lack of appreciation for the role of dissent. Kaepernick and related anthem protests don’t really bother me because they’re just asking if we’re living up to our ideals. Mileage will vary.
In other words, I can appreciate some objections. Sure, there were too many people who didn’t like what Kaepernick was doing because they didn’t like seeing a Black person protest racial injustice, but that’s not the universe of objections about the format or the content of the protest. Ginsburg’s take would have been controversial, but also helped illuminate how not all objectors are of a piece. Only through airing and discussing can you arrive at a better understanding, a better politics, and some kind of progress.
Instead, for the most part one side said Kaepernick was un-American the other side said anyone who disagreed with him was a bigot. It’s that binary that led Couric to want to “protect” Ginsburg in the first place. But the effect was to deny us a perhaps richer conversation. Lashing ourselves to narratives is a bad way to have a real conversation.
Right now the same dynamic is playing out on the “CRT” debate in schools.* Rather than parsing the issue and listening there is a pretty intense pressure – on both sides – to just fall into line. Any quarter for “CRT” critics makes you a bigot in a lot of circles now. Pointing out that we do a pretty lousy job teaching about race in schools and that there are serious problems in schools that can be attributed to racism gets you labeled as unserious and woke in others. The ethos that anyone raising questions about what schools are doing in the name of “equity” is just an outrider for Christopher Rufo, or that if you raise concerns about racism and schools then you’re illiberal or “anti-white” (whatever the hell that means in 2021 America) flattens the dialogue – exactly what culture war partisans want.
But isn’t there a difference between someone who is trying to ban books in high school and some parent who doesn’t want their 7-year old getting half-baked workshops from a teacher who found some stuff on Pinterest or segregated activities and privilege walks? Or a difference between someone arguing that documented racial disparities in school demand attention and reform, and someone who wants schools to go full throated Kendi across the board? Of course there is.
People know this, which is why their private “I could never say this publicly” takes and their public posture is often so divergent. What’s happening now impedes progress, chills expression, obscures the messiness, and really is no way to have a conversation about such an important basket of issues. Or to separate the genuinely bigoted from other dissenters. As Kaepernick revealed in his strident opponents, only those who don’t have confidence in the power of their ideas are afraid to subject them to the give and take of debate and instead try to ram them through with tautologies, circular logic, or brute political force.
*Other recent examples of this narrative problem is the whole furor about schools having to teach “both sides” of the Holocaust in Texas. That Texas law is lousy policy in my view, on a few levels, one of which is that it leads to nonsense like this. But it pretty plainly does not require teachers to teach both sides of historical issues like the Holocaust. But that claim is what you call “too good to check,” casual slang for narrative confirming. This unfolding situation in Loudoun County, where it increasingly looks like administrators mishandled a rape at a school, perhaps for political reasons, is an apparently tragic example as well. [Update: Read this as well]. It has echoes of Parkland. We’re all better off when adhering to narratives is less important than just figuring out what’s happening.