Divided We Fall

That the United States is a divided country is an understatement. We have been siloed into opposing political camps which, in the fulness of time, could have fatal consequences for the future of the republic. This has been especially evident since 2016. That I am writing this essay in my office across the street from the Chapman University law school where the infamous Trump lawyer, John Eastman, taught until his ‘retirement’ in 2020 only increases for me the surreal and intimate nature of this divide.

One of the debates that is percolating (or should I say boiling over) throughout the country revolves around the teaching of slavery in public school history classes, with Critical Race Theory being identified as the leading culprit. Critics of Critical Race Theory (which is a theory developed by legal scholars that valorizes the plight of the victims of slavery and Jim Crow that animates various disciplinary perspectives in universities) argue that it is a threat to the American way of life. Clearly, what we need to ask these critics includes the question: Is there something about the American way of life that you wish to hide? What is it exactly that you wish to put under wraps? Do you consider the American way of life to be so fragile that those who are living it cannot withstand the slightest scrutiny of certain formative events in the past and how those past events have created serious problems and challenges to disenfranchised subaltern groups in the present? The objections against Critical Race Theory crumble at any serious introspection yet are so self-evident that they are impossible to ignore.

In fact, let’s hope that Critical Race Theory does challenge the American way of life. But it appears that any challenges to the U.S. that emerge from the shadows of its official history are instantly decried in knee-jerk fashion as the demonic voices of socialists, Marxists or communists who wish to unburden our students of their patriotism and turn them into Manchurian candidates. A state Senate committee in Florida recently put forward legislation to block public schools and private businesses from making people feel “discomfort” when they’re taught about race. Similar legislation has been proposed and/or passed in dozens of red states. Such legislation, if passed, is destined to alter the very fabric of the teaching about history and other subjects in the curriculum. It will do nothing short of making a mockery of the important reasons why history should be included as an instrumental part of the school curriculum. The truths of America’s past that were born from internal conflicts and national and international disputes that need to be studied with some urgency today are often uncomfortable truths. They should not be taught in order to make students winch or squirm (although that can easily happen and in some cases should happen) but neither should they be smothered out of existence. A pedagogy of critical patriotism offers a glimpse into a past populated not only by historical racialized atrocities but also by American heroes who fought and risked their lives to end such atrocities, such as Martin Luther King.

While my father fought against the Nazis from 1939-1945 with the Royal Canadian engineers and my uncle put a torpedo in the Bismarck battleship as a pilot in the Royal Navy (a feat which earned him the Distinguished Service Medal pinned on him by King George VI), I am aware of countless heroes in my adopted country of the United States whose courage in fighting the fascist Nazis are well documented (the Battle of the Bulge comes immediately to mind as do the operations of the Flying Tigers and the Tuskegee airmen). And while there are many heroes we can and should honor, the validity of the wars in which many heroic Americans fought (the Vietnam War, the War in Afghanistan, and War the Iraq War are those that come most readily to mind) should be open to challenge, to dialogue and debate as part of our classroom curricula. And so too should the Allies carpet bombing of German cities during WWII, the firebombing of Dresden, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the American eugenics movement that Adolf Hitler so admired, a movement that turned American immigrants into vile objects of phrenology. Our celebrations of American war heroes, inventors, peacemakers, priests and preachers, scientists, medical doctors, lawyers, political leaders, activists, entertainers, musicians, academics, journalists and others should not motivate us to distort or hide those who participated otherwise in the shadow legacies of American history which includes the great crimes against our African-American brothers and sisters, women of all races, native peoples and targeted immigrant populations. We must not erase such uncomfortable truths because parents wish to whitewash American history and hide its racist and genocidal past under the pretext that they are creating ‘discomfort’ for their children or causing them to hate America—especially since the fruits of such a history are still very much with us today. I’m sure that the tilt of the US towards fascism in this country would have made my uncle and father furious. Simply witness the rise in racism since the election of Barak Obama and the growth of White supremacy, White ethno-nationalism, neo-Nazis and armed militias, all of which were factors that led to a recent attack on the nation’s Capitol on January 6, 2021.

There is plenty of room to celebrate the positive achievements of the United States without, of course, resorting to a wanton American triumphalism that ignores our settler-colonial past and its ramifications up to the present. Those who are holding history hostage can only make the public suspicious that if they didn’t actually approve of slavery and the southern plantocracy, they certainly desire to tamp down the voices of today’s African Americans, indigenous Americans and immigrants whose stories demand to be heard in the name of justice. Erasing the victims of our history can only create forms of social amnesia that will impede our progression as a democracy—a democracy, by the way, that is already on very shaky grounds and looks about to crumble. Very often it is those who decry those so-called “woke” campus organizations who wish to prevent right-wing speakers from presenting their views on college campuses on the grounds of hate speech, that are now demanding that the history of racism, the legacy of the Lost Cause, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement of the 1960s be locked out of elementary and high school history classes. It is hard to not to recognize profound hypocrisy here. Often those who are cheering the loudest for the preservation of the American way of life are those very groups who are burning books from school libraries.

The emphasis of criticism should not be solely on the content of classes so much as the pedagogy used to teach history (and other subjects). Critical pedagogy—an umbrella term that includes Critical Race Theory and is inspired by the teachings of the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire—dedicates itself to creating conditions of possibility for the voices of the victims of oppression to be heard in classroom contexts. Controversial topics (we need to think hard about why such topics should be seen as controversial in the first place) are offered to students as points of reflection and debate, and teachers should be able to exercise their own moral conscience in constructing such debates, otherwise, a shifty value relativism will prevail and students will be left with the implicit impression that there is no right or wrong when it comes to slavery, to the genocidal treatment of Native Americas (or First Nations peoples), to the institution of Jim Crow laws, or the current school-to-prison pipeline. They will be led to believe that there are only opinions and that each opinion is of equal worth and can be used to cancel out opposing opinions. But opinions that fail to cohere around sound arguments are simply the dust that falls from the annals of deception.

The purpose of classroom debates and dialogues is not to brainwash students into accepting progressive political judgements on these events but enabling students to make their own informed judgments by learning how to craft sound and robust arguments. And for that we need to privilege arguments over opinions and to be able to agree on the best ways to adjudicate such arguments. Dialogic discussion must exist around these issues because they are moral in character and because of this, it is a matter of conscience and in this case, the conscience of teachers must be exercised. Without such consideration, we will etherize the role that our conscience must play as educators and fall prey to the same corruption and self-interest that we are attempting to challenge.

Teachers should not be forced to hide their own political perspectives but at the same time be willing to have their views challenged in a “good faith” spirit of disclosure and solidarity. It’s time to “keep the faith” in democracy and bridge the divisions that are poisoning the country. But such a sentiment can only be destined to swallow its own tail as long as we fail to bring up further questions: Can democracy prevail in conditions of capitalism? I would argue that it cannot, certainly given today’s existing conditions of capitalist exploitation and oppression. Since democracy can know itself and the nature of its praxis only through criticism of it, can Critical Tace Theory and critical pedagogy at the very least help us realize the conditions for of the possibility of morality? One laudable achievement of critical pedagogy is that it has revealed how it is impossible for capitalism to conform to its own truth in practice since such conformity is structurally impossible for capitalism. It is in this sense that we need revolutionary theories—Marxist, anarchist, critical realist, etc.—that, ironically, requires abolishing the very conditions that require such theories. These are questions that surely need more debate, but such debates are less likely to occur on college campuses until the current battle over the teaching of history is won.

Peter McLaren is Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Chapman University, USA. He is the editor and author of 50 books and his writings have been translated into 25 languages. He is the author of the the1980 Canadian bestseller, Cries from the Corridor. His most recent books include He Walks Among Us: Christian Fascism Ushering in the End of Times; Breaking Free: The Life and Times of Peter McLaren (with Miles Wilson); Post-Digital Dialogues on Critical Pedagogy, Liberation Theology and Information Technology (with Petar Jandrić); Tracks to Infinity: The Long Road to Justice, The Peter McLaren Reader, Volume 2 and Pedagogy of Insurrection: From Resurrection to Revolution.