In an apparent attempt to restrict the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT), the new Texas law (June 2021) prevents a teacher from exploring any topic (not just the state’s history of enslavement) in a way that makes a student “feel discomfort, guilt, (or) anguish.” Twenty-six states are considering or have passed bills to make sure critical race theory is not taught in their public schools. Alas! The reasoning that backs this law doesn’t chime with many including me! So we’re going to make our students the final arbiter of what teaching areas cause discomfort and therefore removed from the curriculum? And is this ‘discomfort’ really detrimental to growth and development, or rather a contributor?
There’s a more enlightening way to explain the background to the critical race theory than how it’s represented by some groups: it’s the truth about the American past, American history. The Senator Daniel of New York famously said, “everyone’s entitled to his opinion, not to his own facts.” In fact, I think everyone is answerable to what s/he did, not what the forefathers did. Before I delve into why teaching CRT will help reach understandings and develop insights without undermining one’s self-esteem, let us look at how a piece of new information that challenges one’s existing database of knowledge, actually leads to new knowledge, in the backdrop of a robust learning environment.
When individuals encounter new information, they use their existing knowledge about the world to make sense of new information, e.g., when kids learn Newton’s Law of gravity, they use their existing understanding of objects falling on earth (instead of flying) to build a more sophisticated understanding of how the Universe functions. No wonder flying balloons fascinate kids as they challenge their understanding of gravity, leading them to further their understanding of the laws of nature, under what context they function, and so forth.
This phenomenon was termed ‘Assimilation’ by Jean Piaget, the Father of child psychology whose immense sympathy for children and keen observation on how they cope with the world around them led him to evolve key principles of child psychology. Furthermore, when kids update their understanding based on new information that reveals a discrepancy, it is called accommodation. When a new phenomenon challenges their existing knowledge, kids may feel flummoxed and the state is called cognitive dissonance. With the right motivational tools, kids learn to act upon the dissonance and acquire new knowledge, (in lieu of choosing to steer clear of the learning).
Nuggets of knowledge that I’ve gathered during my serendipitous encounters with art objects in museums around the globe, often documenting the past and providing a window to the human mind’s intricacies have been my real trouvaille. Be it apartheid, slavery, or caste system, the most common (negative) tendency to consider oneself “holier than thou” has driven humans down the slippery slope of wreaking havoc on fellow humans.
In the 15th century, the Roman Catholic Church granted Portugal a monopoly on trade in West Africa and granted Spain the right to colonize the New World in its quest for land and gold. Essentially, the right to plunder. In fact, Pope Nicholas buoyed Portuguese efforts by affirming exclusive rights to territories it claimed along the West African coast and granting the right to invade, plunder, and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”
Germans teamed with a megalomaniac Hitler; Europeans and Caucasians scraped the dignity off Africans as they bought and sold them, and Indians manipulated their own sacred philosophical texts to conjure up a caste system based on which they humiliated and subjugated their own countrymen. The Dutch paintings of the 17th-century document the exotic objects the Dutch acquired in far-off lands that they plundered to feed their avarice and audaciously took the liberty to attack indigenous tribes to amass wealth they brought back to their land. That was prosperity, ‘then’.
But aren’t Germans proud of being Germans today having denounced the notion of being superior and eventually evolving as a people who believe and fight for human rights for all? Aren’t Dutch proud to be Dutch today after they evolved from that primitive mindset of acquiring wealth by force? Didn’t Indians denounce the caste system and elect a so-called “schedule caste” individual as their president? And does the world look down upon Germans, Americans, Dutch, or Indians for what they did 100 years ago? And didn’t the Church revisit its stand and morph into an institution with much nobler ideals today?
Humans have evolved from apes but the evolution extends beyond mere physical growth. It took a few good men to lead movements that burnt away the differential notions that were rife in those days, in the fire of their own morals and ideal that sprouted from truthful, courageous thinking and reflection.
Discussing human tendencies could spur stark new understandings and prompt new insights into the human mind. Should we pull the wool over our kids’ eyes by whitewashing those historical facts to ensure a “cozy comfort zone” that deprives them of knowing the truth about human behavior- be it their ancestors or others’. I think that’s a myopic vision that lacks foresight or discernment. Let kids puzzle over the past, and dream of a better future by thinking fearlessly and open-mindedly in the present. A wrinkled brow in response to exposing our kids to historical facts mirrors a view that is determinedly obtuse.
Challenging moments present an opportunity and to float questions that might not be fully worked out in the fertile minds of students is not going to be detrimental to their growth and development.
References: Elliott, M. (2019, August 19). We’ve Got to Tell the Unvarnished Truth. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/19/history-slavery-smithsonian.html.