A charter school superintendent’s case against personal agency, nonpolitical history

Those preoccupied by a raging pandemic, 170,000 dead Americans, massive economic dislocation, and shuttered schools have probably not paid much attention to the lunacy unfolding on the “anti-racist education” front. In the wake of protests prompted by the police killing of George Floyd, schooling has been swept by a tide of critical theory of the kind that used to be found mostly among the Oberlin sociology faculty. This week, Robert Harvey, superintendent of New York City’s East Harlem Scholars Academies charter school penned for Education Week, K-12’s newspaper of record, “An Open Letter to Well-Meaning White Teachers.” Just one of many such missives penned this summer, Harvey’s three suggestions serve as pretty good distillations of where things stand.

For starters, Harvey advises teachers to “talk about
systemic racism, not individual stories,” instructing teachers that discussing
individual agency “unintentionally teach[es] students that ‘really good, really
successful’ Black folks are exempt from racist structures.” In other words,
rather than explore complicated realities or suggest that individuals can shape
the course of their lives, teachers should push students to view themselves as
passive victims of circumstance. Harvey is literally instructing teachers to
avoid teaching students about the heroic or honorable accomplishments of historic
personages.   

Via Twenty20

He also instructs teachers to “talk about history in today’s
context,” meaning they should view historic content in light of today’s
progressive dogmas. He explains, “What is it to esteem Frederick McKinley
Jones’ refrigerated-truck ingenuity without discussing Trump-era cuts to the
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program?” The very notion that history might
have something to offer independent of today’s ideological doctrines is
apparently problematic. An observer might be forgiven for thinking Harvey
believes history is only relevant to the extent it provides political talking
points.   

Finally, Harvey boldly advises teachers to “talk about
navigating and disrupting racism” by teaching
students “to disrupt language, writing norms, and even dress codes.” What does
all this verbiage amount to? He explains that he doesn’t capitalize his name, because
that teaches students “to reimagine the recommended relationship between
capitalization and proper nouns, because all constructed knowledge can be
deconstructed.” It’s equal parts alarming and amusing that Harvey claims to see
a catastrophic social crisis — and that his illustrative solution is to spell
his name with a lower-case “r.”

It goes without saying that there are serious conversations to be had about race and racism in America. Schools have a significant role in all of this. If Harvey’s point was that schools must do a better job on this score, we’d be on board. But he’s instead encouraging educators to dismiss individual accomplishment and personal agency, turn the American tale into a political prop, and treat sophomoric theatrics as a stand-in for rigorous thought. This is horrific advice, not just for white teachers, but for every teacher committed to schools that teach students to do more than parrot ideological slogans and engage in performative theater.

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