Sometimes, I despair for the future of education.
This occasional anguish was recently triggered by a videotaped lecture from a University of Michigan education professor. Her central premise was that elementary school math teachers must be constantly vigilant, lest they fall into verbal traps perpetuating racism.
Labeling Impossible Tasks as Necessary
Dr. Deborah Lowenberg Ball is reputedly a leader in math education. Her lecture carried an ominous title: Confronting and Dismantling Threats to Our Struggle for Justice in Classrooms. She spoke to an auditorium of about 200.
The lecture consisted of her examination and ruminations about two student-teacher interchanges, the first lasting 45 seconds, the second running one-and-a-half minutes. So, it took Dr. Ball 45 minutes to analyze less than three minutes of classroom activity.
My considerations are of someone who spent thirty-four years in the “trenches” of American Education. As a young man, I wrestled with the fallacies that I absorbed in Education School and eventually concluded that most education professors have little idea what teachers actually do. Unfortunately, that realization took years of hard experience to achieve. Dr. Ball’s audience (victims?) did not have that luxury.
Training “Social Justice Warriors”
Let us run down some of the pearls of advice that Dr. Ball has for the fledgling teachers in her audience.
- Some teaching practices may seem good but actually reinforce status hierarchies.
- Racism, oppression and marginalism easily seep into classrooms.
- Avoid “the scientific racism of measurement.”
- “On one hand, teaching and learning are incredibly constrained by policies and history and things that we don’t control. However, teaching is also incredibly discretionary work—incredibly individualistic, incredibly idiosyncratic… [We are going to] focus on the power of that discretion and the dangers and risks of that discretion.”
- “The history of our country, and the ways in which black children and brown children, immigrant children, non-English dominant children—I could go on with social groups—have been positioned all creeps into the biases and ideas that we have and the way our curriculum are constructed and the policies that we have. It’s in the bodies and minds of us as teachers.”
- “We have the power to either disrupt or reproduce racism or marginalization.”
Her advice on how to avoid “reproducing racism” is a little thin and primarily negative.
- Avoid “positioning” students and causing them to appear as “struggling” learners, for example, “Who can help her out?” The same problem arises when the teacher makes it appear that a student is a “troublemaker” by using expressions like “We show respect in this class.”
Interestingly, my professors taught me to use such phrases in education school during the early eighties. “Who can help her out?” is supposed to be a substitute for statements like “No, that’s wrong,” which rob students of their all-important “self-esteem.” The other phrase, “We show respect in this class,” comes from the ideas of “positive reinforcement” and replaces “judgmental” statements like “Don’t interrupt.”
Another sentiment that Dr. Ball repeats at least three times in her lecture is one that I am paraphrasing.
- Avoid focusing on inappropriate behavior over ideas that may be partially right.
There are two dubious ideas behind this statement. One is that students are better disposed to learning if the teacher tells them what they are doing right, even if they end up with the wrong answer. The other is that correcting behavior wastes classroom time that teachers could better use in teaching the skills and content of the lesson. If correction is necessary, point out a child behaving correctly and set that child up as a model for the misbehaving students. “I like the way Melissa is sitting quietly.”
Creating Apprehension and Self-Loathing
I have little doubt that many in Dr. Ball’s audience acquired a sense that they might not be entirely up to the task of being a teacher. After all, they might think that their inability to digest the word salad she served might be due to their lack of understanding.
However, Dr. Ball’s presentation carried a more insidious message. She informed these bright young adults that the germs of racism and marginalization lay in their own minds and hearts. Dr. Ball did not accuse them of overt racism. However, she implied that all of them—especially those that were white—were subconsciously racist. This hidden racism would come out in teaching behaviors that would convince students that they were stupid troublemakers who would never succeed in learning or life. Dr. Ball is effectively saying, “You better watch yourself very closely and do exactly as I say, or YOU will ruin those children’s lives!”
Destroy the Soul, Substitute the State
So what do the Dr. Balls within the schools of education advise their students? They need to be “activists,” after all, “silence is violence.” They need to become “allies” of groups like “Black Lives Matter.” They need to implement the principles of Critical Race Theory writer Ibram X. Kendi in all student-teacher interactions. Implement “anti-racist” curricula like The 1619 Project.
Above all, they must never appeal to ideals like hard work, persistence, self-control, punctuality or respect for authority. Never speak approvingly of Christianity, the traditional family, the rule of law or logical thought. After all, these were documented by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture to be “Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture in the United States.”
Not all want-to-be teachers are so easily beaten down. Some might resist. Some might argue, “Wait a minute, I have never had a racist thought or uttered a racist word in my life.”
Critical Race Theory has an easy response. Those who do not admit their racism are the most racist of all. They need to read—and perhaps memorize—Robin di Angelo’s White Fragility.
However, increasing numbers of people are resisting the Critical Race Theory onslaught on education. These brave fighters possess a weapon that the other side cannot defeat—our Catholic Faith as defined by Scripture and two millennia of Catholic thought and teaching. Gods’ Grace is the trustworthy source of human dignity, justice conditioned by mercy, repentance and absolution. The sham called Critical Race Theory only has worn-out narratives of oppressor and oppressed that can create resentment but can never conjure the utopias that they promise.
Dr. Ball, you weave a sinister web. It will catch many, but we won’t let you take our children without a battle—a battle that you will ultimately lose.