The cultural contradictions of American education
CRT prevents real progress on closing achievement gaps

Living Not By Lies in Education

This essay was originally published on the website The Chalkboard Review on March 19, 2021. Sometime in 2022 the website was purchased by new owners who, without notifying me, removed all of my published essays. Given that the website operator has failed to respond to my inquiries about this removal, I can only conclude that my essays were deleted because of the philosophical or policy content. Therefore I am reposting these essays here.

Rod Dreher’s latest book, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, warns of a “soft totalitarianism” slowly creeping into American culture. Unbeknownst to many, K-12 schools are actually the front lines for this effort to impose a radical ideology on society by making young people cheerleaders for the totalizing worldview of critical theory, or at least to make them too afraid to speak up against it.

              Dreher channels the famous Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in calling everyone, but especially people of faith, to prepare for this coming totalitarianism and resist it by committing to “live not by lies.” While Dreher discusses the K-12 education system only indirectly, teachers are well aware of how “woke” ideology is transforming what can be taught and even spoken in classrooms. Now is the time for the lessons of Live Not by Lies to be explored in the context of K-12 teaching and learning.

              I don’t intend this article to be a full review of Live Not by Lies. Others have done that already (I recommend this review by classical educators Ty Fischer and Joe Gerber). Rather, after briefly summarizing Dreher’s thesis, I’d like to offer some reflections on what it might mean to “live not by lies” as an educator, or as a student or parent of a student in K-12 schools.

              For those unfamiliar with Rod Dreher’s writing, their first reaction to his suggestion that totalitarianism is right around the corner is probably to scoff and declare, “That can’t happen here.” Anticipating this reaction, Dreher draws from numerous interviews with survivors of former Soviet bloc countries who see what is happening in American and recognize a pattern. They see how every apparatus of government, culture, and commerce is slowly being adapted to serve a specific ideology: a pseudo-religious political progressivism that demands total allegiance or, at least, silent acquiescence.

              This ideology is driven largely by critical theory, a set of assumptions about society and human persons that suggests one’s identity group defines their power status. Critical theory rejects objective truth and claims there are only subjective, personal “narratives,” all of which serve to reinforce one’s role as victim or oppressor. Critical theory is totalizing, trampling over moral ambiguities and declaring each person good or bad, every idea as noble or evil, depending on the extent to which the idea conforms with critical theory’s own assumptions.

              While these ideas were once known only among the far fringes of the political Left, they have become the operative philosophy of most American universities, and Dreher argues that this pseudo religion now occupies center stage in our political debates. Corporate America has embraced progressive ideology as well, with big technology companies routinely censoring users whose opinions deviate from approved points of view.

              It is in this way that Dreher says the coming totalitarianism is “soft.” Unlike the “hard” tyranny of the former Soviet or Nazi regimes, it is unlikely that dissenters in America and Europe will be hauled away to gulags any time soon. But they won’t have to be, as the combination of state, media, and social pressure will drive anyone who questions the new orthodoxy to silence and submission. Fear of losing one’s job, being punished at school, being pilloried in the media, or denied access to both social and fiscal capital (as is already the case in China) will ensure that resistance is futile.

              Dreher is writing primarily to a Christian audience. People with traditional religious beliefs are likely to be key targets of soft totalitarianism because their commitment to the idea of objective truth, allegiance to a power bigger than the state, and heterodox views on marriage, the family, gender, and a host of other topics puts them outside of the “progressive” mainstream.

              But Dreher’s warning is relevant for anyone who cares about intellectual freedom, open and honest debate, and respect for diverse opinions – all key values of what was once considered a classical “liberal” worldview. And Live Not by Lies is an especially important book for those who care about K-12 education and its role in shaping culture. Anyone who is in even casually observing primary and secondary education can see the growing presence of soft totalitarianism, often dressed in the noble-sounding garb of “anti-racism” and the war over what gets taught – and how – in our schools.

              Let me be clear: there are long-standing racial disparities in education that should be of grave concern to everyone. Achievement gaps and lopsided student discipline data based on race are genuine problems that deserve serious, collective investigation. The lack of diversity among the teaching force probably aggravates these problems in ways we’ve not yet begun to understand.

              But as I wrote last year for the Imaginative Conservative, the presence of these inequalities does not mean they are explained wholly by racism and oppression. Certainly, bias on the part of educators or within the society at large may be a contributing factor. But only an ideological fanatic could conclude that eliminating racism (a worthy but entirely unrealistic goal) would solve all of these problems.

              Sadly, though, that is exactly how so much of the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” activities carried out in schools are being conducted. “Anti-racism” training and discussion groups are being mandated for school faculty, often using books like Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist as manuals. These books and associated training sessions promote the idea that victim and oppressor status is written into the skin color of every person, including children themselves. The great creed of the American civil rights movement, that no person should be judged or limited by their skin color, has been completely replaced with its exact opposite, and attached to a political agenda that demands not equality of opportunity, but an actual equality of outcomes that requires a revolutionary reordering of society and a rejection of the core principles of Western Civilization.

              Teachers who would object to these programs face the serious risk of being labeled a racist themselves. But this is precisely where Live Not by Lies serves as an inspiring prescription as well as diagnosis of what is happening in American schools.

              Dreher tells the stories of numerous dissidents who survived communist totalitarianism by refusing to give inner or outer submission to the lies their overlords insisted everyone live by (the title, Live Not by Lies, is taken from a 1974 letter by Solzhenitsyn). This was dangerous business, of course, as resisting could lead to imprisonment, or worse. But sometimes even small, prudent acts of resistance could serve as the inspiration to others.

              Teachers and students should refuse to take part in any “diversity,” “equity,” or “anti-racist” initiatives that treat the assumptions of critical theory as truth, rather than simply as one perspective on a complex set of issues. When they are able, educators, parents, and students should challenge these initiatives openly, exposing their underlying ideology for the extremist, anti-American, anti-liberal agenda that it is. School communities should be made aware of the presence of these programs and demand their school boards provide fair and reasonable oversight.

              At the same time, educators must model strategies for taking racial inequalities in education seriously. We can ask ourselves hard, demanding questions about our own internal biases and practices that may have a disparate effect on different groups of students without succumbing to the totalizing assumptions of critical theory. We stand to actually generate far more effective long-term strategies for addressing disparities in this way.

              Educators, parents, and students must also refuse to live by the curricular lies that are increasingly being told within our schools. Leftist, critical-theory propaganda like the 1619 Project are problematic, not because they tell the “other side” or “rest” of the story of American history, but because they promote outright falsehoods about the American people and their founding. It is simply not true, as the 1619 Project and other efforts at revisionist history hold, that the preservation of slavery was the central reason for the American Revolution. It is ridiculous, but also false, to suggest that math and science – that even finding the correct answer - reflects “white supremacy.” And yet these are the kinds of lies that are being told more and more often in K-12 schools. Again, educators must expose and resist these ideologically-driven curricular ideas and programs whenever they arise. We must insist that the way we teach history, in particular, is both factually accurate and refuse the false dichotomy that understanding and appreciating the past precludes being both critical and patriotic.

Finally, educators, parents, and students must insist their K-12 schools be centers of intellectual diversity and freedom. Universities, which used to play this role, have already by and large submitted to the soft totalitarianism of woke ideology. K-12 schools, which are supposed to be locally controlled and reflect the values of the communities they serve, may be the last bastion for defending the classical liberal ideas of free speech and freedom of conscience.

Refusing to live by lies in today’s education environment is no small thing. For teachers and administrators, it might even involve risking one’s career, and certainly brings the risk of being ostracized and mistreated by colleagues, supervisors, and sometimes even students and parents. But this risk illustrates exactly why all of us who value open debate and intellectual diversity must commit to challenging every policy, program, and ideology that would impose any kind of soft totalitarianism in our schools. Teachers, students, and parents who object to what is happening in schools need to know they are not alone.

America’s Founders understood that democracy – not understood necessarily as majority rule but as a system that limits the power of central authorities over every group regardless of its number – was dependent upon a well-educated citizenry. That democracy is under threat like never before, and K-12 schools are increasingly its battleground. Let’s make sure they remain places that are safe for dissent and intellectual debate.

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