The Bottom Line The Critical Turn: A Response to Stanley Kurtz’s “The Blue State Education Nightmare”

Stanley Kurtz’s highly insightful recent article at National Review, “The Blue State Education Nightmare,” examines the critical turn in K-12 education in Rhode Island and other blue states that indicates a “relentless expansion of woke education in Democrat-run states.” While Kurtz focuses on the specific new educational standards in Rhode Island, Illinois, and Minnesota that demand radical leftist political advocacy in the classroom, I thought it would be instructive to examine how such states came to where they are today, which should serve as a warning to other states who are headed down the same path. The unfortunate truth is woke education wasn’t built overnight (and sadly, won’t go away overnight), but has been on a long march in academic institutions for decades.

Education statistics in the state of Rhode Island are sobering. In its capital, Providence, 94% of students are not proficient in math, and 86% of students cannot read or write at grade level. Yet in the aftermath of the horrible school shooting in 2022 at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, hundreds of Providence students turned up at the Rhode Island State House during school hours to join a political demonstration calling for increased “common sense gun legislation” in their state. So while the state is failing to educate its students, it has done a wonderful job teaching them to become political activists. What we are now seeing are the results of what was once theory in the academy but has become real life practice in the K-12 context, and it finally has the attention of parents across the nation.

In his 2016 book The Critical Turn in Education: From Marxist Critique to Poststructuralist Feminism to Critical Theories of Race, Isaac Gottesman, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Education at Connecticut College, reflects on a quote from Paul Buhle’s 1991 book, Marxism in the United States, which states “To the question: ‘Where did all the sixties radicals go?’, the most accurate answer would be: neither to the religious cults nor yuppiedom, but to the classroom.” Gottesman notes that the turn to critical thought in the Marxist tradition as a distinctly political and social movement has operated over the course of now almost 50 years of educational scholarship.

With its roots in the Marxist tradition, critical pedagogy emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s as a post-Marxist project and has been holding pride of place in American higher education for now decades. In short, colleges of education turned away from the classical model of pedagogy, with its emphasis on moral and intellectual virtue, toward a “progressive” model of pedagogy. Subsequently, what is being taught to teachers is then passed down to their students, which has now affected (or more accurately, infected) at least two generations of teachers and students. In his introduction to Gottesman’s book, education theorist Michael Apple states that at its core, critical pedagogy “seeks to expose how relations of power and inequality (social, cultural, economic) in their myriad of forms, combinations, and complexities, are manifest and are challenged in the formal and informal education of children and adults.”

Apple further notes that “’the critical turn’ in education has been integrated into the formal corpus of official programs in education throughout the world.” Unequivocal about its goals, Apple sees critical education as a “thorough-going reconstruction” of the education process in terms of what it is for, how it is executed, and what should be taught. It is a commitment, according to Apple, to social transformation, leveraging the educational structure to be oriented towards redistributive social justice, contra the institutions of our society that that have brought about what he describes as inequality and oppression towards those who have been dispossessed.

Whereas classical Marxism placed its focus on economic class struggle, the post-Marxist position instead argues for cultural struggle and radical reform of society. The problem with current society, as they see it, is that the educational system has been specifically constructed to “reproduce” and legitimate economic inequality and repression by socializing students to assume their positions in the capital work order. Reproduction of the social order, as noted by Gottesman, corresponds to social relations of dominance and subordination in the economic domain – so what is needed in the educational system is to promote radical social change with the goal, according to Apple, to push for a “feminist, anti-racist, democratic-socialist society… one that can forcefully push against the structures and ideologies that support and entrench patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism.”

Marxists of the 1960s in America knew well that a violent overthrow of the capitalist system was a non-starter, as most Americans understood the advantages of free market capitalism in providing prosperity and a plethora of affordable goods and services. Marxists believed such prosperity came at the expense of conforming to an oppressive social order. They thus adopted a strategy advanced by 1930s Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to infiltrate the institutions by raising awareness of oppression they saw in the social order, focusing on immutable characteristics such as race, sex, gender, and national origin (i.e., identity politics). And what better institution to change the culture than education. Once critical pedagogy became the dominate orthodoxy in American colleges of education, Marxists were ready to train the teachers who would transmit their philosophy to K-12 classrooms across the country.

In my view, Marxists falsely characterize American society as a racist, sexist, oppressive social order with an entrenched patriarchy that explicitly promotes white supremacy. All societies have their faults, and America indeed has a sordid past of oppression with lingering inequities. But the America of today is the freest country in the world, and welcomes all from around the world, regardless of sex, creed, or color, who wish to pursue freedom and prosperity. It is one of the few countries in the world where a person, no matter their background, can start from literally nothing and achieve great success.

In contrast to a critical education, the time-honored and most effective manner of pedagogy, which has been practiced successfully for millennia, is the classical model. The classical model of pedagogy does not ignore the failings of human nature but seeks to train the minds of children in moral, intellectual, and civic virtue, affording dignity and respect to all without regard to race, gender, or class. The classical model focuses on building character and knowledge, which is antithetical to a worldview of oppression and domination. So even if America were to some degree as bad as the post-Marxists argue, wouldn’t it be far better to provide an optimistic view of the future to the next generation of citizens by preparing them to become balanced, thoughtful, and well-rounded adults, instead of becoming cynical, poorly educated political activists?

The most destructive thing that can be done is to teach children to disparage America by separating American citizens into categories of either oppressor or oppressed, and worse, telling children they are either one or the other. Parents across America must unite to end critical pedagogy in K-12 education, which is not only poisoning the minds of American youth, but also leading to the educational system failures we’re seeing in Rhode Island and other states who have adopted, in whole or in part, critical ideology in their schools.

It is the job of parents, in partnership with K-12 educators, to not only properly educate children but to also, through a classical education, cultivate moral and civic virtue so our youth can grow and flourish as human beings with a love of country.

Walter Myers III

Board of Directors, Discovery Institute
Walter is a Principal Engineering Manager leading a team of engineers, working with customers to drive their success in the Microsoft Azure Cloud. He holds a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Biola University's Talbot School of Theology, where he is an adjunct faculty member in the Master of Arts in Science & Religion (MASR) program teaching on Darwinian evolution from a design-centric perspective. He is also a board member of the Orange County Classical Academy (OCCA), a classical charter school in Southern California associated with Hillsdale College.
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