Less than a decade ago, my high school hosted a naturalization ceremony. Each time a new citizen, donned in red, white, and blue apparel, approached the stage to receive his certificate of citizenship, the rowdy crowd of hundreds of teenagers—myself among them—broke into irreverent but welcoming and patriotic chants of "USA! USA!"
Those days are long gone. National pride fell to an all-time low in 2020, with just 20 percent of American adults ages 18 to 29 saying they were "extremely proud" to be an American, according to a Gallup poll. And though the coronavirus pandemic and protests following the death of George Floyd factored into that number, the poll marked the sixth consecutive year of decline in patriotism.
The right blames this trend on progressivism and, more recently, critical race theory. But is CRT really to blame for this drastic shift in anti-American sentiment? Jonathan Butcher offers a guidebook on the subject in Splintered: Critical Race Theory and the Progressive War on Truth.
Splintered presents critical theory as a pedagogy, or a framework through which one understands the world around him. From its origins in the 19th century German academy to its application in American kindergartens, Butcher, an education fellow at the Heritage Foundation, spells out what critical pedagogy means for the future of American education.
He begins with the German Marxists, including Felix Weil, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer, who laid the foundation for critical theory by fusing Marx’s anticapitalism and understanding of history as a persistent class struggle with the postmodernist concept of subjective truth. As a "worldview," Butcher writes, critical theory is "meant to criticize the traditional uses of language and reason to describe the world around us."
Critical theory found its way into American law during the 20th century. Critical legal theory claims "America’s laws are systemically oppressive and designed to keep ethnic minorities in the underclass." If that sounds familiar, it might be because you had your TV on during the summer of 2020, when Black Lives Matter riots overwhelmed the streets of America’s largest cities.
Black Lives Matter and other left-wing groups apply the tenets of critical legal theory to every aspect of American life and culture. The result is critical race theory, which rejects America’s founding principles—individualism, the rule of law, property rights, free and open trade—and institutions, which, they say, subjugate minority Americans and uphold white supremacy.
Critical race theory is about race and power, Butcher writes. It is also about "undermining" American institutions. As "antiracist" scholar Ibram X. Kendi says, raceblindness is racism. One must actively work to dismantle laws upholding white supremacy and siphon power over to minorities.
Teachers’ union bigwigs and their Democrat allies are quick to dismiss reports of critical race theory in the classroom. Conservatives, they say, simply oppose discussing America’s racist past. This misperception comes in the face of several high-profile examples that have come to light in the past few years. Butcher provides several such cases.
One Nevada school forced students to "affirm" race-based privileges. State education departments in California, Illinois, Ohio, and elsewhere structured model ethnic studies curricula to include lessons on "power structures" and "ethnic differences between groups." Teachers’ unions in several big cities, including Los Angeles, adopted the Black Lives Matter movement’s core principles—the destruction of the nuclear family and defunding the police among them. Some teachers assign civic engagement projects—dubbed "action civics"—that compel students to advocate for political causes, like attending gun-control rallies or writing letters to legislators on lowering the voting age. And thousands of schools teach lessons adapted from the New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project, which seeks to re-center the American founding on slavery. (Historians criticize the project for its historical inaccuracies.)
These examples are telling. Critical race theorists don’t propose teaching children additional lessons on black Americans who advanced equality in the face of discrimination—an idea that Butcher and others on the right emphatically endorse. Rather, Butcher says, critical theorists want children to see themselves and the world around them solely through the lens of race. They lead children to question America’s founding principles and force America’s complicated past into the Marxist view of history: oppressors versus oppressed.
Butcher proposes ways to thwart critical pedagogy in the classroom. While Butcher rejects bills to ban the 1619 Project and other readings, he calls for state lawmakers to propose legislation to uphold First Amendment rights to assemble and speak freely. Teachers should not force students to admit privilege, adhere to a set of principles with which they disagree, or attend Black Lives Matter protests for a grade.
A model curriculum to counter critical pedagogy includes lessons on American civics. Such standards would prepare students to answer questions like those included in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ test: What rights are protected in the first 10 amendments? What document claimed American colonies were free from British rule? Most Americans today cannot answer these basic questions, according to several studies Butcher cites.
Students should learn about America’s failure to live up to its ideals, from slavery to Jim Crow laws to Japanese internment, Butcher says. But they should also know these failures don’t reveal fault lines in our founding principles. Rather, they show shortcomings of some individuals’ own morality.
"The failure to live up to our national ethos and ideals, though, was a problem of behaviors and actions based on people’s moral understanding," Butcher writes, "not a problem with the creed itself."
In addition, says Butcher, black history should be a core element of history education. Students should learn about black politicians and entrepreneurs who broke barriers in the face of exclusion and discriminiation. While critical race theorists say capitalists use the free market to oppress minorities, Butcher writes that it was this system that allowed many black Americans to innovate and build businesses in the decades immediately following the end of the Civil War. This is a subject worth learning and celebrating.
Splintered proposes an off-ramp to progressive movements working to derail the American experiment. It offers a renewed sense of hope and pride in American principles and institutions. It’s enough to make you want to chant, "USA! USA!"
Splintered: Critical Race Theory and the Progressive War on Truth
by Jonathan Butcher
Bombardier Books, 240 pp., $28
Published under: Book reviews