Last month, the Manhattan Institute released a groundbreaking new study, titled “School Choice Is Not Enough: The Impact of Critical Social Justice Ideology in American Education.”
The study presents survey results of a representative sample of over 1,500 Americans aged 18-20. Their primary finding was that "Ninety-three percent of American 18- to 20-year-olds said that they had heard about at least one of eight [Critical Social Justice] concepts from a teacher or other adult at school, including 'white privilege,' 'systemic racism,' 'patriarchy,' or the idea that gender is a choice unrelated to biological sex.'" Also included on the list of Critical Social Justice (CSJ) concepts are the ideas that discrimination is primarily responsible for disparities, that America is built on stolen land, and that there are many genders.
This study is significant because, over the past two years, debates about education policy have occupied an increasingly prominent place in political discourse. In particular, ideas on the proper way to instruct on subjects like race and gender have been hotly disputed. Backlash over perceived indoctrination into extreme theories of race and gender — as well as the exclusion of parents in the educational process — have decided major elections in some states.
However, up to this point, there has been a glaring issue with these debates: they have been largely based on anecdotes. The findings of the Manhattan Institute’s study are important because they represent the first time we have been able to put some real numbers to phenomena that many have only observed anecdotally.
Thus, we should examine the findings in more detail to find out how we ought to move forward.
A Cause For Concern
Ever since journalists such as Christopher Rufo and Bari Weiss began highlighting examples of “institutional capture” of the education system by politically-driven actors, skeptics have often claimed that CSJ concepts are not being taught in schools. This assertion has been promoted by the leaders of teacher unions, cable news hosts, and politicians.
The issue is, and this study confirms, that their claim is simply not accurate. As noted, 93 percent of respondents affirmed that they had heard at least one CSJ concept “from a teacher or other adult at school.”
If these concepts were being introduced as one perspective among many, then there would be no issue with the fact students have been exposed to them. After all, if one wishes to give students an accurate picture of the competing visions of society, then it would be dishonest to exclude all CSJ concepts.
The issue is that the Manhattan Institute study confirms that K-12 schools are effectively indoctrinating students into radical — revolutionary, even — political ideologies. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said that, when taught, "These concepts are introduced as the only respectable approach to race, gender, and sexuality in American society." This means various perspectives were not weighed against one another, but rather kids are being led to believe that only one view is legitimate. When one considers how impressionable K-12 students are, along with the fact teachers have a fair amount of sway over the way their students think, the issue here becomes apparent.
This is also concerning because CSJ presents a vision of America that is at best unorthodox and at worst destructive. In Critical Race Theory: An Introduction — which is among the most influential textbooks on the subject — the authors write that “critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” In other words, critical race theory opposes the basic tenants of the American founding. Ibram X. Kendi, a leading “anti-racist” author — whose writing has been brought into many schools — has written that "The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination."
There is simply no justification for schools across the country to present this as the only viable perspective.
The study demonstrates that the prevalence of CSJ concepts — and the way they have been introduced — is having real effects on students. Data presented in the report show that the more CSJ concepts kids have been exposed to, the more left-wing they are in their politics — as measured in a variety of ways in the study.
It should be clear that this approach is an improper use of the state — which should be educating, not indoctrinating, students. It not only gives children an incomplete picture of the world around them, but also creates a civil society that is more prone to intolerance of dissenting views. After all, if one was led to believe only one perspective was legitimate, then it is natural to then believe that it is important to shut out all “illegitimate” views — both socially and maybe even legislatively. This is concerning because pluralism and tolerance are indispensable to a healthy and vibrant political culture.
A Bigger Problem Than We Expected?
Critics of the educational approach detailed above often assume their enemies are the traditional public school system and public sector teacher unions. One thing that this study demonstrates, though, is that this problem is by no means exclusive to traditional public schools. Rather, this type of instruction on race and gender has made its way into private schools, parochial schools, and even homeschools; indeed, CSJ was shown to be just as prevalent in private schools as it is in public schools.
This observation is why the title of the study is “School Choice Is Not Enough.” The authors recognize that this issue is not relegated to traditional public schools, which means that advancing choice and privatization will not make the problem go away.
This is true, but it does not mean school choice should not still be promoted. After all, studies show that school choice programs are associated with better educational outcomes. Additionally, public sector teacher unions inflict considerable damage on the traditional public school system — and, by extension, the children in those schools. This means that we should recognize school choice as beneficial, but not as a panacea.
What Should We Do?
The fact that these ideas are being taught everywhere — not just in traditional public schools — suggests a deeper problem than is often assumed. It is not just about the traditional public school structure, but about an ascendant culture that — much like the instruction outlined — assumes that CSJ concepts are the capital-T Truth. Thus, in order to fight against it, and remove indoctrination in schools, it is important to address it on a cultural level. Private and parochial schools will only stop if, culturally, the tide turns decisively away from these ideas and towards those that have traditionally characterized American philosophy — ideas of liberty, virtue, pluralism, and meritocracy.
The significant exception to this “cultural argument” is when it comes to public schools. The reason is simple: the government decides the curriculum. Taking action on this front would therefore be a way of correcting government overreach. In particular, impartiality laws, curriculum transparency laws, and audits of existing instruction and employee training — as the study recommends — are reasonable measures to ensure the government is not being used as a tool of indoctrination for CSJ.
This would hopefully, in turn, help shift the culture towards a more balanced classroom in all schools.
This issue has been brewing for a long time, but only now do we have the data to back up our suspicions and anecdotal understanding. This study represents a comprehensive statement of the problem.
Now it is our job to fight back.