In September of last year, President Donald Trump denounced critical race theory as “toxic propaganda” that will “destroy our country.” He had issued a directive to all government agencies to stop training programs that, as the directive put it, ask government workers to “believe divisive, anti-American propaganda.” He also created something called the “1776 Commission,” whose job was to encourage “patriotic education.” That commission actually issued a report in January of last year that, among other things, described American universities as “hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship.” The commission was disbanded by President Joe Biden a few hours after he was sworn in as president.
In the first week of April this year, Lt. Gov. McGeachin, following in the footsteps of Trump, created a task force to investigate “indoctrination” in Idaho education. She proclaimed that there was a need to protect Idahoans from the “scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism and Marxism.”
McGeachin’s task force is a complete sham. Its real purpose is to keep her name in the news, solidify her self-appointment as leader of Idaho’s ultra-right faction, and pave the way for a challenge to Gov. Brad Little in 2022. Tellingly, reports are that she is “interviewing” candidates for membership on the task force, which suggests that the members will not actually be representative of Idaho citizens but will be people of McGeachin’s ilk, who will produce just the report that she desires.
Below are a few observations that McGeachin’s task force will either not consider, or reject as socialist propaganda.
Academic freedom: Universities are protected by the principle of academic freedom, which ensures their freedom to decide who will teach, what will be taught and how, and who will be accepted as a student. For a government to tell a university what may be taught, and not taught, is to clearly violate that principle. It brings to mind the classic case of Lysenko’s mistaken theory of biological inheritance. That theory was shaped by the demands of the Soviet government, which insisted that the biological theory taught in Russian schools be consistent with socialist ideology. How ironic for McGeachin (and the Idaho Legislature), who despise communism above all political systems, to imitate the Soviet practice of prohibiting theories to be taught that do not accord with their political convictions.
Community rights: Traditionally, local communities and school boards have the primary right to establish a school’s curriculum. Idaho’s legislators have always seemed passionately dedicated to small state government — to government which does not interfere with individual and local rights. But it turns out that that dedication ceases when local governments do something with which the Legislature disagrees. We now have, in this state, a Legislature that seems to recognize no limits to its authority. It has sought to cripple the separation of powers in state government by restricting the power of the state’s chief executive. It has acted to nullify the people’s right to put issues on the ballot. Now it intends to dictate educational content; to control matters that we thought were the rightful domain of the state board of education and local school boards.
Individual rights: Even a conservative member of this task force might say, at some point: “I’m uneasy about this group’s intention to prevent universities from teaching what they choose. As conservatives, we place great value upon individual freedom, upon an individual’s right to make decisions on his or her own. But what we seem to be saying to students is, ‘We know what you must not believe, so we will make sure that you never encounter those forbidden ideas and have the opportunity to judge them for yourselves.’ Is that really consistent with our deep commitment to individual liberty?”
Idaho’s Constitution: The rationale offered by the Legislature for interfering with educational practice is that the Idaho Constitution requires it. Is it really plausible that the teaching of social justice theory or critical race theory is contrary to the constitution’s Article IX, Section 5? That section is essentially about the principle that state-funded education must not engage in religious proselytizing. How could that section legitimately be interpreted to mean that a university is forbidden from including in its curriculum courses that address prejudice in its various forms, and theories about how prejudice in this country has brought about unfair practices, and laws, that have negatively affected citizens’ lives? Those courses do not discuss theories that are embedded in some dangerous, foreign, anti-democratic doctrine, and the theories are not being forced upon students by ideologues secretly seeking to undermine the American way of life. That claim is patently ridiculous: the theories have been recognized by universities and other educational institutions as worthy of consideration because they intelligently address and diagnose real problems in our society.
Let’s face it: We in this country has been engaged for the past several years in an intense and uncomfortable self-examination, asking ourselves the question: Are we the country that we have always said we are? Are we the land of equal opportunity? Are we the great melting pot? Or are we a country with serious barriers to success for those with black or brown skin, and for women, and for gay people? Is this melting pot that we boast of a real blending of peoples, or is it actually a pot with layers that rarely mix — racial layers, class layers, ethnic layers, gender layers?
Think of our recent social conflicts: the #MeToo movement, the gay-marriage controversy, Black Lives Matter, police killings of Black people, the transgender women-athletes debate, the cruel treatment of immigrants, attacks on Asians, on Muslims, white supremacist activity. Our country is failing to live up to its own ideals. We must try to understand why, and do something about it. That’s why the universities have courses in social justice; that’s why teachers of young children see it as their responsibility to try to counteract race and gender prejudice when it can be done effectively under their guidance.
The far-right prates about real patriotism. Aren’t real patriots those who recognize their country’s problems and try to solve them?
In my next column, I will discuss critical race theory.
Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU’s Oboler Library in 2006.