Critical Race Theory and Curricula Aren’t the Problems
I worked on education projects around the world, mostly for governments, and it’s true that — despite the best efforts of many over the last two generations — higher education in the U.S. is nonpareil and yet its foundations are exceptionally bizarre. And the roots of U.S. education extend back to Harvard’s seemingly idiosyncratic founding.
Writing in the 1690s about his grandparents’ generation and their founding of Harvard, Cotton Mather mocked European education. In Europe, students lived “on campus” when possible and attended a lot of lectures, and that was the core of their education. But Mather made it very clear that the purpose of Puritan education was not knowledge transfer and was not contained in the curricula or the teachers, per se. To use Mather’s phrase, the purpose of Harvard was to promote “a collegiate way of living,” which is why the U.S. founded colleges and not universities.
“A collegiate way of living” was the result of living and working together under cohesive and deeply-held values. The outcome of this way of living is to produce a tightly bonded community, which catalyzes the development of larger communities. The college as a key mechanism for community-building should be viewed in the context that the Puritans were probably the most scholastically-oriented people on earth; the year prior to founding Harvard, they had founded a grammar school to prepare students for Harvard. And yet, even among these people, the idea that colleges exist to transfer knowledge was asinine.
The obvious intent with this objective is community formation, but the Puritans were more clever than that. They were aware that democracy itself does not produce virtue; democracy consumes virtue. It was this community-formation objective of Harvard that was designed to contribute to the virtue necessary to maintain a democracy.
Perhaps one could suggest that modern colleges are less like colonial colleges and more akin to apprenticeships, and that apprenticeships were focused on knowledge (or skill) transfer. After all, the objective of an apprenticeship was to enable the apprentice to be employable.
It was common for colonial apprentice contracts — there was literally a contract between the apprentice and the parents, as the apprentice was typically 13 years old — to contain three distinct guarantees. First, the master was to teach the appropriate trade skills (for example, silversmithing). Second, the master was to teach the appropriate business skills. Third, the master was to teach moral skills.
The second contractual obligation — business skills — is noteworthy because the colonies did not have trade unions, so a graduated apprentice could immediately go into business for himself. In most of Europe, an apprentice had to wait until a guild/union vacancy came available and then apply for it; often, tradesmen in Europe were never permitted to ascend to the rank of master, which meant they always had to work for someone else (and that’s the source of America’s entrepreneurial spirit).
The third contractual obligation often specifically stipulated that the master was to keep the apprentice away from alcohol, gambling and women. It’s noteworthy that both legally and morally, the master was held responsible for an apprentice’s transgressions, and these moral obligations did not end when the apprentice graduated. If, years after graduating, someone was arrested, it was often the old master who appeared in court, perhaps vouching for the apprentice, perhaps posting bond. The master’s contractual moral relationship was taken seriously, and the master assumed moral — though not business — responsibility for his apprentice even after graduation. Imagine if a 30-year-old Princeton graduate was arrested, and his former dean of students showed up to court with bail. That’s what masters did in the 18th century.
At 18th century Harvard, the curriculum largely consisted of the texts of ancient Rome and Greece and the Bible. All were usually read in the original languages. (The entrance exam to Harvard, typically taken at age 13, was in Latin and Greek; students studied Hebrew while at Harvard). This curriculum wasn’t so much the result of a curriculum committee but rather was the content generally and broadly available. Modern chemistry, for example, had only recently been extracted from alchemy to become its own discrete academic subject. Calculus was still being revised and expanded. Much of the academic core did not exist in a standardized form. So, not much discussion was required to consider what standard texts should be used.
It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that curriculum discussions began in earnest; knowledge production had exploded and there were many new areas that were being standardized, which meant they could be included in standard curricula. (This also explains why ‘high school’ was invented at the same time; there were more subjects to teach students.) Greek was dropped as a requirement at Harvard in the 1890s and Latin was dropped just after WWI to make place for these new subjects. By the 1920s, the number of potential subjects a college could offer and a student could take was overwhelming and begged for structure. At this point, we find the concepts of professorial independence and tenure develop and colleges, for largely the first time, are faced with a serious question: what shall we teach?
From the time Harvard dropped Greek in the 1890s up through the metastasizing of college subjects in every possible direction in the 1950s, the question of “core requirements” weighed heavily on colleges. If there’s any subject all students should study, then colleges had to mandate it due to the proliferation of courses. It was in the 1950s that college professor Russell Kirk referred to Michigan State as “Behemoth U.” due to its ever-expanding student enrollment and course offerings. It was also in the 1950s that the term “underwater basket weaving” was coined, largely to describe the increasing number of useless and easy classes offered in order to entice more high school students to attend college.
So a core curriculum is largely a modern solution to a modern problem and bears no relationship to a pre-modern curriculum. But, more importantly, it does not achieve the primary purpose of American education. A classical core (or “liberal arts”) curriculum may be part of a solution, but it cannot alone achieve the goal that made American education unique.
To understand the problem is to understand that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is largely irrelevant. Consider how modern revolutions happen: In Russia, the intelligentsia and similar elites leveraged the poor by convincing them their rights were trampled and treasure was stolen by the old guard; this argument was used to subvert the power structure. Once the old guard were eliminated, this new elite controlled the poor through social engineering (propaganda, rules and regulations, and, in Lenin’s phrasing, “arbitrary terror”). The bulwark between the poor and the new elites was a vast array of apparatchiks who could enslave and ensnare the poor in a dizzying array of rules and regulations and laws and bureaucracies. The elite used this bulwark to maintain their power and enrich themselves, usually through a variety of reforms (to “help the poor”) and wars (to “safeguard the poor”).
This 1920s Russia scenario played out in the U.S. in the 1930s, as documented in NYU Philosophy Department Chair James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941). Burnham’s title, an echo of “Marxist Revolution,” was entirely intentional. A revolution displaces and destroys what came before it. Many others at the same time, from ex-Communists such as Whittaker Chambers to C.S. Lewis, made similar observations about this new “soft communism.”
From that point forward, the managerial revolution served to funnel power through the bureaucracy to the new oligarchs and to obscure this new leviathan under an aggressive program of social engineering. Homogenizing the population through the capture of institutions — corporate HR departs, federal government leadership, universities, media — proved successful by the 1990s (“Uniparty”) and control of the population proved increasingly profitable; only occasionally did populist rhetoric attempt to pierce the veil, and it was often easily dismissed with a label (paranoid, racist, homophobic, etc.).
Woke projects are just managerial fiefdoms that are substantively inchoate while serving their greater revolutionary purpose. The elimination of one particular administrative apparatchik’s fiefdom does nothing to the mechanisms of bureaucratic control.
Further, an attack on a particular fiefdom does not address the radical transformation of the collegiate objective from community formation and virtue production to alienation machines and forward operating bases of the managerial hegemony. Rearranging the curricular deckchairs solves nothing. In fact, if one were a “paranoid style” enthusiast, one would observe that CRT and its brethren are decoys, the shining objects to distract you from the leviathan below.
The question, then, is if curricular choices aren’t germane to community formation and virtue production, then what is? There really is no substantive evidence that the community and virtue functions of colleges can develop or persist outside of religion (“cohesive and deeply-held values”), which explains why the managerial apparatchiks must subvert the traditional power of the college. A college attempting to persist without the virtue-creation of religion will persist in a vacuum, which, for Marxists, is the objective; recall that, for Marxists, ideology itself is a competing authority. (“Marxist ideology” is oxymoronic. This is why Marxists often purge other Marxists; you may have no god above the managerial state.)
The conclusion remaining is that, given the modern social schizophrenia over church/state affiliation, public education is neutered of its potential and will always fail. Of course, it may be obvious at this point that such sterilization and capture was always the goal.