Cynthia Kimball Phillips: The misinformed debate about critical race theory in Utah schools

How can teachers avoid stepping on a landmine when teaching about history, literature and society?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ty Bellamy speaks during a vigil marking the one year anniversary of the death of George Floyd, at the Murals in Salt Lake City, onTuesday, May 25, 2021.

Although critical race theory is not taught in Utah’s K-12 schools, I worry about how the debate about CRT has provided momentum to oppose all topics incorrectly associated.

For example, an elected education official recently lumped several positive public-school programs into a list dubbed “Euphemisms for CRT,” including social and emotional learning (SEL) among others. SEL focuses on setting and achieving goals, friendship-building, managing emotions and making responsible decisions. It also teaches kids to feel and show empathy for others. Arguments equating CRT with SEL, along with other programs promoting life skills, are both unsound and invalid.

CRT has also been mistaken for reverse discrimination and wrongly seen as a lens through which white individuals learn to hate or feel shame for their whiteness. While CRT is not itself a curriculum, even as a theory it does not assert that any race, ethnicity, color or national origin is inherently superior or inferior. Therefore, in passing a resolution that includes the negation of such language in apparent opposition to CRT, legislators have simply “solved” a crisis that they themselves created.

Last week, the Standards and Assessment Committee of the Utah State Board of Education proposed a draft rule that will come before the full board for consideration. This rule focuses on non-discrimination, prohibits “adverse treatment” because of one’s race and bans teaching that an individual’s moral character is determined by one’s race.

Like its legislative precursor, this rule seems to fight a battle without an opponent. Teachers are already answerable to the state of Utah and the federal government for any actions that are discriminatory toward anyone -- our students, their parents, our colleagues and community members. The ambiguous “equity language” of the rule doesn’t address concepts related to CRT per se, so teachers are left wondering about the actual nature of offending curricula that the board seeks to prohibit.

No leadership group seems willing to go after offensive or inappropriate curricula at an identified district or charter school. Instead, leadership groups want to craft broad, unclear resolutions and rules that are unlikely to prevent or solve anything. But the language will have the effect of preventing teachers in Utah from discussing aspects of the Utah Core Curriculum that ought to be taught and discussed, including those related to race. And the language will likely be applied more broadly than intended, thereby increasing teachers’ reluctance to ask students to think critically on a wide variety of topics -- many not related to race at all.

When legislative and education leaders have failed to define a problem accurately and seem unwilling to provide a targeted solution, how can teachers avoid stepping on a landmine when teaching about history, literature and society? If I ask students to consider all the “mockingbirds” in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” will parents scream “critical race theory” because the text requires discussion about race, and students naturally conclude that the society of Maycomb County needs institutional improvement?

Will I be considered a Marxist in a European history class because I teach my students about Marxism, its relationship to communism and its significant influence on European and world history?

As I advise my school’s “Safe Allies Club,” will I be accused of teaching CRT because the curriculum focuses on individual dignity and tolerance, and the practice of volunteerism and good citizenship?

Any attempt to circumscribe critical thinking in public schools, especially with ambiguous language applicable to almost any idea, brings us a step closer to the dystopian society Ray Bradbury envisioned almost 70 years ago in his novel, “Fahrenheit 451.” Groups in that book’s society were so incensed by diverse views that the citizens, not the government, insisted that every book or form of expression be burned. They preferred no expression at all to contrary or diverse expression. What could be more un-American?

I hope that the Legislature and informed voices in education leadership may bring reason to the bewildering debate over CRT and will avoid ambiguity and redundancy in related legislation and board rule. Our students, families and teachers are depending on it.

Cynthia Kimball Phillips

Cynthia Kimball Phillips is a secondary teacher, of English language arts, history, Latin and ancient Greek at the Weilenmann School of Discovery.

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