When Collaboration Is Capitulation

In response to my article “Counterfeit Civics,” and in defense of Educating for American Democracy (EAD), Paul Carrese and James Stoner are not only eloquent but also persuasive on one important point: they personally uphold the good intentions of this plan to transform American education. Beyond that we enter into disagreements, both over the general intellectual tenor of EAD and what the alternatives to it might be. They also attribute to me several views that I do not hold.

But let’s start with a point of easy agreement. Carrese and Stoner urge that “Conservatives should read the Educating for American Democracy documents for themselves, not be led by repeated caricatures that give no indication of having studied and digested the entire project.” I agree. In fact, I provided links to those documents in my article for American Greatness and called for a “close” reading of the same. Anyone who recognizes the importance of this major public policy proposal really should devote the time to read it in its entirety, including the footnotes, and not just the Roadmap, but also the full report.

Better still would be to go further by digging into some of the source material and the controversies that underlie EAD. The proposal did not spring up from the deliberations of the steering committee, the six task forces, the two working groups, the advisory council, and the corresponding principal investigators without drawing deeply from the well of collective wisdom in contemporary educational theory and practice. That, of course, is part of the problem. 

EAD represents “consensus”—“a national-consensus, collaborative effort across philosophical and political differences,” as Carrese and Stoner put it. That is to say, EAD represents the views of the same educational establishment that has brought ruin to much of American K-12 education. “Consensus” in this case is not a recommendation. It is a warning.

Questions

That said, we are at that not uncommon moment when different people examining the same texts see quite different things. The task is not just to determine which view is right, but why the other view is wrong.

Carrese and Stoner brush aside the verbatim texts from the EAD Roadmap, that I quoted in my article. These we are told are only “seemingly outrageous.” And I spend too much time “quoting other sources,” which is also often called establishing context. Context, however, is exactly what Carrese and Stoner don’t want conservatives or other independent readers to consider. Down the path of context lies recognition of what EAD really entails. 

Instead, they would have us focus on a curated list of “questions” that conservatives ought to like. Take note of the interrogatory mode. EAD is composed from beginning to end of “questions,” and it bills itself as an “inquiry-based content framework.” Let’s get in the spirit of the thing. Why? Is turning everything into a question the best path to impart knowledge? Is imparting knowledge even the purpose of education? Is recursive questioning a suitable way to bring young children to an understanding of the difference between fact and opinion? Or principle and assertion? 

“Inquiry-based content” is a sometimes useful technique. Plato gives us a good example of it in The Republic, where Socrates’ main conversant is the young man Glaucon. Socrates, of course, runs circles around Glaucon by asking questions in such a way as to lead precisely to the answers Socrates wants. Any good American trial lawyer knows this routine. You can cast doubt on the plainest truth by turning it into a question. Are you sure the sky is blue? Was it blue that day, and not gray? Is it always blue?

EAD includes perfectly sound questions, some of which Carrese and Stoner cite. “What rights and duties do citizens of the United States of America have?” This is a perfectly fine question, so long as it comes following an effort to teach students the actual rights and duties that American citizens possess as citizens. As a free-floating question, it might well lead off in other directions. I have a right to racial reparations. I have a right to be safe from hate speech and from hearing opinions that offend me. I have the right to choose my own pronouns that others must adopt when addressing me. I have the duty to end the use of fossil fuels.

Plainly, EAD never stirs the softest breeze to flutter a leaf in this conceptual forest. All it does is innocently ask, in this case, “What rights and duties do citizens of the United States of America have?”

Peopling 

But an “inquiry-based content framework” is not innocent. It is an elaborate net of questions intended to snare students and drag them aboard the Good Ship Progressivism. Doubt my characterization of that rights-and-duties question? You can find it on page 18 of the “Roadmap” in the section of “Sample Guiding Questions” for sixth to eighth graders under the third theme, “We the People.” It is the second of 13 questions in this section. Taken individually each of those questions has merit and in the hands of the right teachers might make part of a good civics lesson. Point to Carrese and Stoner. But consider the same questions in light of what we have seen of our nation’s teachers in recent years. Question 11 asks, “How do historical and political meanings of ‘the people’ compare and relate to each other? Which ‘peoples’ am I a member of?” The list culminates in:

How do the dimensions of diversity continue to pertain to the challenges and opportunities involved in forging one people out of many? (Dimensions that might be considered include race, ethnicity, gender and sexual identity, religion and spiritual experience, political viewpoint, socioeconomic status, immigration status, geographic origins and language, disability, family structure, and family participation in the military.)

One could write a whole book about that. (In fact, I have.) But asking these students, ages 11 to 13, to consider “diversity” as the apical question in our national identity is not only asking a lot but it is also to deliberately lead them away from the perception of our fundamental unity as a people. 

If anyone thinks this is reading too much into the Roadmap with its bulleted lists of questions, it is easy to look at the cartridge belt from which those bullets were drawn. In the case of “We the People,” that belt is to be found on page 24 of the complete report in a section titled “Unity and Diversity: The Challenge of E Pluribus Unum.” In that section, the authors of EAD explain they have a new approach to “diversity.” They explain that once upon a time, American schools ignored diversity. Then came a time when schools adopted “a checklist approach to diversity—naming specific groups or episodes in state standards and counting how often these groups are mentioned in curricula and textbooks.”

But EAD offers a third way it calls “diversity and inclusion for civic purposes.” What this means is that “diversity” is crammed into every aspect of EAD. The report bullets seven ways this is to be done and summarizes that “civic goals require a pervasive commitment to diversity—as well as unity—all the way through the curriculum.” 

The word diversity has become so omnipresent in the speech of American planners and educators that it is now hard for people to register how counter-American it really is. It is like a very rough stone passed through so many hands that its jagged edges have been smoothed. But let’s remember that our founders sought to build a common identity and did not seek to “celebrate diversity.” Diversity was to them the seedbed of factions and the source of political turmoil. Tens of millions of immigrants came to the United States in the ensuing centuries seeking American freedom, a lawful and well-governed society, and economic opportunity—not the opportunity to revel in ethnic and racial separatism. Diversity came onto our stage as an ersatz value through the stumbling rhetoric of Justice Lewis Powell in his 1978 opinion in the case of The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The concept has had a storied career, mainly as the mantra of the identitarian Left. 

To the extent that EAD turns diversity into the cornerstone of its wished-for curriculum, EAD is also to be properly understood as a political program aimed at institutionalizing a concept that promotes group identities over the ideals of commonality. To propose, as EAD does, that unity and diversity are equal values poised in balance is to propose a renunciation of America’s essential nature.

The Last Roundup

It would be more than a short reply to Carrese and Stoner to go through all of their examples in this fashion, and I will leave that as homework for the interested reader—an interest I hope to incite, not dampen. 

It is worth asking whether Carrese and Stoner are simply unaware of the implications of the project to which they have committed themselves. I don’t think so. Their actual position seems to be that EAD is indeed a leftist undertaking, but if conservatives are nice and accept their defeat meekly, they may get a sliver of the cake. In a National Review Online article, “What’s So Un-American about a Shared American Civics?” they write: 

Anyone can find questions in our lists that are typically asked by progressives, sometimes asked as though merely rhetorical, with the answer not in doubt. Okay, but each one of the questions, we wager, has an alternative answer if conservative teachers, curriculum designers, school-board members, and other concerned citizens are imaginative enough to propose it.

So, if a conservative teacher tries hard enough, EAD can be turned to the search for these “alternative answers,” but EAD’s default setting is progressive answers. Diversity trumps national identity. Open borders and permissive immigration are moral policies. Redistributionist policies promote more fairness than those respecting private property. “Social justice” in all its lawlessness bears better fruit than law and order. EAD doesn’t say these things in so many words but follow those trails of progressive questions and they lead straight to the grazing herds of progressive policies. Carrese and Stoner know this and yet they persist. Moreover, they want the rest of us first to applaud and then to join them in abject surrender. 

Carrese and Stoner assert, “Wood writes as though the EAD Roadmap is a product of the Left produced in partnership only with leftist institutions.” No, I am all too aware that EAD includes a select handful of prominent conservatives. Is it too cynical to say that the institutional Left knows how to play the game of bipartisanship? No. The Left does know how to play that game and leftists often go in search of useful partners.

But that doesn’t explain why conservative partners sign up. They do so, I take it, for the very reasons Carrese and Stoner avow. These amount to a version of “Resistance is futile.” Or in the interrogatory mode, “Will Wood’s strategy of supporting only purist conservative approaches to civics and history education gain any traction beyond already conservative schools and teachers, important as these are?” 

I don’t actually advocate “purist approaches.” And I do recognize that times change. But engaging in faux “bipartisan and cross-ideological reform” in the absence of the real thing is folly.

Do conservatives never win? I would suggest that Carrese and Stoner pay a little more attention to what is happening in state legislatures across the country and in local school board meetings where a strongly aroused public is now saying an emphatic “No!” to critical race theory-inflected instruction. 

The “central challenge of human change,” as Carrese and Stoner put it, is not to be met by capitulation to those who have long sought to turn young Americans into accomplices in the project of unseating our core values as a nation. Turning those values into a series of questions is an artful maneuver that should fool no one. Let’s also keep in mind that the EAD Roadmap and report are but the opening moves of a larger chess game. The proponents of EAD plainly intend to produce many more documents and they aim to ensure that state legislation is “aligned” with EAD. If things fall their way, Congress will appropriate billions of dollars to fund EAD-aligned school curricula.

We will all have lots of questions at that point, but it will be too late.

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