Having taught American civics for over two decades at the secondary and collegiate level, I have watched this summer’s contentious debate over critical race theory and American education with a heavy mixture of frustration and confusion.
Frustration at yet another topic where consensus proves woefully elusive. Confusion because this consensus is well within reach if we would stop worrying about appeasing cynical ideologues at both ends of the political spectrum.
In fact, I would argue there is an approach to teaching American history and American civics that would be acceptable to at least 90% of the American people.
This approach is what I call “romantic realism,” and it is the tonic to much that ails us in this acrimonious debate filled with sermonizing and sanctimoniousness, needless exaggeration, and divisive activism.
It stems from my experience teaching young Americans from all walks of life, a wondrous human cornucopia of backgrounds and lived experiences that mirror the diversity of America writ large.
In short: The United States can simultaneously be an exceptional nation with a deeply flawed history. We can face the horrors of our past without denying the real and laudatory achievements of our civilization. We should teach young people that it is not realistic or beneficial to arrogantly expect the men or women from 1776, 1787, or even 2015 to mirror the convictions and actions of 2021. Doing so denies the essential reality that we are all walking through the stream of history—none of us stand omnisciently above it.
What we must do is embrace the necessity of nuance, celebrating what is laudatory and acknowledging where our nation has failed to live out the promises of its rhetoric and founding documents.
For example, it is romantic to extol the lyrical idealism of the Declaration of Independence and realistic to point out that it was written while millions of slaves labored in the South. It is romantic to teach that the Constitution was the first liberal democracy in the history of the world imbued with high-minded Enlightenment principles and rights yet realistic to point out that it was only possible by designating Southern laborers as 3/5ths of a human being.
It is romantic to teach that the 14th Amendment was the crowning achievement of the Civil War generation by guaranteeing due process and equal protection for all but realistic to explain that the Supreme Court all but ignored it for half a century and that it took a century for Congress to pass legislation to give it real teeth.
Romantic realism has the bonus of assuaging the worst fears of both sides in this combative debate. It begs the question everyone should be asking: what is the worst fear for each side? What is the outcome they wish to avoid at all costs? How can we accommodate most concerned citizens?
For those who fear CRT, their beef is not with Hegel, Marx, or Marcuse. Their fear, which I passionately share, is that the bond among Americans is weak and getting weaker and teaching large swathes of the nation, especially the young, that the American Dream is a lie, that its Constitutional genius is mere rhetorical bravado, and that young Americans are really pawns of sinister historical forces beyond their control, deadens the hope of any future reconciliation or national pride. Indeed, we do not have to be a perfect nation to be a nation worthy of deep civic affection and passionate national pride.
The advocacy of critical race theory by the everyday Americans and educators I know—not pundits, politicians, and professional political prognosticators—is not geared towards abandoning the Enlightenment or our classical liberal principles. It isn’t about assigning blame based on race. It attempts to ensure that modern Americans are aware that two hundred years of bondage, a bloody century of Jim Crowe, and segregation, not to mention modern policies with disparate and deleterious impacts on people of color, still linger in their impact.
The titanic modern discrepancies between White and Black America on a score of social and economic outcomes—education, health, income, wealth, to name just a few—didn’t happen by accident. Winnowing these gaps in the decades ahead requires that we know how they came to be.
The extremes will persist, of course. And sadly, we know they will be loud.
Some worry that any acknowledgment of past wrongdoing opens the door to radicalism in the present. Likewise, some believe past discrimination based on race can only be remedied by swapping who is mistreated today.
We should resist these extremes and heartily embrace romantic realism. Our nation will be better off for it—or at least 90% of it.
• Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the forthcoming book “Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation.” He has been a high school and college civics teacher for over two decades in Bakersfield, California, and was the 2014 DAR California Teacher of the Year. Mr. Adams is the first public school teacher ever inducted into the California State University, Bakersfield Hall of Fame.