Michael J. Bakalis, Ph.D

Michael J. Bakalis, Ph.D

Teaching students how to think, not what to think

By Michael J. Bakalis Ph.D

As one who earned a Ph.D in American history and has taught and written about this subject for many years, I like to think that perhaps I bring some credibility to a current topic engaging our nation.

The discussion of Critical Race Theory and the New York Times “1619” project has opened a needed discussion about the role of race in our history and contemporary life. Unfortunately, much of it is not based on historical fact and has unnecessarily contributed to further pitting Americans against each other.

First, it is important to state what anyone who has studied our history must conclude. Our country, like many others as well, has a long history of racism, bigotry and xenophobia, from the day those first settlers came to Jamestown in 1607. Anyone who denies or ignores that basic fact is frankly uninformed or deliberately chooses to ignore the most obvious facts. From our earliest days, our national story, while positive and exceptional in many ways, has also been one of discrimination, bigotry, racism and often violence toward individuals of a particular religion, race or ethnicity.

GSWNH MichaelBakalis 030422

Michael J. Bakalis, Ph.D

The pages of books that relate our true and full story report discrimination and violence against Native Americans, Jews, Hispanics, Germans, Irish, Protestants of one kind or another, Catholics, Asians and southern and eastern Europeans.

Of course, the oldest and most persistent case of bigotry and racism is that against black people of African origin. Today’s African-Americans often argue that the way history is taught to our children, especially in the case of slavery, is often too incomplete, skimmed over too quickly, or even ignored or minimized.

With this charge, and with discrimination issues generally, they are often correct. We should not forget that it took 300 years for a Catholic, John Kennedy, to become president, almost 380 years for a person with an ethnic sounding name, Michael Dukakis, to even be nominated for president by a major political party, and 400 years for one of African descent, Barack Obama, to be elected president.

That is our true history and it should be taught truthfully. But that is not what we are too often experiencing today.

The “1619” project rightfully has brought to a wide audience the devastating impact the issue of black slavery has had on America, and the legacy of that original American sin which has continued long after Abraham Lincoln ended it.

But to make assertions, like the 1619 project does, that the underlying cause of the American Revolution was the issue of slavery, because the American colonists thought the British wanted to end it, is simply wrong and based on no credible historical evidence or scholarship.

But the underlying foundations of the ideas embodied in what is called Critical Race Theory are even more uninformed and misguided. Unfortunately, in today’s political decisive climate, those who question any aspects of CRT are immediately labeled as racist or even absurdly called white supremacist. Such charges and labels are truly absurd and based on lack of study or simply ignorance of our historical past.

Two points need to be immediately made. The first is that it is difficult to really get a clear picture of what ideas or concepts are held by those promoting CRT, although there seem to be some generally agreed-upon concepts.

Secondly, it is important to state that Critical Race Theory has one very important word in its title- and that word is “theory.” The word “theory” is defined in the Merriam dictionary as ”an idea that is suggested or proposed as possibly true but that is not known or proven to be true,” and that definition appears to exactly fit the current controversy surrounding CRT. Note the keywords in the definition: “idea,” “suggested or proposed,” “not proven.”

We should recall that history is full of “theories.” There was a time when people believed a theory that the sun revolves around the earth. Galileo prove that theory wrong. For centuries, people believed the theory that the world was flat. Columbus proved the error of that theory, as well.

Critical Race Theory seems to agree on some basic tenants. First, that one must view the totality of the American experience through the lens of race–that race underlies all the major laws, institutions, developments and events of American history. A second idea is that white people, whether they know it or not, have racist biases and that these so-called “facts” have created and maintained the political, social and economic inequalities between whites and other people of color.

Today, regardless of whether the idea was part of CRT, many of its advocates argue that current living whites must admit their inherent racism and bear the burden of guilt about racist ideas and practices which were never part of their lives and happened years, if not centuries, before they were born.

To claim that the only way to understand American history is to view it solely through the lens of race is not only overly simplistic, but wrong. It is as wrong as those who claim that all of our history can be explained by viewing everything through the lens of economics.

Human beings are complex and do things for multiple reasons. Sometimes it may be for self-serving economics, but things also happen because of ambition, idealism, altruism and religious conviction as well.

For any theory to claim with absolute certainty that all white people are biased, whether they know it or acknowledge it, is simply an “opinion” and one based on no credible evidence. Certainly, many whites do have those biases and prejudices, but contrary to advocates of CRT, so do blacks and other people of color. To state that blacks or other people of color have no such prejudices is frankly ridiculous.

Finally, to advocate that all whites must bear the guilt of what previous generations of whites have done to African-Americans is absurd and divisive. The true history of white involvement in American slavery, Jim Crowism and continued discrimination should be taught, but not to make contemporary Americans of any color feel a sense of continued shame or guilt.

Slavery was not some unique institution invented by white Americans. The ancient Greeks and Romans had slaves, Middle East Arabs had slaves, the Chinese had slaves, Africans had slaves. Should today’s people of all those places carry guilt as well? German students born in the 21st century should certainly learn the true history of the Holocaust and of Nazi atrocities, but should they carry lifelong guilt about it? What about the black Africans who captured fellow Africans and brought them to the white slave traders in centuries past? Should African-Americans today bear guilt of what those African slave procurers did centuries ago? We should learn about historical tragedies, mistakes, and dedicate ourselves to not repeat them again, but they should not be things that divide us.

Another idea in the mix of CRT is that of “white privilege.” No informed person can doubt that being white in America has been of enormous benefit over what it has meant by being black. But once again, to claim that all whites have and continue to live successfully in our nation because of their skin color ignores both history and modern America. I doubt the millions of white immigrants who came to America from Italy, Greece, Russia, Poland and other southern and eastern European countries felt they had “white privilege.”

From 1890 to 1924, a national movement supported by American presidents took place to keep those white people out of the country. Jews were labeled as “retarded” and today constitute 22% of Nobel Prize winners in the entire word, and 36% of Americans who have won that coveted prize. In 1924 we made it national policy, saying that we didn’t want those “white” people from southern and eastern Europe in the nation.

One must wonder if today’s 17,328,200 white people in our country who today live in poverty, which is twice the number of the 8,000,244, blacks living in poverty, wake up every morning grateful that they have “white privilege.”

The problem of CRT in our schools is that too many schools have reacted to the pressure of not wanting to be labeled as bigoted or unconsciously racist and have instituted even distorted what they believe CRT to be all about. For example, a student at a public school in Nevada was originally denied graduation because he would not, as was required by the school, publicly announce his racial identity and acknowledge his “privilege.“ His school also required students to agree to the idea that “people of color cannot be racist.”

Our schools need to strive to be inclusive of students of every race, ethnicity, religious background and sexual orientation. Together, all students should learn the tools and methods of gathering facts, analyzing them and be actively engaged in inquiry learning. They will learn that race and bigotry and discrimination have indeed been part of not only our history, but of world history as well.

But they need not conclude that they must carry forever self-guilt or privilege. They will be informed about our true history with facts, and be prepared to work together to make the nation better.

Learning how to think, not indoctrinating students about what to think, is what education is about. That is exactly what the “Harbridge Way” is about.

Michael J. Bakalis, Ph.D is founder, president and chief executive officer of American Quality Schools, which plans to establish Harbridge College Prep in the Midway International Airport area.

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