What Does Today’s Battle Over “Critical Race Theory” Have in Common with the Old Battle About Evolution?

Jill Lepore’s Why The School Wars Still Rage, in the March 21, 2022, New Yorker Magazine, examines in historical perspective today’s attack on public school teaching about so-called divisive topics and “critical race theory.”  Lepore is a professor of American History at Harvard University.

Lepore traces a direct connection between the battle a hundred years ago over the teaching of evolution in public school science classes and today’s fight about the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” and divisive concepts in social studies classes: “In the nineteen-twenties, legislatures in twenty states, most of them in the South, considered thirty-seven anti-evolution measures. Kentucky’s bill, proposed in 1922… (was) the first. It banned teaching, or countenancing the teaching of, ‘Darwinism, atheism, agnosticism, or the theory of evolution in so far as it pertains to the origin of man.'”… Evolution is a theory of change. But in February—a hundred years, nearly to the day, after the Kentucky legislature debated the nation’s first anti-evolution bill, Republicans in Kentucky introduced a bill that mandates the teaching of twenty-four historical documents beginning with the 1620 Mayflower Compact and ending with Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech ‘A Time for Choosing.’… In the nineteen-twenties, the curriculum in question was biology; in the twenty-twenties, it’s history.  Both conflicts followed a global pandemic and fights over public education that pitted the rights of parents against the power of the state.”

So what does Lepore believe is the ultimate goal of extremist organizations like the Heritage Foundation who are working to inflame parents agitating about what to teach children and adolescents about the history of our nation and our society?  “(T)his fight isn’t really about history. It’s about political power. Conservatives believe they can win midterm elections, and maybe even the Presidency, by whipping up a frenzy about ‘parents’ rights,’ and many are also in it for another long game, a hundred years’ war: the campaign against public education.”

In some detail, Lepore traces the long fight at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century by parents seeing to protect their own rights against the right of the state to establish compulsory school attendance and vaccine mandates. The teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution became part of this battle: “When anti-evolutionists condemned ‘evolution,’ they meant something as vague and confused as what people mean, today, when they condemn ‘critical race theory.’ Anti-evolutionists weren’t simply objecting to Darwin, whose theory of evolution had been taught for more than half a century. They were objecting to the whole Progressive package, including its philosophy of human betterment, its model of democratic citizenship and its insistence on the interest of the state in free and equal public education as a public good that prevails over the private interests of parents.”

The battle over parents’ rights continued into the rebellion against racial integration that followed the 1954, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, as Mississippi Senator James Eastland argued that: “‘Free men have the right to send their children to schools of their own choosing’…. By the end of the nineteen-fifties, segregationists had begun using a new catchphrase: ‘school choice,’ maybe because it would have been confusing to call for ‘parents’ rights’ when they were also arguing for ‘states’ rights.'”

What are parents really protesting when they mob school board meetings and press legislators to introduce laws against the teaching of “divisive” concepts? “A century ago, parents who objected to evolution were rejecting the entire Progressive package. Today’s parents’-rights groups like Moms for Liberty, are objecting to a twenty-first-century Progressive package. They’re balking at compulsory vaccination and masking, and some of them do seem to want to destroy public education. They’re also annoyed at the vein of high-handedness, moral crusading, and snobbery that stretches from old-fashioned Progressivism to the modern kind, laced with the same contempt for the rural poor and the devoutly religious.”

But on a deeper level, Lepore believes parents are attacking the public purpose of public schooling in an attempt to protect their own personal parochialism and bias. Parents’ fight to assert their rights as individuals over the rights of the public defines both the old battle over teaching about evolution and today’s “critical race theory” controversy:

“(A)cross the past century, behind parents’ rights, lies another unbroken strain: some Americans’ fierce resistance to the truth that, just as all human beings share common ancestors biologically, all Americans have common ancestors historically. A few parents around the country may not like their children learning that they belong to a much bigger family—whether it’s a human family or an American family—but the idea of public education is dedicated to the cultivation of that bigger sense of covenant, toleration, and obligation.”

Lepore continues: “In the end, no matter what advocates of parents’ rights say, and however much political power they might gain, public schools don’t have a choice: they’ve got to teach, as American history, the history not only of the enslaved Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 and the English families who sailed to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620, but also that of the Algonquian peoples, who were already present in both places, alongside the ongoing stories of all the other Indigenous peoples, and those who came afterward—the Dutch, German, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Cambodian, Guatemalan, Japanese, Sikh, Hmong, Tunisian, Afghani, everyone.  That’s why parents don’t have a right to choose the version of American history they like best, a story of only their own family’s origins. Instead the state has an obligation to welcome children into that entire history, their entire inheritance.”