An article in The Economist reviews the issues surrounding the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public schools. It is an instructive report, although, I will argue, not correctly related to the economic way of looking at the social world. (See “‘Critical Race Theory’ Is Being Weaponized. What’s the Fuss About?” July 14, 2022.)

Originally focused on racial discrimination, CRT is now often seen as encompassing all “woke” ideas, including sex and “gender.” I am not sure that The Economist is right in attributing this extension only to conservatives who are fighting CRT. It must be noted that CRT is an application of a more general and older strand of analysis called “critical theory,” which challenges classical liberal institutions with a Marxist-influenced methodology.

The Economist estimates that some CRT is part of the curriculum for at most a third of pupils in American public schools, generally on an optional basis; it is on the contrary restricted by state law in a third of the states. What passes as CRT is certainly biased against individual liberty, but The Economist claims that its threat has been exaggerated by conservatives.

The magazine explains:

The origins of CRT go back to the 1970s. The legal theory stressed the role of “structural” racism (embedded in systems, laws and policies, rather than the individual sort) in maintaining inequality. …

Progressives stretched the scope of CRT before conservatives did. The theory has spread into concepts like “critical whiteness studies”: read “White Fragility”, by Robin DiAngelo, and you might think white people can hardly do anything about racism without inadvertently causing harm to non-whites. …

Opponents claim that pupils are being taught that white children are inherently racist, and that white pupils should feel anguish about their skin colour because of their ancestors’ actions. …

Whether framed as CRT or not, educators are incorporating progressive ideas about race, gender and more into the classroom.

Like many people, the authors of the story seem to imagine only two alternatives: ignoring injustice to racial or other social groups; or emphasizing group-identities and embarrassing or humiliating the pupils who don’t “belong” to the right group. Also, they do not mention the inescapable dilemma of public schools between propagandizing the majority’s views and teaching the basic tools that will allow each pupil to start understanding the world. (Note that we are talking about primary and secondary schools, not universities, as emphasized by Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder in an invited opinion.)

To this intellectual, educational, and political mess, a simple solution exists, inspired by a normative value that is closely associated with economics (while admitting that normative values must be distinguished from positive analysis). It would suffice that public schools teach—not in a dogmatic or proselytizing way—one basic idea of Western civilization, more clearly formulated by, and during the run-up to, the Enlightenment: only individuals count and they are or should be all equal holders of liberty. Why neither the left nor the right think that this principle is sufficient or even simply agree with it provides a key to understanding our troubled times.

An implication is that nobody should care whether a pupil is black or green, whether he has been born in a rich or poor family, whether the person has or not (to speak like the White House) birthing capabilities, etc. Another implication is that the state should neither ban nor promote CRT or any ideology, except for some minimal individualist idea as proposed above. This seems to be the way economists, with their characteristic respect for the individual and his preferences, would naturally think about the issue. Ideas along those lines can be found in James Buchanan’s book Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative. Tyler Cowen wrote a relevant piece in the New York Times several years ago: “A Profession With an Egalitarian Core” (March 16, 2013).


P.S.: As our reader Scott Gibb suggested (see his comment and my response below), my claim that “The Economist estimates that some CRT is part of the curriculum for at most a third of pupils in American public schools” requires pulling some uncertain numbers from the magazine’s hat and is thus very questionable.