The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The culture war over critical race theory looks like the one waged 50 years ago over sex education

Parents and community members attend a Loudoun County School Board meeting which included a discussion about the academic doctrine known as critical race theory, in Ashburn, Va., on June 22. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

The culture war now being waged over critical race theory is hardly the first time we have seen battles over what should and should not be taught in schools. This post looks at the similarities of the current controversy and one 50 years ago over sex education — and the goals of the people who started the wars.

Last year Republicans began accusing schools of teaching critical race theory — an academic framework that examines how laws and public policy have perpetuated systemic racism — in an attempt to indoctrinate students to reject capitalism and fuel hostility to white people.

In reality, most K-12 teachers do not teach critical race theory though many do discuss the history of racism in America. Republicans have been working in state legislatures in recent months to ban it from classrooms and to dictate what teachers can and can’t say about racism.

As this post shows, Republicans in the past have used similar tactics regarding curriculum, including back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when sex education became a topic of controversy.

This piece was written by Jennifer C. Berkshire and Jack Schneider, co-hosts of the education policy podcast “Have You Heard” and the co-authors of “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: the Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School.” Schneider is an associate professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, where he leads the Beyond Test Scores Project. An award-winning scholar and teacher, he is the author of three other books.

By Jennifer C. Berkshire and Jack Schneider

Rancorous school board meetings. Accusations of classroom indoctrination and pedagogical plots to turn children against parents. Newly formed parent groups demanding action. A flurry of legislation aimed at restricting public schools from teaching controversial topics. This front-page New York Times story could have been written yesterday, about the unfolding spectacle around critical race theory. Yet it appeared more than 50 years ago, during a previous school culture war — this one over sex education.

Education Department tries to tamp down controversy over U.S. history/civics grant program

The parallel between our present-day convulsion over race in the classroom and the sex education battles of the late 1960s and early 1970s isn’t a coincidence. Instead, it reflects the calculated use of controversy to bring the culture war into public education.

By tapping into the ire of parents, the Republican Party expanded its political coalition and returned Richard Nixon to the White House in 1972 by unprecedented margins. Republicans today are counting on similar success.

Sex education didn’t start out as controversial. During the 1960s, a consensus began to emerge around the importance of teaching children “the facts of life,” openly and honestly. Even Christian evangelist Billy Graham’s magazine, Christianity Today, gave the movement a cautious endorsement.

But a vocal minority remained fiercely opposed to sex education in the schools, and Republicans pounced on what they recognized as a potent political issue.

By 1969, 19 state legislatures were considering measures aimed at limiting or prohibiting sex education in the public schools. School board meetings descended into angry chaos as newly formed parent groups with names like Mothers Organized for Moral Stability (MOMS), organized by the arch-conservative John Birch Society, accused school officials of bringing “filth” and “pornography” into the classroom.

After the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography — appointed by outgoing president Lyndon B. Johnson — recommended sex education for the nation’s youth, Richard Nixon seized the moment, lambasting the report as “morally bankrupt.” In a public statement, Nixon declared that as long as he was in the White House, there would be “no relaxation of the national effort to control and eliminate smut from our national life.”

The substance of the crisis was almost entirely invented. A widely distributed 1968 pamphlet, for instance, asked: “Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?” Liberals protested that the facts were being distorted: teachers weren’t stripping in the classroom, having sex in front of their students, or encouraging homosexuality.

Yet the facts weren’t what mattered. Culture war, as the right had learned, could thrive on conspiracy theories and half-truths — what mattered wasn’t facts, but fear. As the pamphlet’s authors, Gordon Drake and James Hargis, put it: “If the new morality is affirmed, our children will become easy targets for Marxism and other amoral, nihilistic philosophies.”

At the root of the controversy were real anxieties. Many parents in the 1960s were uncomfortable with the idea of the public school classroom being the place where children learned about sex. The country was in the midst of a rapid cultural shift, and the sex education wars reflected that.

But instead of fostering dialogue and deliberation, Nixon and his compatriots used the moment to drive a wedge between Americans, hoping that they could cleave off a large enough majority to win. A contest run simply on the facts didn’t play to Nixon’s favor, after all.

While the current battles over critical race theory may be hyped by right-wing media and conservative organizations, Americans are divided over how schools should approach the country’s racial legacy.

What is critical race theory, and why do Republicans want to ban it in schools?

Even the enraged parent pushback against school district equity plans, or accusations that schools are “dumbing down” curriculum, reflect the all-too-real anxiety that in our grossly unequal country, one student can only get ahead at another’s expense.

Taken seriously, such concerns might be sincerely addressed in the broader work of advancing racial justice. Most of those who have been whipped into a frenzy over critical race theory do not see themselves as racists. That doesn’t mean that they have no work to do with regard to their views on race. But it does mean that there is likely a way to bring them along in the long march toward equity.

Instead, cynical political operators have weaponized that anxiety. Turning to the Nixon playbook, they’ve brought the culture war to the schools, knowing that the wedge will drive deep when it comes to children.

Families often know only the broad contours of what is being taught in classrooms, and that makes them vulnerable to claims that young people are being exploited, manipulated, or indoctrinated. So it should come as no surprise that public education is a ripe target for politically manufactured controversy.

The irony, of course, is that our schools may be the best place for learning how to live together across our differences. Given the withering of public life in America, they may even be our only such place. If we turn on each other in the schools, where else can we hope to make ourselves a nation?