I have taught this course for close to a quarter-century, and it has evolved in those years. My first syllabus started with Thucydides, ended with Thomas Schelling, and only had dead white men in between. That did not seem particularly extraordinary in the late ’90s. In the ensuing decades, however, students began to ask about the possibility of non-Western classics. Also, maybe some things written by women?
The students had a valid point, and so I adapted. The course still starts with Thucydides, but now it usually ends with Ann Tickner. In between we read Kautilya, Ibn Khaldûn, or the Chinese military classics. Next time I teach this course Lenin’s “Imperialism” will be paired with W.E.B. DuBois’s “On the Culture of White Folk.” Who knows, I might add a 19th century lady scholar in the future.
This diversification of my syllabus neither waters down standards nor stultifies class discussions. My students have found plenty to debate about Ibn Khaldûn and Tickner as well as Thucydides, Kant, Lenin and Carl Schmitt. One of the goals of the course is to make my students intellectually (but not personally) uncomfortable. These selections do an excellent job of that.
The evolution of my course probably reflects larger trends in the teaching of international relations. In recent years my discipline, like many, has wrestled with questions of sexism, racism, and how to confront these issues in our scholarship and in our teaching. To my knowledge, critical race theory, a legal doctrine, has not played a role. The IR equivalents have made some illuminating points, though the pedagogy and graduate syllabi has not changed that much.
I tell you all of this to say that my scholarly world bears almost no relation to Gerard Baker’s caricature of it in the Wall Street Journal when he writes about the effect of critical race theory on higher education:
The crisis engulfing our institutions represents the struggle for ascendancy of an ideology that is literally the antithesis of the educational values that have driven the West’s unrivaled economic, social and technological progress for the past few centuries.Critical race theory — and its various postmodern cousins — is not some interesting interpretation of social and political history that we are free to examine, embrace or discard. Its proponents do not seek to frame a critique of modern America to be tested alongside alternatives.They insist that a traditionally liberal approach to evaluating the merits of competing ideas is itself an outgrowth of an illegitimate system of oppression. Rejection of their critique is the product of false consciousness, since critical thought is itself invalid, the product of white male hegemony.
Okay, first of all, I don’t know what Baker was doing while studying at Oxford, but it sure as heck was not learning about postmodernism. Most postmodern theory is exactly the kind of “interesting interpretation of social and political history that we are free to examine, embrace or discard.”
Second of all, Baker’s claims about critical race theory would have a whiff of validity if he could have cited at least one example of a CRT text (a problem CRT’s critics have had this month). Or, Baker could have pointed to one university that is so under the thumb of critical race theory that more liberal or even conservative modes of thought had been pushed out. Indeed, the absolutism of Baker’s contempt for CRT appears to be matched by state efforts to purge it from public universities. In other words, right now there is an illiberal effort to purge allegedly illiberal thought from campuses.
Third, vacuous op-eds such as Baker’s make it hard not to conclude that the entire political debate over critical race theory is nothing more than a conservative crusade to find a wedge issue, any wedge issue, that will have political legs in 2022. I have my doubts it will work, but more importantly, it means I do not need to take it seriously.
Somewhere nestled in all this disingenuousness, maybe a valid debate could be had -- not about what is taught in schools so much as the utility of the diversity trainings that most large organizations (including schools) now must endure. The problem is that the disingenuousness is so bilious that engaging with it is pointless.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts will welcome stories that demonstrate how critical race theory is dislodging or censoring the small-l liberal approach to higher education. Until then, however, perhaps Baker and his colleagues could test their assumptions and conclusions for even the faintest glimmer of empirical validity.