“We started learning how to spell in school today, Mom! ‘A is for AK-47,’ the kind of gun the Revolution used to kill the Yankee traitors at the Bay of Pigs!”

That was the report of an American first-grader attending school in Havana, whose parents were diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in the communist island nation. The bilingual Hispanic couple wanted their young son to have a Spanish-language-based education and so had decided to send him to a Cuban school. Instead of learning the alphabet the way we do in the U.S. (think “A is for apple, B is for banana”), the child came home with “A is for assault rifle.” The Cuban teacher had even provided a line drawing of an AK-47 for the children to color for homework.

That is indoctrination.

A rally last month by Virginia parents concerned about critical race theory in Loudoun County was headlined “Education not indoctrination.” The governor of Iowa, signing a law recently that restricts teaching about racism, referred to critical race theory as “discriminatory indoctrination.”

Critical race theory is not indoctrination — is it?

The parents in Cuba were understandably horrified, and they abandoned the project of sending their first-grader to a Cuban school. They had signed up for Spanish-language education, not government-sponsored political indoctrination. They moved their first-grader to the international school in Cuba, which served the diplomatic and foreign business community using an international teaching staff.

I worked overseas during most of my 30-year CIA career, often in countries run by authoritarian regimes, and I have seen plenty of official government indoctrination in schools. Here’s a rule of thumb: If your kid comes home from school talking about Soviet assault rifles in a good way, there’s probably political indoctrination going on in their classroom. If they come home discussing actual historical events, however unpleasant, it’s not indoctrination. It’s education.

“Education, not indoctrination” is a statement on which most rational people can agree, regardless of political affiliation. Opponents of critical race theory consider it to be indoctrination; supporters do not. Who is right? It depends on what is being taught. Nobody, for example, supports teaching that all White people are inherently evil. Few would seriously assert that each and every part of American history is inherently and necessarily racist, either. That would be tantamount to claiming that civil rights heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. and others were actually anti-Black racists — a claim most would correctly dismiss as ridiculous. Right-wing agitators have become adept at making false claims about what critical race theory actually is. They then try to leverage these false representations to incite fear among parents, teachers and communities across the country.

Can anyone make a cogent argument against trying to determine the truth, even if it highlights the existence of racism in America? Surely not. Similarly, can anyone really argue that racism — not just individual racism but structural racism — is not an important part of American history? Again, surely not.

Significant thought and scholarship have gone into what is being referred to as critical race theory. If you look it up on the Internet, you usually find references to its being a somewhat arcane area of legal study developed in the 1970s and ’80s. The politicization of the theory, and its deployment in today’s culture wars has resulted in a muddying of the intellectual waters for a theory originally designed to more closely examine the undeniable role racism plays in the United States.

One does not have to be a scholar to understand, at least in layman’s terms, what critical race theorists are getting at. Most of their fundamental ideas are not even that controversial: First, anti-Black racism has a long history in American law, and some racist elements remain embedded in our legal system; second, and related to the first, anti-Black racism is still present not just in our legal system, but also in our overall system of governance; third, anti-Black racism on both the individual and systemic levels in America is much more prevalent than most Whites believe.

Critical race theory’s detractors believe that our educational systems should be protected from its basic tenets. They claim that focusing on racism as a key element of American history will divide the country and make students feel too guilty for things they may never have done personally. They fear it will threaten the republic.

But what is the alternative?

Cautionary tales from countries that have been unwilling to face up to unpleasant elements of their history abound. Russia and the former Soviet Union are excellent examples. The Russian government takes an aggressive policy stance about what is taught in Russian schools concerning Russian or Soviet history. The Kremlin mandates, for example, that Stalin be portrayed as a strong leader who provided a firm hand when the Soviet Union faced the existential threat of Nazi Germany. Never mind that Stalin also sent untold millions of his own citizens to their deaths in the Soviet Gulag system. Never mind Stalin’s use of the Soviet security services to conduct murderous purges of his political adversaries and allies, and never mind that Stalin authorized show trials and propaganda to justify his murders. Little if any of that is taught in Russian schools. Today, over half a century later, Stalin continues to be named one of the most popular leaders in Russia.

Hopefully, Americans fighting against critical race theory do not intend to proceed down the path Stalin’s U.S.S.R. and now Putin’s Russia have taken. Russia and other authoritarian regimes (think China, Iran, North Korea) are quick to defensively point out that Western democracies are far from perfect. Indeed, China and Russia both actively advocate that their forms of government are valid and even superior to democracy, despite horrific human rights records, a lack of many basic freedoms, and unacceptable international behavior. The correct response to these assertions is that while it is certainly true that no democracy has an unblemished history, democratic nations can and should be truthful about the dark parts of their pasts. In fact, the critical study of history, free of political interference, is a key distinction between democratic and authoritarian traditions. A willingness to engage in fact-based scholarship on even the worst elements of a nation’s past is a good indicator of a healthy democracy. Germany’s educational policies regarding the Nazis and World War II are perhaps the best example of this.

I’ve seen how denial of history works out in authoritarian regimes. Americans should want no part of it.