Critical race theory did not tarry long before its transformation into a thundering fact — from God’s lips to your ears, to flip a phrase.
You might even posit that the idea of critical race theory actually being a theory, at least in the minds of its advocates, might be highly theoretical.
Imagine, for instance, that fellow with the long beard coming down off Mt. Sinai with two tablets, telling the assembled he’d been given 10 “theories” to share.
Only from the tone of his voice you just know he feels otherwise.
That’s sort of where “critical race theory” resides in some precincts. They say “theory” and don’t mean it. Get on board or join the Egyptians gargling in the Red Sea.
How well this does the purposes of democracy — much less advances the interests of Virginia, one way or another — is highly debatable. Political progress on racial subjects, tough under the best of circumstances, almost always benefits from persuasive effort.
You’d want to say, “Look, set aside the theory for a while and let’s walk through history a bit and see where we agree — then maybe you’ll better appreciate my perspective.”
But you don’t see a lot of that going on. Pointing an accusatory finger, rendering denunciations, especially on the subject of race, seems so much more fun.
It’s already a little sensitive. I wrote about critical race theory a few weeks ago and soon found a high-ranking state education official in my ear, saying, “No, no, we’re not teaching that stuff.”
It’s not in the catechism, he insisted. Not dogma. Yet.
But rummage around in assorted education websites and you detect the broad outlines of this theory — that the relative levels of stinkiness in the general population, now and long before, can be organized by race — to be assumed.
Not only have the lines have been drawn, but you’re either “fer it” or “agin it” and woe be to anyone straddling the thing.
It’s a funny way to do democracy and generally useful only if you’re in Bert Lahr mode, attired as the Cowardly Lion, bellowing “If I were king of the forest!”
So let’s bring Goethe, Germany’s poet/scientist, into the conversation, because he had this terrific formulation about the habits of the human mind when attempting to sort out what’s true.
I hasten to state that my accumulated insights into Goethe are not impressive. But I encountered him in Weimar years ago, standing there in bronze next to Schiller in a town square, and thought, well, I need to know these guys better.
Helpful in that regard was Peter Watson, long a newspaper editor with the London Sunday Times, who a decade ago published “The German Genius.”
Goethe realized, says Watson, that scientific facts are “often as not, interpretations that owe as much to the scientist himself as to what is ‘out there.’”
Not only that, “the mark of the modern scientist is possession of sufficient reflective skills to distinguish between himself, his language and the object of his investigation.”
And here’s the key in regards to critical race theory (or any other politically grounded theory): “[The scientist] must avoid turning perceptions into concepts and concepts into words and then operating with these words as if they were objects.”
That’s essentially a call for humility, I think, for not getting ahead of ourselves.
All the things, in other words, no one wants to do these days.
Just this last week, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona appeared for a website interview and got into some of the current debate, insisting, “Our educators know what they’re doing.”
My problem is that I’m not even sure my doctor always knows what he’s doing. As a general proposition, yes, I listen and heed. I respect his learning and skills. Same goes for other professionals, including teachers.
But blanket declarations of “they know what they’re doing” tend to be unavailing in many settings and most particularly in the caldron of political disagreement.
Watson quotes Goethe saying, “Nature emerges from an unknown centre” and evolves “to an unrecognizable border …. all we can do is try to ‘overhear’ her secrets.”
Which I take to be a workable argument for not trying to lock things down too soon, for perhaps nudging matters forward, a step at a time, drawing people toward some semblance of agreement.
Ditch the label “critical race theory,” along with the angry posturing and, just guessing, there may be some working consensus out there about our path forward.
That’s my theory.
After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co., the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.