Radical Pluralism

Last week’s New York Times had a fascinating profile of Robin DiAngelo.  Now that her work is so ubiquitous, it’s interesting to see some reviewers and readers giving her work much closer scrutiny. When I read her book “White Fragility” last year, I had not read many books in the critical theory tradition, so I was quite taken aback by some of the claims she made and new definitions she proposed. I thought some of her ideas were extremely promising and some deeply questionable. Yet it was difficult to find much substantive discussion of it online or in the press.

But just a year later, DiAngelo is in the news so much, we’re starting to see people writing about her and discussing her work more carefully.  This NYT profile was a good example: it’s pretty balanced, and a few times the author, Daniel Bergner, probes deeper to get at some of the more latent issues.  I thought there were some really interesting things to think about — particularly for those of us who work in schools.

Before I get into that, I want to say that I think critical theory — understanding it, evaluating it, and being able to spot it — is starting to seem really, really important to me right now in order to understand where our culture is heading.  As I mentioned, I didn’t have much experience with critical theory before this past year, but as an avowed free speech nerd who was paying attention to the increasingly common battles over language and expression, I began to get the sense that there was definitely something out there that was pushing back on traditional liberal norms. This wasn’t just about adding more voices to the marketplace of ideas. There was something else going on. That something else, I’m now realizing, is critical theory.

It can be pretty hard to understand critical theory and its various intersections with post-modernism (and even the classic spirit of liberal inquiry itself) but I am learning. One of the most interesting critiques inherent in critical theory — which I can now see is a lot of what’s lurking behind DiAngelo’s work — is its critique of the very idea of “objective” knowledge or cultural standards.  It points out the biases and blind spots of what we sometimes consider “universal.”

This article really gets at this well. The author, Bergner, writes about how DiAngelo and several of the antiracism trainers question what would seem to be basic tenets of American society on the grounds that these beliefs represent an oppressive white culture and a legacy of oppression.  One example is being considered an “expert” through the completion of traditional credentialing programs, including the accruing of advanced degrees.  Another is “an obsession with the written word’; others include “individualism,” “Protestant work ethic,” “worship of data,” “worship of the written word,” “perfectionism,” and even “denial.” A lot of these reservations — straight critical theory — were brought up back when New York City teachers were given this same kind of presentation a year or two ago.  Bergner admits that some of this “sounds anti-intellectual by mainstream standards.”

I think the critique that formal education itself is oppressive is probably not going to get legs anytime soon — even though it’s surely true that the meritocratic arms race of college admissions / endless credentialing represents a pretty toxic system at best.  

But the rest of those critiques really seem like they’re targeting not just excesses of capitalism, but the Enlightenment itself. Rationality, data, reason — even science itself comes in for some criticism here. Bergner quotes DiAngelo:

The modern university, it says, “with its ‘experts’ and its privileging of particular forms of knowledge over others (e.g., written over oral, history over memory, rationalism over wisdom)” has “validated and elevated positivistic, White Eurocentric knowledge over non-White, Indigenous and non-European knowledges.” 

Although she’s talking about colleges, she might as well be talking about K-12 schools as well. Either way, this whole line of criticism leaves me more than a little dizzy because it seems to be questioning the very basic principles of our educational system. Certainly many of these ideas descend from a western tradition, but so does our Constitution, our system of law and justice, and . . . so much else of what we base our notions of education on. I get the critique of the “universality” of Enlightenment values. But — what’s the alternative? It’s hard not to wonder: If not these values, then what are we left with?

Even Bergner seems incredulous when DiAngelo expresses the belief that top law firms should not hire for “rationalism” but for “resilience and compassion.” He writes that he believes she is “entertaining an alternate and even revolutionary reality.”

The author of the piece asks other antiracism trainers and writers the same question, and comes away with a number of similarly idealistic visions.  One invoked, “a journey toward ‘a new world, a world, first and foremost, where we have elevated the consciousness, where we pay attention to the human being.’” 

Another antiracist trainer, Darnisa Amante-Jackson, “. . . sounded all but Utopian as she envisioned a movement away “from capitalist, Western” ideals and described a future education system that would be transformed: built around students’ “telling their stories and listening to the stories of others” and creating “in us the feeling that we belong to each other as people.” 

It’s hard not to feel as though what we are seeing is a move — via critical theory — away from the Enlightenment and toward a kind of Romanticism, a sort of Utopian dream with no clear cultural standards that dominate, no competition, a respect for a wide variety of cultural expressions at the highest rungs of society. (Or — perhaps more accurately — there would be no highest rungs of society!)

Ibram Kendi is also quoted and he is the most honest and direct:

“I think Americans need to decide whether this is a multicultural nation or not,” he said. “If Americans decide that it is, what that means is we’re going to have multiple cultural standards and multiple perspectives. It creates a scenario in which we would have to have multiple understandings of what achievement is and what qualifications are. That is part of the problem. We haven’t decided, as a country, even among progressives and liberals, whether we desire a multicultural nation or a unicultural nation.”

I thought this really put a great point on what the others are saying.  Are we going to value multiple ways of “achieving,” generating knowledge, or understanding?  And if so, what does that look like (if not the most hands-off sort of relativism)? And is it possible or even desirable? To what extent can we, as a society, and still remain a somewhat unified country?  To what extent can radical pluralism be our main goal as a country and yet we’re still able to talk to each other, to share a common language and set of values and ideals?  And even then, what is allowed to be a guiding ideal?  After all, aren’t many of our founding principles as a country the products of “western” values and of the Enlightenment?

Don’t get me wrong — the evils of capitalism, meritocracy, data-worship, and work-at-all-costs mentalities all deserve to be critiqued.  And nothing is universal, nothing is forever, nothing is ever absolute and not subject to influence and revision; that’s what our democracy is all about. I also think that one of the ills of racism is that minority groups are unfairly *perceived* to be less rational, less “expert,” or less [whatever-is-valued] by-employers.  That is a real problem.  And even then, I think our country should always be evolving — is always evolving — in terms of what we value and prize. 

It’s just hard for me to imagine the kind of truly pluralistic country that many of these thinkers seem to suggest.  I think this article does a good job of at least bringing those views to light — the actual substance behind what critical theory actually wants turns out to look a lot more Romantic, at least to my eyes.

And for teachers, it brings up the age-old question that we’ve faced since the beginning of time:  Is our goal to educate students for the world as it is (competitive, capitalistic, prizing of rationality/science/Enlightenment values), or for the world as it should be (in the view of these thinkers, a far more Utopian, less competitive, more tolerant place)?

It’s an important question and that’s why schools are such great places to work — they are always at the center of our debates over the kind of country this should be.