Who will fight for an ‘unjust’ nation?
Education policy is now the front-line of the “culture war.” The sorts of currents that embody “critical race theory” have been present in the academy for several decades, particularly in education departments. But the Black Lives Matter protests during 2020’s pseudo-revolutionary summer, and Mr. Trump’s actions in the last three months of his presidency, have made the otherwise arcane issue of curricular reform a central political question. Republican state legislatures and governors in Texas, Tennessee, and Florida have advocated banning critical race theory derived curriculum, while Idaho has banned it outright. By contrast, California Democrats have adopted the “Model Ethnic Studies Curriculum,” while the Biden administration’s Education Department has announced that it will favor institutions that implement similar pedagogical material.
That American children are the country’s future is as much a cliché as it is undeniable. So, Americans on both left and right take a distinct interest in curricular standards, particularly when those standards make a clear statement about American moral and historical dignity.
Government has a clear role to play in education if we agree that political life is meant to shape human ends. There was a time when the American system, that is, the federal system, left these issues to state discretion. Some states mandated certain standards, others refrained, while all provided significant space for moral education provided by religious institutions. Indeed, the Department of Education only became a cabinet-level agency in 1979 under Jimmy Carter, an action of dubious constitutionality, but one that Republicans accepted after much handwringing in the 1980s. The Obama administration expanded the Education Department’s purview in 2010 with its “Race to the Top” grants that provided cash incentives for the adoption of Common Core.
Thus, our current predicament. Education is now one of many federal governmental tasks, yet another activity that “we do together.” And we must endure another increasingly counterproductive national conversation that will succeed in only one respect: It will reveal even more starkly that Americans live in two moral universes, speak two different political languages, and have two antithetical conceptions of history.
Perhaps it is these very contradictions that the American regime is meant to endure. The federal system as the Founders envisioned it is the object of sustained radical assault. Its last vestiges — the Senate, Electoral College, and Supreme Court — are under attack, in particular by those who advocate critical race theory; nevertheless, a society based upon the market, as our liberal society is, may still diffuse our tensions, at least if business understands its role as business, rather than faux censor.
Any political system’s foremost objective is survival. Opinion to the contrary, at least in Western political thought, stems from the Christian idea of Caritas, the love of God. Augustine, the first Christian philosopher of the highest rank, was the progenitor of this contrary view: that political survival is subordinated to other, moral ends. It is unsurprising that our post-Christian society, whose burgher-citizens are uncertain about their theological, intellectual, and historical progenitors, still retains this now-secularized view, expressed through democratic adventurism and sneering moralism.
Put more precisely, it is not that the statesman is justified in any action provided it contributes to survival; rather, when considering international issues, the statesman must make survival his central concern. A political unit that cannot survive can provide neither security nor happiness to its citizens.
Critical race theory, and the “woke” ideology it undergirds, is inextricably linked to national security. What men and women will volunteer to defend a state whose claim to democratic virtue is contradicted by an educational system that paints the U.S. as an oppressor?
Notwithstanding American history’s complexity — including a compromise over slavery in the Constitution and the brutal treatment of blacks in the post-bellum South — critical race theory moves far beyond historical evidence. It claims that the Founding represented not a prudential compromise with slavery necessitated by the likelihood of European imperial predation, but instead an embrace of slavery and a denial of the humanity of black Americans. It claims that every institution in American life — from the market to the legislature, judiciary, police system, and even at times the education system — was designed to deny black Americans dignity, even those institutions created long after Emancipation. It claims that every American foreign policy decision (it naturally picks the choicest morsels) was guided by white supremacy and that white supremacy undergirds the dozens of intersectional injustices that pervade American life, economic, sexual, gender-related, or otherwise.
A nation that is to survive must use force, not continuously, but at least from time to time. Indeed, the only proven method of preventing violence is preparing for violence. Thus, the U.S. maintains a military force capable, at least in theory, of defending its interests globally. And its interests are naturally global, given its economic power, population size, geography, and dependence upon the sea. It therefore faces several competitors, most importantly China, but also Russia and Iran, all of which are willing to use force to achieve their ends. In Xinjiang province, the Chinese Communist Party is conducting the largest ethnically targeted forced internment and genocide since the Holocaust. Putin’s Russia poisons dissidents at will. The self-styled Islamic Republic murders identified homosexuals and sponsors the terrorist groups that would happily behead their sectarian and religious enemies. These are regimes run by hard men who understand no language other than force. They view equivocation and introspection as weakness and will capitalize.
War is a young man’s activity. The U.S. military is no exception. Most of all enlisted soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are under 35, and the plurality — in the Marines’ case, nearly 70 percent — are under 25. Today’s youth in primary and secondary education will be tomorrow’s soldiers. Nor should the possibility of a draft be discounted, especially if a short, brutal war with China becomes a long, simmering conflict.
Teaching young men and women that their nation was founded on oppression, that its system of government was designed to eliminate the dignity of its non-white citizens, and that its actions abroad are marked by colonial racialism will not produce citizens willing to endure hardship for their country, let alone risk dying for it.
Since Jan. 6, the subject of military extremism has been in vogue. Naturally, rather than asking why it may be that veterans are generally more conservative, recognizing the gulf between blue and red America, and sparking a real national conversation about value and purpose, President Biden, backed by his party, has expressed solemn concern over “military extremism,” directed the Defense Department to execute another of its optically useful stand-downs, and moved on his merry way.
American military service is already regionalized. Of the 1 percent of the U.S. population under arms, rural, non-coastal, religious, conservative states are drastically overrepresented. And most new recruits come from military families, further distinguishing the Armed Forces from society.
At best, then, curricular divides between red and blue states will intensify the military’s affinity to one political party. At worst, the Federalization and transformation of all American education policy could cripple the U.S. military’s ability to recruit young people who will not swear an oath to defend with their lives the Constitution of a nation they have been taught is morally repugnant.
In 1933, the Oxford Union adopted the resolution “this house will under no circumstances fight for its King and country.” Those Oxford students came of age in a world traumatized by the Great War. But scarcely a decade later, many of the same young men would be fighting in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and northern France. Out of necessity or perhaps a simple change of heart they rose to the occasion.
Today we are witnessing a significant movement to adopt the 1933 Oxford Union’s sentiments in far more radical form without the post-traumatic stress of a global war that killed 1.35 million young men of the U.K.
American radicals can rename schools, tear down statues, censor, cancel, and revise history: The long-term question is whether succeeding generations of Americans will respect their country enough to defend it.
Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a U.S. naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy.
Harry Halem, a research associate at Hudson and graduate student at the London School of Economics, contributed to this op-ed.