Educators: Critical race theory 'more of an ideology' than curriculum in South Dakota high schools
Three educators agree that most teachers in South Dakota do not subscribe to the tenets of critical race theory.
MITCHELL — As students filed into Steve Morgan’s AP American History class recently at Mitchell High School, they were greeted with a list of topics on the whiteboard at the front of the class.
This list is a thorough rundown of events that helped shape a turbulent time in United States history. It focuses on the 1960s and topics including the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Discussion for the day will also include lecture on the women’s rights movement and figures like Phyllis Schlafly, who opposed ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Morgan presents to the class as students take notes, answer questions and sometimes pose questions of their own. He makes his way through his presentation notes, pointing out some of the controversial aspects of the topics they’re covering.
“I try to present both sides,” Morgan told the Mitchell Republic, “and then I try to make sure that I stay as unbiased as I possibly can and as objective as I can. Therefore the kids don’t see me favoring one side or the other. That’s what usually gets a teacher in trouble — when they favor one side over the other side.”
It’s a balance teachers of all stripes strive to find in their classrooms when covering sensitive or divisive topics that inevitably come up. And it’s one that has been front and center of some recent political discussions, with some observers railing against teaching approaches like critical race theory.
Teaching in the age of CRT
Critical race theory is an academic concept where the idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. The subject has been a hot button topic in the last year, with opposition to the practice reaching as high as the South Dakota governor’s office, where Gov. Kristi Noem recently signed a bill limiting CRT training at state public universities.
Opposition to the theory has also popped up at local school board meetings, where members of the public have implored districts to avoid the teaching style in its history classes. The Mitchell Board of Education has stressed that teachers in the district do not use the teaching method, but the perception of danger surrounding the theory remains.
Morgan, who has been teaching for over 30 years, said he does not subscribe to the critical race theory philosophy and approaches his classes with an eye toward making sure he brings a straight-forward, fact-based lesson to his students that welcomes thoughtful discussion.
“Each class is different and has its own personality. Some classes will react with a lot of discussion, and they will go on and on about something,” Morgan said.
He said a critical race theory-based class would look very different from what students find in his classroom.
“(In a critical race theory based class) I think they would see a very biased presentation of race relations in this country. My understanding is CRT is more of an ideology. It’s not a program or a curriculum, it’s a way of thinking about the world and how the races relate to one another and whether a person is racist or not,” Morgan said. “If you’re a proponent of it, you tend to believe all people are racist, especially white people, and if a white person denies it that’s proof that they are actually racist.”
With critical race theory being a current issue, Morgan has brought it up to his students to let them know he does not subscribe to the tenets of the theory. He said he doesn’t believe that every white person is racist or that every non-white person is a victim, and that while there have been serious mistakes made by American leaders, that doesn’t mean the system is inherently flawed.
Slavery, for example, remains a dark time in United States history, but Morgan looks how leaders eventually worked to end its time in America rather than focus strongly on any systematic oppression that was later abolished in the Constitution itself.
“Slavery was our original sin, there is no doubt about it. And there’s no doubt it was entrenched in the Constitution. But what I tell (the students) is that what makes America unique is not the fact that we had slavery, and not the fact that the founders were slave owners, but what is exceptional and unbelievable and astounding is they wrote a document that would allow us to abolish it,” Morgan said.
In Scott Schultz’s history class at Bridgewater-Emery High School, the topic for the day focused on the leadup to World War II, the political and international incidents that lead to the war and some of the parallels between that time and 2022.
Schultz, who has been teaching for 32 years, also likes facts when it comes to his teaching. He couples those facts with general questions for the class and then engages in discussion that comes up. He limits giving his own opinions unless pressed by the class, and even then stresses that his opinions are just that — his own opinions.
“For the most part, our job is to give them the facts, explain what happened and what is factually there. It’s their decision or choice to go from there to expand on whatever they think is right or wrong,” Schultz said.
Like Morgan, Schultz said he sees no real place for critical race theory in South Dakota's classrooms. He said he does not know of any high school history teacher who subscribes to the teaching approach, and if there are those out there who do, they are the exception to the rule.
“I think in terms of South Dakota and rural and small towns, I would doubt you would find much more than one out of 10 that maybe skewed that way. It’s not fair to say that places like Rapid City or Sioux Falls do, but maybe if you got into that larger metro area maybe you’d hear about it a little more,” Schultz said.
In general, Schultz and Morgan acknowledge that in today’s political and social climate, there does seem to be a heightened sensitivity about controversial or divisive topics. That is part of the change that always comes with the passing of time and evolving sensibilities, they say.
Schultz said after three decades of teaching, he still enjoys the work, even if there are new challenges to address.
“I enjoy the curriculum on current issues and enjoy the field I’m in. It’s just been more difficult from day one to now with the student population changes and the way you do things. It’s different,” Schultz said.
David Burrow, chair of the history department at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, said critical race theory comes in two flavors — the teaching method and the political topic.
“There are two ways that the term is used. One is the way it was originally created, which is a legal academic theory that was first articulated in the 1980s and was designed to be something that you could use as an intellectual tool for figuring out why there were such unequal outcomes in healthcare and housing and how people were treated,” Burrow said. “The other way the term is used is as a political tool in the culture wars. (In that case) it doesn’t really matter what it means as long as people can be rallied against it.”
Opponents of critical race theory sometimes accuse it of being used by teachers to indoctrinate students into a particular way of thinking, specifically an anti-American way of thinking. Burrow said no matter what method of teaching an instructor uses, such indoctrination goes against the principles of teaching at any level.
“One of the concerns for people outside of colleges is that professors are indoctrinating students, but that’s not what we do. It’s actually antithetical to what we do. Nobody is going to be saying this is a theory that I believe and you have to, too. That’s illegal according to Board of Regents policy, it wouldn’t matter what (teaching method) it was,” Burrow said.
As a specialist in European history, Burrow had not regularly encountered critical race theory in his studies, but some of his colleagues have and do apply it in certain circumstances as a teaching tool. That’s all critical race theory really is, he said, adding that it’s always good to have a toolbox full of tools at a teacher’s disposal. Challenging topics can be met with challenging discussion and occasionally facing unpleasant ideas, he said.
Approaches to teaching change over time, and both the teaching and learning of history has changed greatly over the course of the last 40 years.
“I think there are people who think that education, particularly about the history of the United States, should be positive. That it should be a narrative that says bad things happened — states have a legacy of slavery or the genocide and displacement of Native peoples — but those are less important than the promise of the ideals of the United States,” Burrow said. “That was completely true until at least the 1990s. That’s more or less the version I remember learning when I was in high school in the 1980s.”
It’s an understandable viewpoint, he said, but it dismisses the potential of using methods like critical race theory to look at a bigger picture.
“These are not usually people who want to say things that are obviously not true, like slavery was never that bad, but they want the emphasis on the potential and the more positive outcomes rather than looking at how the legacy shaped the present, which is what historians do,” Burrow said.
Burrow said critical race theory is not particularly prevalent in South Dakota's university classrooms, and he doesn’t use it in his own lectures. But some of his colleagues were not particularly familiar with the concept until it became a political talking point, and after it became a front-and-center topic in the news, they began looking into it more.
“The irony is that the people who are against it have caused more people to find out what it is. I do have colleagues (who have looked into it),” Burrow said.
But judging by the South Dakota students entering the history program at USD, he estimates that there isn’t much critical race theory being taught at the high school level in the state at all.
“It’s not something we particularly see a lot of. A lot of students at USD who are history majors who took high school history and test out of the survey level courses don’t show any evidence or any more understanding than members of the general public. It’s not something we see coming out of South Dakota schools,” Burrow said.
That likely means they are not encountering it in their high school classrooms, he said.
If there’s one thing Burrow does see as a positive with the critical race theory controversy it is that it has gotten parents interested in what their children learn in class. That kind of connectivity is always good and can help foster constructive discussion.
“It’s perfectly valid that people find out what their kids are learning and be involved in their kids’ education. But also be willing to accept that the people who are educating them are doing their best to educate them,” Burrow said.
Morgan said he personally feels that critical race theory is more problematic than beneficial. He recounted a story his son told him of a college history class he took at South Dakota State University and how discussion could easily break down into argument and disillusionment.
“I don’t think it has a place, not even in college. He had a class that he had to take on race relations because it was required, and he finally took it his senior year. He struggled with the instructor. He tried to visit with the instructor about some of the things he said and tried to tactfully disagree in class about the books chosen and the discussion questions,” Morgan said. “My son would call home and say, dad, this guy is clearly a CRT theorist and he is bombarding us and shoving it down our throat. We’re all racist and we should be ashamed of ourselves.”
Morgan said that, like his son, there are many people who don’t subscribe to the theory and feel it should not be used as a bullying tactic to ingrain a particular viewpoint on students.
“It’s out there, there is no denying that it is out there. But I don’t think it has a place,” Morgan said.