On May 21, Kristi Noem shared in an editorial that she is the first signatory of the 1776 pledge, a thinly veiled attempt to push the destructive narrative of American exceptionalism into our schools.
I’ve been wondering how to respond to this attack on American education and more deeply, wondering why it disturbs me so much. The answer came to me this week. The attack, under the guise of jingoistic patriotism, comes from a lack of courage.
Noem created a crisis where there is none with her attack on critical race theory. Postmodern critical theory is nothing more than the idea that history is a living, breathing thing and we, as lifelong students of history, can interact with it in different ways at different times as we grow in our understanding of ourselves as a nation.
Critical theory suggests that historical prime sources can be interpreted differently based on the lived experience of the inquirer. Further, it suggests that our understanding of history becomes more complete when we expand our understanding to include the experiences of the voiceless and invisible, such as people of color or women.
The argument against critical race theory is a simplistic one: That America is founded on the idea that all men are created equal, and therefore racism does not exist in America. Never mind the fact that slavery profoundly influenced the creation of the Constitution. Ever heard of the three/fifths compromise?
Proponents of the 1776 pledge assert that history should be taught without an acknowledgement of race and gender. And they foolishly think our young people are stupid enough to believe race and gender don’t matter.
I am a lifelong Christian and an Episcopalian. As Episcopalians, we rely on the wisdom of generations of spiritual seekers who teach us to be open, to seek forgiveness, and to pray for the world.
The prayer of confession goes like this, “God of all mercy, we confess that we have sinned against you, opposing your will in our lives. We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf. Forgive, restore, and strengthen us through our Savior Jesus Christ, that we may be abide in your love and serve only your will. Amen.”
We repent of the evil done on our behalf. America has a long history of perpetrating evil on behalf of its citizens in order to maintain the structures of white supremacy. From a theological point of view, if I ask for forgiveness for the evil done on my behalf, I must also resolve to do better.
From a political point of view, it’s just plain cowardly to refuse to look at the history of our country and resolve to do better.
I think Ms. Noem is attached to the idea of American exceptionalism because to be otherwise is hard. It takes courage to let go of everything you think you know and open up to new ideas. (Plus, the buzzwords make for easy sycophants.) But radical ideas are where new life happens. That’s where the work of being this new thing that is America happens.
America has never been a static idea, mired in the white, landed, intelligentsia of the 18th century. The genius of America is so alive even the founders couldn’t imagine what would happen. They certainly didn’t plan for the emancipation of slaves or the enfranchisement of women!
Today, the ideas of freedom and equality are making America stronger and more whole by putting our racist past in front of us and making us look at the profound impact race has on everyday life. It’s utterly foolish to think such powerful ideas can be controlled by something as silly as a pact to limit education.