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Philadelphia Schools Have Replaced Critical Thinking with “Criticality”

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“Like so many school districts in a post-George Floyd America, Philadelphia’s is rushing to embrace anti-racism.”

Mark Twain once wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

The School District of Philadelphia recently overhauled its English Language Arts curriculum, replacing critical thinking with something called criticality, a concept developed by Gholdy Muhammad in her 2020 book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. Although the word “criticality” sounds very much like critical thinking, it is far from it. In essence, critical thinking is working through opposing sides of an issue and using evidence-based research, reasoning, and background knowledge to reach an informed conclusion. Students who practice critical thinking may form a multitude of positions on a single topic based on their research, logic, and worldview.

Criticality, on the other hand, deals mostly with power, equity, and oppression. It starts with a conclusion, usually on a social issue, and works backward to verify it. Criticality involves challenging what is considered an establishment position to bring some depth and perspective to it. Students who incorporate criticality use research and lived experience to validate the perspective or conclusion already presented to them by teachers during the lesson. Proponents of criticality will argue this constitutes critical thinking because two positions are still presented: the so-called establishment position (which often is never adequately explored, properly argued, or turns out to be a straw man) and what is presented as the progressive, socially just perspective.

A prompt aimed at critical thinking might ask: “Do Whites have unearned privileges in 2022 America?” This topic through the lens of criticality would read: “What causes people to misunderstand White Privilege and deny its existence?” A critical thinking question about race relations might ask: “Is contemporary America a systemically racist country?” A question using criticality would read: “How does systemic racism oppress people of color and give unearned privileges to Whites?” The critical thinking question—which strengthens a student’s ability to navigate the world around him—requires the child to think through multiple perspectives and use his own reasoning to interpret the issue and arrive at an independent conclusion. Exercising criticality ultimately shapes a student’s thinking so that he will arrive at the “correct” position on the issue, a position that is predetermined to support the politics of the school district and will, in theory, yield the most power to the students and their communities.

When critical thinking becomes criticality, orthodoxy takes over. Positions that are contrary to the approved dogma are no longer positions at all. Some dogmatic positions embedded in the Philadelphia School District’s new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum are that all whites have unearned privileges (Passing, grade ten). The United States is a systemically racist country steeped in white supremacy (Clean Getaway and Born a Crime, grades four and 11). The American Dream is a myth (Of Mice and Men, grade nine). Colonialism, capitalism, racism, and patriarchy shape our experiences of the climate crisis (Tales of Two Planets, grade 12). Our identities (and how they intersect) have a significant impact on the amount of agency we have in our lives (Fences, grade nine). Gender is a fluid and creative form of expression, and the belief that gender is binary is upheld by a system of power that exists to create conflict and division (Things Fall Apart, grade ten). Toxic masculinity impacts our family relationships and harms people of all genders (Death of a Salesman, grade 12). Traditional family/gender roles are problematic (A Raisin in the Sun, grade eight). And the United States has a history of exploiting and oppressing immigrant populations (The Buddha in the Attic, grade 11).

These positions on current political issues, which are strategically woven into the new ELA curriculum as themes and “big ideas,” are not debated or explored in depth but are instead presented as gospel; ironically, the fight against the dangers of a “single story” has become a single story. And in today’s political climate, with dissenters branded as racist and hateful, what teacher or student could argue against these points of view? Research shows more and more colleges have become hostile to free speech, and a recent Pew survey found that 40% of American millennials support limiting free speech.

Like so many school districts in a post-George Floyd America, Philadelphia’s is rushing to embrace anti-racism. The school district has overhauled much of its traditional curriculum with “equity” content—replacing Poe, Shakespeare, and Chaucer with politically-charged texts such as Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States, John Freeman’s Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality, and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. There are now officially 36 ELA books from fourth grade to 12th grade (four at each level) that educators are mandated to teach, most chosen because they can be framed around a particular agenda and political narrative.

It appears that the national push by woke progressives to “disrupt Whiteness” in the classroom, like that of Montclair State University education professor Bree Picower, is coming to fruition. The School District of Philadelphia is taking its mission to “cultivate prosperity and liberation for students and staff, starting with historically marginalized populations” very seriously. Demographic data shows the district is currently 51% Black/African American, 23% Hispanic/Latino, 13% White, 7% Asian, and 5% Multiracial/Other. Interestingly, the novels contained within the district’s new ELA curriculum have protagonists that closely mirror the population of their students. Of the 34 narrative novels (two books are a compilation of essays), only five have white main characters, which comes to approximately 14% of the books. The remaining 29 texts have central characters who are persons of color (approximately 86%).

Now, this is perfectly acceptable. Evidence shows students connect better with books that have characters and authors that look like them. In addition, the lesson units are rigorous and build grade-level skills and keep content uniform throughout this district. This does not mean the new ELA curriculum is perfect, of course. The themes of the books (and the ways in which the district intends them to be taught and presented) are still concerning. The entire program is rooted in what has come to be known as “critical race theory,” which, of course, is not without controversy. Sure, there are those diehard academics who will insist that Critical race theory (CRT) is not taught anywhere outside the university law school classroom, but this argument is no more than a squabble over semantics. The principles of CRT—or CRT in praxis—are clearly evident throughout the School District of Philadelphia’s new ELA units.

Specifically, the units reject traditional color-blindness in favor of a racialized worldview that sees all aspects of society through the lens of skin color and identity. The units reject a national American identity in favor of smaller group values and teach that “Whiteness” (white dominance) must be challenged and disrupted in order to stop cultural genocide and acculturation (non-White groups assimilating into the dominant culture). The units emphasize systems over individuals and suggest so-called “oppression” can only be adequately solved through systemic change, as well as that the effectiveness of individualism and meritocracy is limited. The units use elements of Marxism and attempt to bring about resistance and political activism through alleging the existence of a power hierarchy (oppressors vs. oppressed). And the School District of Philadelphia’s curriculum choices use deconstruction to rebrand language; words like “masculinity,” “racism,” and “Whiteness” are redefined to disrupt and problematize the dominant culture.

A close reading and analysis of the new ELA Curriculum at each grade level (in particular, the unit overview of each novel along with the lesson guidance documents) will clearly reveal these patterns and elements throughout. This is by design. Before Philadelphia educators even teach the books, they are given professional development on using what the district calls the “Planning Pathways,” which require ELA teachers to view the material through three lenses while constructing lessons: content, identity, and criticality. Content is not only about text complexity but about working through supposed implicit biases. Identity is about how the race, gender, and sexuality of both the students and teacher may impact the delivery of the lesson. And, finally, there is criticality, which is how the teacher is going to use the material to fight oppression and bring so-called justice.

Fighting oppression, of course, suggests there is an oppressor, which is where the approach becomes all the more polarizing and divisive. Students are well aware of patterns and emerging themes, which groups are viewed as oppressors, and which groups are seen as oppressed (students also know when they are being treated as an identity group and not as individuals). Unlike traditional multicultural education, the new educational movement centered around equity does not promise equal opportunities but, rather, equal outcomes. It teaches that racial disparities in schools are not the result of any kind of deficit but the sole result of racism, and, as a result, some cultures must be disrupted in order for other groups to succeed.

This does not always make for good lessons with children. Neither does an over-emphasis on identity, which prioritizes the color of skin over the content of character. Schools should teach students to move past race and gender rather than become fixated on it. Likewise, educators must fight to preserve true critical thinking skills with children, rather than pushing political orthodoxy masquerading as free thought.

Christopher Paslay has an M.Ed. in multicultural education. He is a longtime Philadelphia public schoolteacher, education writer, and track coach. His book, A Parent’s Guide to Critical Race Theory, was released in July of last year.

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