Although it wasn’t particularly controversial in Montana beforehand, a method of education called critical race theory is now being hotly debated.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen spoke out against it and Attorney General Austin Knudsen followed up with an official opinion declaring parts of it unconstitutional. More broadly, Knudsen determined that “antiracism” programs are discriminatory and therefore violate state and federal law.
This conclusion is, at best, based on a poor understanding of such programs. Generally, critical race theory recognizes that the historical experiences of white Americans differ from that of Black, Native American, Hispanic, Asian and other people of color. Different schools throughout the country are experimenting with different ways to teach students about these experiences.
American history is riddled with gaps and competing versions of events. Despite ongoing improvements, the history lessons taught in most U.S. schools are woefully incomplete, and all are subject to revision as new information comes to light. Such is the case, for example, with the Tulsa race massacre, a violent attack by a white mob on an affluent Black neighborhood in Oklahoma that took place 100 years ago. Official accounts at the time reported 13 deaths of white people, and 26 Black fatalities. In 2001, a special commission took a closer look at the records and estimated the total number of deaths at between 75 and 300.
In another example, thanks to new technology, the remains of 215 children were discovered this month at a former boarding school in British Columbia where Indigenous children as young as 3 were kept after being taken from their families. Similar boarding schools were once a fixture in the United States and in Montana as well.
A solid public school education should ensure these important, although painful, stories are not swept from the nation’s memory by those who prefer a more sanitized view of history. Montanans must not allow high-profile politicians to silence these stories in the name of some misguided mission to protect students from uncomfortable truths.
Last week, just as former Gov. Steve Bullock has done in previous years, Gov. Greg Gianforte issued a proclamation naming June 2, 2021, in honor of Earl J. Barlow.
Such proclamations provide an opportunity to learn more about important figures in Montana’s history. How many Montanans would otherwise know the story of Barlow, who was born on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on June 2, 1927, served in the United States Army during World War II and went on to become director of the Office of Indian Education for the Bureau of Indian Affairs? Or that he was a teacher and principal for three decades before eventually becoming the Montana State Supervisor of Indian Education?
Barlow’s career intertwined with Montana’s efforts to make indigenous education a foundational element of public education, efforts that at the time were groundbreaking. The 1972 state Constitution explicitly recognized the importance of preserving the cultural integrity of American Indians and including those perspectives in our educational system.
But it wasn’t until 1999 that the Montana Legislature approved a bill establishing Indian Education for All. And it wasn’t until 2005 that the Legislature actually appropriated any funding for it.
Today, sadly, there remain countless Montana residents who never received the benefit of Indian Education for All. But we can take heart in the fact that younger generations will graduate with a richer, more complete understanding of our state’s history, including the history of the peoples who lived here long before it ever was a state.
“Montana is considered a leader in the nation with regards to our IEFA law and other states have followed suit and used our model,” noted nine members of the Montana Legislative Indian Caucus in an opinion last week. “We are a unique state that does not fit into the box that the discourse on national politics wants us to fit into.”
In their letter, the caucus members dismiss Arntzen and Knudsen’s complaints about critical race theory as “political fear mongering.” Of greater concern, they write, is the likelihood that such arguments will serve to “erode Indian Education for All,” much of which, they note, is “congruent with critical race theory.”
“If critical race theory is attacked,” their response explains, “then these good works that have been taking place in community schools across the state can also be considered to be under attack because challenges to the validity of critical race theory undermine the very core of IEFA.”
Prohibiting the teaching of certain topics because they contain racial elements amounts to historical erasure. Deliberately omitting Native American history, culture and identity from classrooms would not only be morally wrong, it also would violate Montana’s Constitution.
Montana’s leaders, and especially its highest education officials, ought to acknowledge and expand on the success of the state’s Indian Education for All program. Critical race theory offers a sensible place to grow that understanding.
The undeniable fact is that our nation is rooted in racism. A better understanding of those roots offers our best hope to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Executive Editor Jim Van Nostrand and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.