Clarence Page

Clarence Page

Education or indoctrination? That’s the big question at the core of the hullabaloo over “critical race theory,” and you don’t have to be a conservative to worry about it. You only have to be a parent.

The concept of critical race theory, or CRT, has been widely roasted by conservative politicians, commentators and activists as radical, un-American and racially divisive. Because this issue combines three topics that politicians love to ballyhoo or demagogue, about a dozen states have taken steps to bar CRT from schools or government agencies, even though few people seem to know what it really is.

So I was only half-surprised to see a recent Fox News website story headlined, “Chicagoland prep school Loyola shames white privilege in student assignment.” After all, Fox News seems to excel at finding something to frighten or outrage us daily.

I was more surprised that major Chicago media, such as the newspaper where I work, weren’t stopping the presses, as we used to say in ancient days, to ballyhoo over this story at Loyola Academy, the elite Jesuit-run prep school in north suburban Wilmette.

(A notable exception: The Evanstonian, the mighty student newspaper at Evanston Township High School, appeared to be all over it.)

As I suspected, the story turned out to be something of a tempest in a teapot, yet indicative of much bigger thunderstorms on today’s sociopolitical horizon about a couple of other volatile words: “white privilege.”

In an ethics class assignment, Loyola juniors were asked to answer such mind-bending questions as:

• “How do you benefit from white privilege, and how have you held onto that benefit (despite knowing the harm it does)?”

• “What have you learned about the ways you have specifically wield(ed) this privilege that do harm (whether you intend to or not)?”

• “Dig deep. No sugar coating and no focusing on the good you have done with your privilege. Remember this isn’t about being self-congratulatory, it’s about pulling out white supremacy.”

Students who were not white also were asked to focus on whatever privileges they might have and reflect on the topic in alternative ways.

Unfortunately missing from these thought-provoking questions, in my view, is the possibility that the student does not feel he or she has benefited from “white privilege” — or even believes that it exists.

Regardless of color, acknowledging that you have been privileged by anything — race, complexion, ancestry, a wealthy uncle who remembers you generously in his will — goes up against the populist American bootstrap ideal.

That’s why bestselling books such as Robin DiAngelo’s controversial “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” from which the class assignment appears to be drawn, became bigger bestsellers after George Floyd’s death last year.

DiAngelo’s book has the distinction of being criticized from the right as racially divisive and from center-liberal Black thinkers such as author John McWhorter — for “talking down” to Black folks.

The whole debate also proved to be a bit much for the Loyola Academy president, the Rev. Patrick McGrath. In an apologetic letter to parents he declared that the “inappropriate” questions were no longer being used in the ethics curriculum. “Let me be clear,” he declared, “We have never — and will never — ask students to apologize for their race.”

Yet, he also assured that “a structured study of racism has been part of the academy’s curriculum for more than two decades and will continue to be the case on some level.”

In a telephone interview, he told me that he did not recall any similar backlash like this, which includes a webpage posted by disgruntled parents, in the past, but added, “These are hard conversations. I get it.”

Still, citing church officials as high up as the pope, he insisted that the school’s mission to push back against the “sin” of racism will remain unchanged.

So will dedication to “critical thinking,” he said, which he defined in a more recent letter as “supporting a climate of investigation and intellectual curiosity that honors genuine inquiry and debate” and “learning how to think, not what to think.”

That’s the difference between education and indoctrination. I’m not Catholic but, regardless of faith, I agree that learning how to think is what education should be all about.

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune editorial board. His email address is cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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