How to Think or What to Think? The Culture Wars Come to K-12

by James C. Sherlock

I was challenged after my last posting to give examples of the capture of the most prominent educational schools by critical theory activism.  

Critical theories of education posit that educational systems are either complicit in oppression or that these systems are a powerful mechanism for ensuring that social inequality persists. Under either interpretation, there must be a plan for emancipatory action (what they deem “praxis,” the practical application of a theory) through education.  

I took 61 pages of notes of examples among the “top 15” education schools before I realized that I was working to defend myself against the charge of “accusing” them of something of which it turns out they are profoundly proud.  

It is clear from pressing past the home pages of those schools and drilling down into the course descriptions, the writings of the instructors of those courses and the course reading assigned that many are deeply committed to critical theory. 

In this essay, I will demonstrate how critical theory has left the campuses of the education schools and made its way into America’s largest teachers union and many American K-12 classrooms.  

We will start with a first-hand account from a parent in New York City.  Then we will take a brief tour of the National Education Association’s positions that reflect critical theory.   

Finally, we will examine the widespread negative effects of the American “histories” written by Howard Zinn of Boston University.

Reading this, you will appreciate the role of school boards as a breakwater against this threat more than you ever did.  

Critical theory in grade school classrooms

I urge you to read When the Culture War Comes for the Kids by George Packer in the October 2019 issue of The Atlantic.

It is the brilliant and scary recounting by a liberal parent of trying to do right by his children while navigating New York City schools. It is utterly captivating. Some excerpts:

At times the new progressivism, for all its up-to-the-minuteness, carries a whiff of the 17th century, with heresy hunts and denunciations of sin and displays of self-mortification. The atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self-censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent—these are qualities of an illiberal politics. 

Adults who draft young children into their cause might think they’re empowering them and shaping them into virtuous people (a friend calls the Instagram photos parents post of their woke kids “selflessies”). In reality the adults are making themselves feel more righteous, indulging another form of narcissistic pride, expiating their guilt, and shifting the load of their own anxious battles onto children who can’t carry the burden, because they lack the intellectual apparatus and political power. Our goal shouldn’t be to tell children what to think. The point is to teach them how to think so they can grow up to find their own answers.

“The fifth-grade share, our son’s last, was different. That year’s curriculum included the Holocaust, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. The focus was on “upstanders”—individuals who had refused to be bystanders to evil and had raised their voices. It was an education in activism, and with no grounding in civics, activism just meant speaking out. At the year-end share, the fifth graders presented dioramas on all the hard issues of the moment — sexual harassment, LGBTQ rights, gun violence. Our son made a plastic-bag factory whose smokestack spouted endangered animals. Compared with previous years, the writing was minimal and the students, when questioned, had little to say. They hadn’t been encouraged to research their topics, make intellectual discoveries, answer potential counterarguments. The dioramas consisted of cardboard, clay, and slogans.”

Lest readers think this is some strange new alien world occurring only in New York City, the rest of this article will focus on the National Education Association.  

The National Education Association

We will look at three examples of the NEA leading the way in trying to turn the K-12 educational system into a reeducation camp by specific applications of critical theory methodology.

NEA: Cultural Competence for College Students: How to Teach about Race, Gender and Inequalities

“Educators must coach students beyond their individualized world-view and help them gain self-reflexivity in the context of social realities. “ 

(As an aside, the writings of ed school critical theorists may form the biggest threat to the English language since the Spanish Armada.)

Self-reflexivity is a key concept of critical theory. All critical theories assert that at least some aspect of society shouldn’t be reproduced. That was not enough for the 19th century critical theorists who saw it as pessimism. 

Self-reflexivity turns introspection of the flaws in society, say capitalism or racism, into action, to emancipatory purposes.

“In Marxist theory, society consists of two parts: the base (or substructure) and superstructure. The base comprises the forces and relations of production (e.g. employer–employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations) into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life. 

“The superstructure determines society’s other relationships and ideas to comprise its superstructure, including its culture, institutions, political power structures, roles, rituals, and state.” 

The capture of the superstructure, education in this case, is a Western Marxist focus.  Soviet-style Marxism focused on the base.

NEA: “Amplifying Our Voice: Leading Boldly for Our Students, Our Professions, and Our Union”


Take a look at the books suggested for: 

K-2, The Youngest Marcher Audrey Faye Hendricks was confident and bold and brave as can be. Through her we see the remarkable and inspiring story of one child’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.

3-5, Joelitos Big Decision (Grades 1-5) Joelito didn’t understand why a missing backpack was so important until he learned about the low wages paid to his friends’ parents. Joelito chooses to stand in protest and skip his delicious hamburger tradition.

5-6 One Crazy Summer Three young sisters are sent for the summer to the mother that left them behind. The girls have to find their own breakfast and lunch, served by the Black Panthers.”


Angel’s Multicultural Books

Teaching Tolerance Reading Diversity Checklist How to Choose Outstanding Multicultural Books


EdChange Resource Spotlight: “Find your favorite radical tunes in our collection of Social Justice and Protest Songs.”  The link is to 

Zinn Education Project:  “The Zinn Education Project is my compass in a sea of corporate textbooks, packaged common core curriculum and standardized testing. My entire curriculum is based on lessons that can be found on the Zinn Education Project.” Chris Buehler High School Social Studies Teacher, Portland, Ore.  

Some of the other Zinn teaching materials provided include:

     The (Young) People’s Climate Conference: Teaching Global Warming to 3rd Graders . 

    About those Columbus statues being toppled “

NEA: Fresh Eyes on History

By David Bonecutter II, High School Teacher, Florida. Found in: Social Studies, Critical Thinking.

“Here are some unique ways to approach the study of social studies, designed to fully engage students in their exploration of the past:

If you can locate old textbooks, compare and contrast content as it was taught then and is taught now. How does the time period in which something was written influence how it appears in student materials? Does the passage of time offer clarification or confusion?

Explore the Zinn Education Project, whose goal is to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. The site offers free, downloadable lessons organized by theme, time period, and reading level.

Be prepared for your eyes to be opened as you read the non-fiction book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. In response to his survey of high school American History textbooks, the author wrote this retelling of our history supplying much that is left out of current high school texts.”

Howard Zinn

You see Howard Zinn touted more than once above as a resource by the NEA.  

Zinn at various points in his career described himself as a Marxist, a socialist, a democratic socialist and a revolutionary. He hated the United States. His books were polemics to the necessity of its destruction.

You really owe it to yourselves to learn about Howard Zinn and his two best selling text books. Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was first published in 1980 and has sold 2.6 million copies. Against that hateful standard, A Young People’s History Of The United States is worse given its target audience.

“A People’s History of the United States … is a synthesis of the radical and revisionist historiography of the past decade, incorporating many of the strengths and most of the weaknesses of that highly uneven body of literature. Zinn’s America is not a land of liberty but a land of relentless exploitation and hypocrisy. The traditional treatment of U.S. history is turned upside down. Zinn might well have borrowed the title of a novel by Jack London (which he cites on p. 315), People of the Abyss. That would be a fair summary of the story that Zinn relates.” Washington Post, March 23, 1980. Michael Kammen, professor of American History and Culture at Cornell. 

I also urge you to read “How Zinn Gets In: Road to a National Curriculum” by Stanley Kurtz. 

Mr. Kurtz describes how the College Board, sponsor of the controversial 2014 and 2015 AP U.S. history (APUSH) frameworks, is “largely replacing states and localities as the shaper of both textbooks and teacher training at the high school level.”  

Reading Howard Zinn has been made a necessary step to get a good grade in AP U.S. History.  

Then there is the College Board.  An attendee at an AP teacher-training seminar based on the newly redesigned APUSH curriculum said the course primed teachers to blame America for the problems of the world, while overlooking its influence for the good. Howard Zinn was cited in the training more than all other authors taken together.

As of September 2018, 84,000 teachers had downloaded lesson plans from the Zinn Education Project.    

Read American Concentration Camps? Where Would AOC and Other Millennials Get Such an Idea? by Mary Grabar.  

The answer to the question posed in the title of Ms. Graber’s essay is Howard Zinn.

Virginia schools 

I have done a reasonably deep dive into the curricula and available course materials in Fairfax County, Alexandria, Richmond and Portsmouth schools. I am happy to report that I did not find the radical outcomes described in New York and advocated by the NEA or the revisionist history texts of Howard Zinn in Virginia K-12 courses.  

Pretty unlikely that with of millions of textbooks sold and almost 100,000 downloads of lesson plans that none of it is around in Virginia, but there is no official sanctioning that I can see from my survey.

That reflects well on Virginia parents and the school boards they elect.

We will have to remain vigilant. The leftist culture warriors have captured the highest peaks of the “superstructure” and they are both wrong and relentless.  No concession will ever be enough.