Back in the 1980s, comparative-literature majors at my university had to take a required course in literary theory. This course—Lit 130, if memory serves—offered prospective scholars a series of frames and theories that could be applied to the reading of books. This was the heyday of deconstructionism—essentially a form of highly pretentious close reading, imported from France—and so we read quite a few texts looking for things that interested deconstructionists. But we also read Freudians, Marxists, feminists, and others.
We suffered through a lot of turgid academic writing, but the class had its uses. I learned, among other things, that one can read the same text from multiple points of view and therefore see different themes in it. When a Marxist reads Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, he might become interested in the way in which wealth, power, and the determination to have both shapes the lives of all of the characters. When a feminist reads the same book, she might discover that patriarchal attitudes toward women, who are judged and valued for their marriageability, shape the lives of the characters too. The Freudians, as you might surmise, would notice a whole different set of motifs.
Because Austen herself was very interested in capitalism, patriarchy, and psychology—though she wouldn’t have used any of those terms—these varied ways of reading could reveal new aspects to the story. Still, one also learned how to maintain some distance from all of the theorists, especially those who claimed unique access to truth. It was important to stay well away from bad Marxist scholars, for example, the kind who insisted that their way of reading Pride and Prejudice was the only way to read Pride and Prejudice. That attitude led to many dead ends: In the Soviet Union (where bad Marxist scholars were eventually the only scholars allowed to publish anything at all) literary scholarship, like scholarship more generally, became not just dull and boring but actually dangerous for anyone with a different point of view.
At that time critical race theory, a line of scholarship that identifies ways that racism has shaped institutions, was a phenomenon confined to obscure legal journals, and we didn’t read Pride and Prejudice or anything else from that perspective. But similar ideas had been floating around for decades. Famously, the critic Edward Said argued in a 1993 essay titled “Jane Austen and Empire” that what was not said about slavery and colonialism in Austen’s novels was highly significant. Austen’s father was a trustee of a sugar plantation in Antigua. That it relied on slave labor helps explain some of her family’s wealth; sugar plantations also explained the wealth of some characters in her novels. And yet they rarely talk about slavery. Being aware of their silence won’t help you understand why Elizabeth finally marries Mr. Darcy or why Mr. Darcy saves Lydia, and it certainly won’t explain the deep appeal of Austen’s novel across time and geography. If the absence of conversation about slavery is the only thing you know about Austen, then your understanding of her books will be severely impoverished. But if you are an Austen scholar, or just an Austen fan, knowing about the unmentioned sugar plantations opens up new ways of thinking about Austen and the world she inhabited. And that, in the end, is the point of scholarship.
In his congressional testimony last week, General Mark Milley endorsed the underlying philosophy of Lit 130, which also happens to be the underlying philosophy of a liberal education: Read widely; listen to everybody; make your own judgment about what’s important. Here is how he put it: “I do think it’s important actually for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read.” The phrase widely read means that you can and should read things you disagree with. You can definitely read Marx without becoming a Marxist. You can read critical race theory without becoming a “critical race theorist,” however you define that. Doing both will help you become an educated person—or, as in Milley’s case, an educated soldier.
You can also read American history in this same spirit, the way you would read a great piece of literature, seeking to understand the complexities and the nuances, the dark and the light, the good and the bad. You can be inspired by the Declaration of Independence, horrified by the expulsions of Native Americans, amazed by the energy of immigrants and frontier settlers. You can understand that the United States is a great and unique country whose values are worth defending—and realize simultaneously that this same country has made terrible mistakes and carried out horrific crimes. Is it so difficult to hold all of these disparate ideas in your head at the same time?
Soldiers should know, Milley declared, that African Americans were counted as less than fully human until “we had a civil war and Emancipation Proclamation to change it.” It took “another 100 years,” he noted, to get to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. All of that should sound completely uncontroversial. It’s just a recitation of facts about American history, things that most people learn in elementary school. But to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, the mere suggestion that you should seek to understand your own society, including its flaws, makes you a “pig” and “stupid.” Laura Ingraham, another Fox News host, called for defunding the military in response to Milley’s statements, on the grounds that “he’s chosen to indulge the radical whims of Democrats.” The Carlsons, Ingrahams, and other culture warriors who now dominate the world of conservative infotainment seem now to believe that the study of American history—the knowledge of what actually happened on the territory that lies between the two shining seas—should be forbidden.
The Republican-controlled state legislatures and school boards that are currently seeking to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” have this same intention. Most of them seem not to have a very clear idea of what the phrase means, and so invariably the ban will be interpreted broadly and clumsily: Schoolchildren should not be taught the history of racism in America; they should not learn about slavery; they should not be allowed to think about the long-term consequences. That, apparently, is now the consensus in a segment of the Republican Party.
But there is another kind of person who might dislike Milley’s attitude. Critical race theory is not the same thing as Marxism, but some of its more facile popularizers share with Marxists the deep conviction that their way of seeing the world is the only way worth seeing the world. Moreover, some have encouraged people to behave as if this were the only way of seeing the world. The structural racism that they have identified is real, just as the class divisions once identified by the Marxists were real. But racism is not everywhere, in every institution, or in every person’s heart at all times. More to the point, any analysis of American history or American society that sees only structural racism will misunderstand the country, and badly. It will not be able to explain why the U.S. did in fact have an Emancipation Proclamation, a Civil Rights Act, a Black president. This is a major stumbling block, not so much for the legal scholars (some of whom actually merit the title “critical race theorist”) but rather for the popularizers and the scholars-turned-activists who want to force everybody to recite the same mantras.
Many people, not just General Milley, inhabit a middle ground. A few months ago I interviewed Charles Mills, a philosopher whose most famous book, The Racial Contract, published in 1997, offers an alternative reading (you could call it a critical race theorists’ reading) of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant—the Enlightenment thinkers who, anticipating liberal democracy, all argued (to put it crudely) that a legitimate government must have the consent of the governed. Mills pointed out that all of them left Black and other nonwhite people outside of the social contract, and he sketched out the consequences. I asked him whether this meant we should no longer read Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. He told me that, on the contrary, the last class he taught was about those philosophers and their modern critics, including himself: “To me, it’s a much more fruitful way of carrying on the tradition than saying, ‘These guys are racist and sexist. Therefore, stop teaching them.’”
Mills told me that not all of his colleagues understand him. “They say, ‘Why are you trying to keep this tradition alive? We should jettison this whole way of doing political philosophy and basically start anew.’” But he disagrees. “There is a dynamism inside liberalism that they miss,” he told me. The huge advantage of liberal democracy over other political systems is that its leadership constantly adjusts and changes, shifting to absorb new people and ideas. Liberal democracies don’t try, as Soviet Marxism once did, to make everybody agree about everything, all the time.
But to maintain that flexibility, a liberal-democratic society absolutely requires that its citizens experience a liberal education, one that teaches students, scholars, readers, and voters to keep looking at books, history, society, and politics from different points of view. If one of our two great political parties no longer believes in this principle—and if some of our scholars don’t either—then how much longer can we expect our democracy to last?