Earlier this month, former Secretary of State and potential GOP Presidential candidate Mike Pompeo released an interview clip on Twitter, in which he argued that “Toxic wokeness in schools is a bigger threat than the Chinese Communist Party.”
The wave of criticism Pompeo’s tweet provoked was unsurprising. On its face, it does seem unlikely that ideological debates over education could warrant greater concern than a totalitarian regime with ambitions to dominate the world. That it was Pompeo of all people who made this comment added another layer of shock value, as he arguably did more to oppose the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) than any other individual during his time as Secretary of State.
Yet a deeper examination reveals that Pompeo is onto something. As the old saying goes, “children are the future,” and what they learn in school plays a critical role in influencing the values they will hold as adults. The students who sit in K-12 and university classrooms right now will determine whether or not America is ultimately able to prevent the CCP from reshaping the world in its image. But the ideas that Pompeo labeled “toxic wokeness,” more aptly called “Critical Social Justice,” couldn’t be more antithetical to this goal.
An example of “toxic wokeness” that Pompeo mentions in the clip is “America is a racist nation.” This idea lies at the heart of Critical Social Justice ideology. It is the ideological basis for entire K-12 history and social studies curriculum options, and has also infiltrated seemingly unrelated subjects from Social Emotional Learning (SEL) to mathematics. These curricula do not teach that America was a racist nation in the past, or that the problem of racism still exists—both of which are true, and necessary for students to understand. They teach that America is fundamentally defined by white supremacy and that “racism is ordinary, not aberrational” to life in the United States today.
What would it look like if the majority of American adults came to be convinced that the defining feature of our country is white supremacy? At a minimum, there is little reason to expect that America would stand up for its values internationally, let alone against a superpower like China. And if Americans are unwilling to defend their nation ideologically, they won’t want to risk their lives to defend it militarily. More likely, many Americans would view the prospect of our country’s declining international influence as a victory for the forces of anti-racism. China, which has largely built its modern identity on its history as a victim of Western colonialism, will be seen by many as a fitting champion for the global anti-racist cause—the CCP’s genocidal racism notwithstanding.
If the foundational values of America were truly based on racism, we should feel morally obligated to do everything in our power to replace these values with new ones we can all be proud of. Remaking our country according to the doctrine of anti-racism would need to be the singular political goal for the next generation. We might establish an omnipotent “Department of Anti-Racism,” as anti-racism guru Ibram X. Kendi has proposed, which would give the central government power to enforce ideological conformity at a scale that would rival the CCP.
Since these values are supposedly foundational, affecting all of America’s other values and objectives, the process of cleansing the country of the odious influence of white supremacy might even necessitate a full political revolution. We can already see signs of this nascent revolution, most clearly in the unrest during the summer of 2020. In a survey conducted by University of London Politics Professor Eric Kaufmann, just before the killing of George Floyd, over 70% of young Americans who identify as “liberal” already believed that we should completely rewrite the American Constitution “to better reflect our diversity as a people,” and over 40% of those who identify as “very liberal” supported replacing the American flag and renaming the United States of America.
In his book The War on the West, author Douglas Murray explains how the CCP accuses the United States of being “uniquely unqualified to pass moral judgment today,” while at the same time committing abhorrent human rights violations within its own borders. It relies on two (true) presumptions: that Americans lack sufficient knowledge of their own history, and that they lack knowledge of what countries like China have done in the past and what they are still doing today. Ensuring that Americans become armed with this knowledge will be essential for our ability to defeat the CCP, and it all starts with what kids are taught in schools.
The deleterious effects of Critical Social Justice ideology in schools show up in more than just curricula. Real student achievement in the United States has been in decline for years, and many experts believe that a major part of what is required to get us back on track is a greater adherence to proven and measurable educational standards. Critical Social Justice, however, strips away these standards wherever it encounters them. From the elimination of advanced classes and standardized tests, to the lowering of admissions requirements for magnet schools and higher education institutions, all are justified by the goal of achieving “equity”—defined not as promoting a fair process for everyone, but as insisting on equal outcomes between racial groups of students without regard to individual performance.
This all-encompassing push for “equity” means that high-achieving American students will not have the opportunity to develop to their full academic potential. Instead of being challenged in advanced placement classes, they will be made to sit through unit after unit of material they’ve already mastered, just to help school officials and policymakers achieve outcomes that misleadingly make students look equal on paper. For every gifted student we neglect, we risk losing out on the next great American innovator or entrepreneur. Those students could grow up to make groundbreaking discoveries in quantum computing or artificial intelligence, helping us thwart China’s plans to lead the world in both of these fields.
The abolition of standards at the altar of equity also means that American universities will have more trouble attracting high-achieving international students. Many of these students stay in the U.S. after graduation and strengthen America’s economy and STEM research industry. But there are a growing number of disincentives linked to Critical Social Justice ideology that jeopardize our ability to retain these students. For example, if these students plan to remain in academia after they graduate, it’s likely they will be asked to sign a “diversity statement” declaring their belief in Critical Social Justice. If they wish to apply for a research grant, they will likely need to explain how their project idea will advance the goals of Critical Social Justice. Moreover, for international students racialized as “white” or “Asian,” they will have to contend with an admissions system that will discriminate against them based on their immutable characteristics. This all bodes well for China, which has already surpassed the United States in key areas including innovation capacity and STEM PhD graduates.
So in this important sense, Mike Pompeo is correct that “wokeness in schools is a bigger threat than the CCP”; the former, if allowed to run its course, will preclude any possibility of us defeating the latter. But despite this being true, as far as it goes, it actually misses the more important point. The CCP and Critical Social Justice ideology are hostile to America for the same reason: they both seek to upend “the very foundations of the liberal order.” For the CCP, liberal democracy represents its greatest external and internal threat. They fear both war with the West and internal revolt. For Critical Social Justice advocates, liberal democracy is a veneer masking America’s true identity as a white supremacist caste society.
Our opposition to both the CCP and to Critical Social Justice ideology must be grounded in a robust defense of liberal democracy, individual human rights, and the Enlightenment philosophy from which they derive. Only these values, the real founding principles of America, are resilient enough to help us overcome the challenges we face.
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(Full Disclosure: I am a College Professor) I would like to point out one thing Slover omitted: the growing influence of the CCP on Western Universities. I don't have time to write a good summary so I suggest folks look up "Confucius Institutes" in the US & UK. The PRC is exerting soft power on American institutions (check out how they influence our entertainment industry - and therefore our news media)
There is one ray of hope: respect for America's education system is low and rapidly falling. Even University students lack respect for education - most don't care about learning, they just want that piece of paper that will get them a good job (or so they have been told). Tuition is so high and they go into so much debt more and more students expect to get good grades automatically - and if the prof doesn't accommodate them they simply cheat. Seriously, does Higher Ed really think that they can shape the minds of this generation of students? When student loan debt is so terrifyingly huge, that it is adversely affecting our entire economy why would any tax payer support expensive but useless degrees? Look up "student debt + economy" and pay attention to how Higher Ed is hurting underserved communities by burdening them with outlandish debt after a promise of a brighter future. Some see Higher Ed as just one more example of the system exploiting the poor and powerless - we no longer have chattel slavery so we invented debt slavery.
The masses are waking up. A Bachelor's Degree in Liberal Arts doesn't provide significantly better job skills than a High School Diploma so why spend all that money on it? STEM majors have significantly better job prospects - and the degrees are worth the expense. Plus, in our fields we do not indoctrinate students we don't have time to fit that into our curricula ... but, alas, math is hard so most don't want to go down our path (which is why the job prospects are so good).
Woke degrees do not make economic sense. Free Market economics might solve the wokeness problem - take that Communism!
Well stated Grayson, thank you. Especially salient is your point that both the external axis of autocracies and the internal tsunami of Woke ideology seek the same goal, namely, the end of the America-led liberal global order, and its replacement by what inevitably would be a hellish dysoptia. The flourishing of the liberal order hence requires that the liberal democracies reduce their supply-chain dependence on China, and that America reduce the influence of Woke ideology across its education sector. And that we restore policies that enable robust economic growth, to achieve those vital ends.