On the Study of Race and Racism and Academic Freedom

This directive from the President of the United States is antithetical to the values of Phillips Academy and to the fostering of an educated citizenry.

As members of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Phillips Academy, we affirm our commitment to improving our students’ understandings of race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, and other axes of identity as well as of structures and systems of power and oppression, of histories of inclusion and exclusion, and of our individuality and our shared humanity. We also affirm our commitment to continually question and transform our own pedagogy and practice in order to empower all students.

Our commitment to understanding and empowerment lies at the heart of a good education and at the heart of our academic program:

“In its Constitution, Phillips Academy is charged with ensuring its students learn ‘the great end and real business of living.’ While our lived lives differ from those of our founders, certain habits of mind remain: engagement in one’s humanity and the humanity of others; development of one’s identity; and critical discernment born of wide content knowledge, aesthetic sensibility, analytical practice, and nuanced skepticism. Adolescence is the time for students to foster their abilities to question the beliefs of adults, peers, systems, and cultures and to develop their own—to think about the world as it is and the world they seek to create.” (Academic Program, Mission Statement) 

Democracy depends on educated citizens who are strong synthesizers of information, interrogators of knowledge, and discerners of meaning.  Democracy depends on educated citizens who engage with new ideas and approaches, including those that conflict with what they already know and believe, and who seek to deeply understand those new ideas and approaches before assessing them, certainly before dismissing them.

On 4 September 2020, Russell Vought, under the direction of the President, demanded that all federal agencies cease “any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” 

This directive from the President of the United States is antithetical to the values of Phillips Academy and to the fostering of an educated citizenry.  It is a demand for ignorance, not knowledge, not understanding, not empowerment.  The study of race and racism, including “critical race theory,” is grounded, as is all good academic work, in evidence, analysis, argument, nuance, complexity, and disagreement.  It is precisely the job of schooling to engage students in such work, not to foster their active acceptance nor passive acquiescence, but rather to generate their own informed understandings and assessments. 

In recent days, other individuals and groups, including the Critical Race Studies in Education Association, have documented the tremendous extent to which misinformation and ignorance fuel the President’s directive.  The directive embodies this administration’s inability to express any understanding of race and racism in the United States, and its labeling influential means of studying and understanding race and racism as “divisive, anti-American propaganda” is absurd. 

Yet, we cannot dismiss this presidential weaponization of willful ignorance. 

This moment demands our seeing how power is functioning in this directive, which hierarchies are being solidified, who is being included and excluded.  This moment demands our solidarity with our fellow teachers and scholars, many of whom are in more precarious positions than ours, whose work is being diminished, marginalized, and canceled.  This moment demands our condemnation of the harassment, and even violence, too often unleashed upon the targets of this president. 

The president’s attacks on studies and understandings of race and racism are timed to distract from the myriad ways in which legacies of racism and white supremacy, of cissexism and patriarchy, of genocidal settler-colonialism, of laissez-faire capitalism, of heterosexism, and of ableism are manifesting in our contemporary crises.  By seeking to eradicate some of the very means, some of the very tools, by which we can better interrogate this moment, the president attacks the democratic, emancipatory pursuit of an equitable and just American society.  

Our work is all the more important. As stated in our school’s Constitution:  “though goodness without knowledge (as it respects others) is weak and feeble; yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous; … both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.”  We will continue to position students to foster knowledge and goodness, to more thoroughly question and better understand the past and the present, to assess what they learn—not as ends in themselves but rather as means to action, as means to “lay the surest foundation.”

Signed,

Leon Calleja, Instructor in English and Interdisciplinary Studies

Stephanie Curci, Instructor in English and Interdisciplinary Studies

Mark Cutler, Instructor in Spanish and Interdisciplinary Studies

Noureddine El Alam, Instructor in Mathematics, Computer Science, and Statistics and Interdisciplinary Studies

David Fox, Chair and Instructor in English, Art History, and Interdisciplinary Studies

Rafael Kelman, Instructor in Art and Interdisciplinary Studies

Corrie Martin, Instructor in English and Interdisciplinary Studies

Elizabeth Meyer, Instructor in Classics and Interdisciplinary Studies

Rachel Murree, Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies

Marisela Ramos, Instructor in History and Social Science and Interdisciplinary Studies

Flavia Vidal, Instructor in English and Interdisciplinary Studies

Ryan Wheeler, Director of the Peabody Museum and Instructor in Interdisciplinary Studies

Judith Wombwell, Instructor in Theater and Dance and Interdisciplinary Studies

10 September 2020