Study sketchy ideas before too late

IDF soldiers from the Israeli military rabbinate try to find items that will help identify people killed at Kibbutz Nir Oz, Israel, near the Gaza Strip, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. The kibbutz was attacked during the Hamas cross-border attack on Oct. 7, killing and capturing members of its community. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Hamas' attack on Israel killed more Jews in a day than on any day since Adolf Hitler's genocide. Hamas deliberately killed children and used mass rape as a weapon of war. Yet Hamas won enthusiastic support from Harvard students influenced by "post-colonial theory." What is that? How should educators respond?

We must study sketchy ideas, as my dad learned the hard way.

Back in the 1930s, my dad read Hitler's "Mein Kampf," but never took the book seriously. Knowing American politicians like his congressman, Tommy D'Alesandro (the father of Democratic politician Nancy Pelosi), my dad figured anyone smart enough to scheme their way to the top in a country as big as Germany could never believe such rubbish. Surely, the wily Herr Hitler wrote "Mein Kampf" to win votes by appealing to Germans' sense of victimhood, like a pandering American politician.

Dad mistakenly applied American norms. He soon learned that Hitler was no D'Alesandro, nor was Hitler constrained by the U.S. Constitution.

A few years after he read "Mein Kampf," my father was among the U.S. soldiers liberating a forced labor camp where Nazis deliberately starved to death hundreds of people within sight of tons of food, a tiny part of Hitler's master plan to exterminate Jews and other "sub-humans." Only then did my father realize that the visionary Hitler was a planner who saw individuals as nothing, but the plan and group as everything.

Today, many students misjudge Hamas just as my dad misjudged Hitler. Disturbingly, others support Hamas because of neo-Marxist ideologies denigrating individual rights.

Within days of the attack, over 30 Harvard University student groups signed a letter calling Israel "solely responsible" for Hamas' atrocities. Similar statements came at other Ivy League universities, the tips of a vast ideological iceberg.

As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay detail in "Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity," post-colonial theory and related critical theories have gained influence at places like Harvard. These ideologies promote intergroup violence while rejecting objectivity, individual rights, merit systems, the rule of law, and national boundaries. For post-colonial theorists, Jewish children in Israel are not individuals with decades of family history in the region and historic roots dating back millennia--they are instead "settler colonialists" who deserve what they get.

Critical theory pioneer Angela Davis likewise spent decades explaining why imprisoned Soviet dissidents "deserve what they get." The Soviet KGB also produced Vladimir Putin. Other critical theorists justify Stalin's murder of millions of Ukrainians, horrors explaining why Ukrainians today resist Putin's invasion ("Communist Study: Education for the Commons, 2nd Edition," rowman.com).

If you think I'm overstating critical theory's influence, consider that Paulo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" is the third most cited work in the social sciences and among the most widely assigned in college courses--Freire praised Marxist disasters including China's bloody Cultural Revolution.

How should educators respond to all this?

First, we must challenge Hamas supporters to openly debate whether Israel, recognized by the United Nations for over 70 years, is a legitimate nation, and second, whether anything justifies Hamas' intentional brutality and repeated promises to "kill the Jews" (read avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp). Even Hitler was more subtle. To be clear, one can both want a Palestinian state, as did President Clinton, and oppose evil--it's not an either/or.

Second, educators should recognize post-colonial theory as part of a broad movement to erase Marxism's historic failures. To resist, we should celebrate Nov. 9, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which democratized eastern Europe and (for a time) Russia. From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, U.S. leaders helped contain and eventually defeat Marxist regimes led by the likes of Mr. Putin which murdered 90 million people while savaging political, economic, religious, artistic, and sexual freedom. Make Fall of the Wall a national holiday.

Finally, educators must teach students to reject the relativism portraying imperfect democracies like the U.S., Canada, and Israel as no better than Cuba, Russia, and Gaza under Hamas. To do this, I and others donated time to build American Birthright: The Civics Alliance's Model k-12 Social Studies Standards, modeled after the bipartisan Massachusetts standards used under Governor Mitt Romney (civicsalliance.org/american-birthright).

We must teach about democracy and its more repressive alternatives, or we will make my father's mistake, not noticing the difference until it's too late.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and a former school board member. These ideas are his alone.