ACADEMICALLY SPEAKING: ‘Benjamin Franklin’ shows America how to move forward from Critical Race Theory

If Critical Race Theory proponents truly desire change, they must move beyond their simplistic and academically lazy prejudices and engage in the kind of historical analysis that the documentary'Benjamin Franklin' performs.

"Academically Speaking" is a series by Campus Reform Managing Editor Zachary Marschall that, drawing on his firsthand experience working with other scholars across the globe, reveals how radical ideas originating in academia impact Americans’ daily lives. 

Marschall holds a PhD in Cultural Studies and is an adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky. His research investigates the intersections of democratic political systems, free market economies, and technological innovation in the production of national and cultural identities, as well as the exchange of cultural goods, services, and practices.

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In October 2021, Campus Reform reported that Rutgers University Professor Brittney Cooper stated during the virtual talk, “Unpacking the Attacks on Critical Race Theory,” that Critical Race Theory “is just the proper teaching of American history.”

However, Benjamin Franklin, the new two-episode PBS documentary by Ken Burns that premiered earlier this month, just proved Cooper wrong.   

As Cooper’s comments evince, Critical Race Theory presents itself as the only way to understand its field of focus, American history.

No other theory in the humanities or social sciences presents itself as undeniably above scrutiny or doubt in the way that Critical Race Theory does.  

As Angela Morabito wrote for Campus Reform last year, “Critical Race Theory is a doctrine that holds that all American legal institutions are racist and that every interaction in the present day must be viewed through the lens of race, particularly as it relates to historical oppression.”

Morabito also reported in 2021 that Critical Race Theory proponents in the media painted state legislation barring its imposition on students in classrooms as “seek[ing] to ban or limit teaching of the role of slavery in U.S. history.”

Accordingly, in February 2022, one Vanderbilt University professor tweeted that those who oppose Critical Race Theory are “ignorant racist[s].”

Yet, Benjamin Franklin does engage critically and with complexity the issues of slavery and violence against Native Americans without subscribing to the Critical Race Theory framework.

Its narrative covers the colonial period through the founding of the United States and moral failings of the Three-Fifth Compromise in the Constitution.

What’s more, the documentary prominently features scholars whose research focuses on the history of slavery and Black women in early America without asserting that it is the only way to understand that period: Christopher Brown and Erica Dunbar.

Christopher Brown, a history professor at Yale University, is a graduate of Oxford University with a research agenda on “the history of European experience on the African coast at the height of the Atlantic slave trade, and continues early commitments to the rise and fall of slavery in the British Empire.”

Erica Dunbar, a history professor at Rutgers University and National Director of the Association of Black Women Historians, is a practitioner of social history, a comparatively recent concentration in the history discipline that researches the experiences of those marginalized in or omitted from mainstream historical records.

“I am honored to be counted among only a handful of distinguished scholars who study the lives of women of African descent who called America their home during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Dunbar writes on her website.

Whatever Brown and Dunbar feel about Critical Race Theory personally – and they have the prerogative to believe in its tenets – neither scholar preaches the framework in the documentary.

Both Brown and Dunbar give thoughtful and rich analyses of Franklin as a slaveowner, inventor, diplomatic, intellectual, and American. Praise is qualified and criticism is levied equally by historical context. This approach neither paints Franklin as inhumanly perfect nor does it lambast the Founding Father for not behaving by 21st-century social norms.

Critical Race Theory can only judge past events through the lens of present-day values and remedies.

Those remedies can include historical erasure.

In 2020, Washburn University removed a statue of Benjamin Franklin from its campus at the same time it took down one of Thomas Jefferson, another slave owner, Campus Reform reported at the time.

As Boston University’s Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, writes, “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

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In that sense, Benjamin Franklin concluding its narrative of Franklin as a flawed, but redeeming historical figure who made life better for others is beyond the reach of Critical Race Theory’s capacity to see complexity, contradiction, and nuance in human nature.

That Benjamin Franklin can weave together dominant historical narratives with the experience of both slaves and Native Americans in the same documentary refutes the premise that opposition to Critical Race Theory is opposition to teaching African American history.

In the spirit of championing freedom of speech on campus and decrying safe spaces’ censorship of viewpoint diversity, curricula on slavery and violence against Native Americans should make students feel uncomfortable. The truth is ugly but must be confronted honestly.

Yet, contrary to Critical Race Theory’s false positioning, there is no one right way to do that. The kind of retribution that Kendi lays out only leads to unproductive vengeance and resentment.

If Critical Race Theory proponents truly desire change, they must move beyond their simplistic and academically lazy prejudices and engage in the kind of historical analysis that Benjamin Franklin performs.

Benjamin Franklin debuted on Apr. 4-5 as the creation of famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

The first episode, “Join or Die,” covers Franklin’s life up to 1774, a turning point in the Founding Father’s narrative from loyal colonial inventor and entrepreneur to revolutionary elder statesman of the newly formed United States. Accordingly, episode two, “An American,” tracks Franklin’s later years during the American Revolution and up to his death in 1790.

“An American” opens with the writer Stacy Schiff capturing that essence of Franklin that makes him enduringly fascinating. 

Schiff states: 

“Join or Die” presents many of the paradoxes that inform Schiff’s analysis.

As the first episode informs viewers, Franklin was a slave owner but cared about his slaves’ education. He considered himself a friend of the Native Americans but pursued colonial settlement in Ohio that would inevitably displace indigenous populations.

The narration is richly complex. On the topic of Native American relations and persecution, Benjamin Franklin explains that in Pennsylvania, the urban Quaker population vigorously opposed the unfair and violent treatment that German and Scots-Irish frontier settlers levied against the native tribes.

Rather than reducing the history of colonialism in North America to a White and non-White binary, the documentary engages in the complexities of ethnic, economic, and geographical politics.

Accordingly, the documentary never attempts to rationalize Franklin’s culpability in slavery and Native American relations, nor does it attempt to discredit his positive contributions to society. But through its complex analysis, the documentary explains the competition between Franklin’s personal feelings and his socio-political position that generated those contradictions.  

In episode one, Harvard Professor Joyce Chaplin states that Franklin “is so relentless in learning how to do things, learning how to do things correctly in a certain way, how to write, how to dress, how to how to speak to different kinds of people.”

That ambition, according to Chaplin, explains why the Founding Father was so well accomplished across disciplines despite his lack of schooling.

Benjamin Franklin does not, however, engage in the Critical Race Theory-based critique that “doing things correctly” engages in “white supremacy.”

That critique lies at the foundation of the framework.

For example, in 2020, Campus Reform reported one Brooklyn College instructor’s claim that “asking whether 2 plus 2 equals 4 ‘reeks of white supremacist patriarchy.’"

Notice the double standard. Critical Race Theory simultaneously contends that the notion of a correct answer is racist and yet announces itself as the only non-racist way to study history.

Rather, Chaplin’s assessment is used in the documentary to perform character analysis on the Founding Father who “invented” himself into the most famous and cosmopolitan American of his time.

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That life trajectory is essential to understanding the totality of Franklin’s flaws and brilliance.

As a result, Burns’ rendering of Franklin comes closer to capturing the true essence of individual humanity than Critical Race Theory has ever achieved.

The historians featured on Benjamin Franklin evidently have more patience for the mess that is humanity than Cooper, who also stated during that talk that White people “kind of deserve” their declining “birth rates” because they are “committed to being villains.”

Benjamin Franklin takes great pains to explain how the European Enlightenment influenced Franklin and other Founding Fathers. The Enlightenment rationalized scholarly inquiry and through that process demonstrated how monarchical rule was incompatible with individual liberty.

Franklin lived through his contradictions on race and power because humans are not innately rational creatures. They can achieve and apply rationality through effort, but no amount of scientific information or enlightened thinking fundamentally changes human nature.

As Oxford University Professor Ritchie Robertson explains in his 2021 book The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness 1680-1790, Enlightenment philosophes utilized rational thinking to ascertain happiness in the lives of Europeans who were living under the control of superstition and absolute monarchy.

In banishing superstitious thought through scientific rationalization, the philosophes also demonstrated how individual liberty – as the vehicle for individual happiness – was unachievable within the systems of monarchial rule that propped up remnant medieval religious and social institutions based on pre-modern thinking.

“Join or Die” states that Franklin’s discovery that lightning is an electrical current dispelled the remnant Western idea that the weather phenomenon was the displeasure of a Higher Power. In “An American” comes Franklin’s realization that only American liberty and republicanism can achieve his social and political organization vision.

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But taken to its extreme, the Enlightenment thinking has faltered in assuming that “life on earth is perfectible,” as Dickinson State University scholar Clay Jenkinson states in “Join or Die.”  

That is the same problem that current progressive academic ideas suffer from today, namely Critical Race Theory proponents.

Neither “life on earth” nor individual humans are perfectible. People and humanity are messy things.

Critical Race Theory can never accept that, however, because once it does it falls apart and crumbles into a heap of politically motivated untruths.  

Benjamin Franklin is the roadmap for moving beyond both uncritical platitudes in dominant historical narratives as well as the bulldozing critiques that lead to villainization and “present discrimination.”