Why Public School Supporters Need to Keep On Pushing Back Against Laws Banning Discussion of “Divisive” Subjects at School

Late in February, Wisconsin’s legislature passed a parents’ bill of rights bill, which, Wisconsin Public Radio reports, “would give parents and guardians guaranteed rights with regard to how their children are taught in school. Those include the right to review instructional materials…. The bill… allows parents and guardians to sue governments and officials who violate those rights.” Public school advocates hope that Governor Tony Evers, who previously served as the state’s superintendent of public instruction, will veto this bill.

And in the Ohio House of Representatives, the State and Local Government Committee is holding hearings on Ohio Substitute House Bill 327, which prohibits teaching about and promoting ‘divisive’ concepts.  Teachers and principals could have their licenses revoked if the law passes.

While debate about these bills, which have become law in more than twenty states, continues to be raucous and divisive, it is not inevitable that teaching in K-12 public schools will become dominated by efforts to deny the damage of slavery or to silence teaching about the boarding schools whose purpose was to erase the languages and cultures of American Indians.

The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent reported on a new CBS News poll documenting that all the sound and fury does not accurately represent public opinion: “Eighty-three percent of Americans say books should never be banned for criticizing U.S. history; 85 percent oppose banning them for airing ideas you disagree with; and 87 percent oppose banning them for discussing race or depicting slavery. What’s more, 76 percent of Americans say schools should be allowed to teach ideas and historical events that ‘might make some students uncomfortable.’ And 68 percent say such teachings make people more understanding of what others went through, while 58 percent believe racism is still a serious problem today. Finally, 66 percent say public schools either teach too little about the history of Black Americans (42 percent) or teach the right amount (24 percent).”

Washington Post reporter Lateshia Beachum reported what happened in the Wyoming legislature when a state representative stood up to oppose a bill banning teaching about divisive subjects: “Wyoming state Rep. Andy Schwartz (D) stood before his colleagues on Thursday to share his concerns about moving forward with… HB 97, which would have banned the teaching… of critical race theory. After reviewing the bill, Schwartz found unacceptable provisions, such as one that allowed ‘controversial aspects of history’ to only be taught ‘from a holistic point of view, a complete, neutral, and unbiased perspective….’ ‘I am Jewish, and I cannot accept a neutral, judgment-free approach on the murder of 6 million Jews during World War II… In learning about the Holocaust, I have suffered a lifetime of discomfort and distress… It is essential that as students learn about this dark time in our history, they do feel discomfort and distress.'” Beachum reports that Schwartz’s colleagues paid attention. The bill Schwartz protested failed an initial House vote, although a similar law is progressing in the Wyoming Senate.

Writing for the NY Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein denounces the idea embodied in the wave of laws across the state legislatures proclaiming that history can be captured in a single story of the past. Silverstein rejects: “that somehow, long ago, the nation’s historians identified the relevant set of facts about our past, and it is the job of subsequent generations to simply protect and disseminate them. This conception denies history its own history—the dynamic, contested and frankly pretty thrilling process by which an understanding of the past is formed and reformed. The study of this is known as historiography, and a knowledge of American historiography, in particular the way our historical profession evolved to take fuller account of the role of slavery and racism in our past, is critical to understanding the debates of the past two years.”

Last June, a group of academic and professional organizations released a Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History, defending the civic purpose of encouraging students honestly to explore the history of our nation, including-the parts we can be proud of and the parts likely to shame us: “The ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration. Educators owe students a clear-eyed, nuanced, and frank delivery of history, so that they can learn, grow, and confront the issues of the day, not hew to some state-ordered ideology… Americans of all ages deserve nothing less than a free and open exchange about history and the forces that shape our world today, an exchange that should take place inside the classroom as well as in the public realm generally.”

This is not a statement from “woke” extremists. The sponsors of the letter were the American Association of University Professors, the American Historical Association, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and PEN America. The list of 154 co-signing organizations includes the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the American Educational Research Association, the American Library Association, the American Philosophical Association, the American Political Science Association, the Anti-Defamation League, the Association of Research Libraries, the Modern Language Association, the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Council of Teachers of English, Phi Beta Kappa Society, the Society of American Historians, and NEA/AFT/FEA/AFL-CIO.

One problem with the new wave of laws is that they cede the power to seize control of the school curriculum and deny the history of many public school students to far-right think tanks and parents with the loudest voices.

Walter Feinberg, emeritus professor of the philosophy of education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign believes that public schools must be a site of mutual respect, a setting that protects the rights of all students to find their voices and also to listen to the voices and appreciate the experiences of others: “To be an American, that is, to submit to the nation’s laws, is different than to identify oneself as an American and to participate in the public will formations that determine the direction of national action and inaction. This identification is active and requires an engagement with interpretations of events that comprise the American story. That there is an ‘American story’ means not that there is one official understanding of the American experience but, rather, that those who are telling their versions of the story are doing so in order to contribute to better decision making on the part of the American nation and that they understand that they are part of those decisions. The concept is really ‘Americans’ stories’…  This means, among other things, that students must learn about the various meanings that people from different backgrounds might give to different events. They need to address these differences in ways that promote continuing discussion…  (T)he common school must be involved in teaching students both to speak from the knowledge that their cultural identity provides and, as audience, to hear the voices of others… It is within and across this medley of difference that the common school continues the dialogue begun during the American Revolution about the nature of national unity and the character of national identity.” (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, pp. 232-245) (emphasis in the original)

In the final,very powerful essay in the new book, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, retired professor of education at the University of Illinois Chicago, Bill Ayers articulates a philosophy of public education that refuses to cater to the privilege of any one group of parents or ideologues who demand to control a school district’s curriculum, deny the lived history of some groups of students, and recast American history to fit their particular ideology or mythology. “In a free society education must focus on the production—not of things, but—of free people capable of developing minds of their own even as they recognize the importance of learning to live with others. It’s based, then, on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being, constructed on the principle that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each, and conversely that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 315) (emphasis in the original)