AHA Sends Letter to Kansas Legislature Opposing Legislation Restricting History Education (March 2022)

The AHA has sent a letter to the Kansas Senate Committee on Education opposing HB 515, which would restrict history education.   

March 30, 2022

Dear Members of the Kansas Senate Committee on Education:

The American Historical Association registers strong opposition to House Bill 515. Formally, this bill would prohibit discriminatory teaching, but in effect would make it virtually impossible for teachers to help students thoughtfully consider the continuing impacts of slavery and racism in American history. At the very least, teachers will be wary, uncertain as to the boundaries of the law.

HB 515 prohibits K–12 public schools from teaching that “individuals should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of their race or sex.” It also prohibits teaching that “the United States or Kansas is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”

Though this legislation might appear to respond to public concerns about history education, it does nothing of the kind. In reality, there is overwhelming and bipartisan public support for what the vast majority of history educators actually teach on this subject: that slavery and racism have played a key role in shaping American history, and that their influence redounds to the present day. According to a recent national survey conducted by the AHA and Fairleigh Dickinson University, three-quarters of both Republicans and Democrats support teaching history about harm some have done to others even if it causes students discomfort—exactly what history educators, with only rare exceptions, do in the classroom. Effective history teachers engage students in challenging explorations of the past to foster understanding and learning. The past is filled with decisions, relationships, and events that can easily make us feel uncomfortable about our predecessors.

It is important to acknowledge that SB 515 includes language that claims the bill is not to be construed to prohibit discussion of the “history of an ethnic group; the impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history; [or] the impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people.” However, the practical effect of this policy would be to make teachers think twice before teaching students that the US Constitution prohibited any limitations on the slave trade for two decades, that the Plessy v. Ferguson decision legalized racial segregation, or that women were excluded from voting booths for a substantial period of American history.

With almost 12,000 members, the AHA is the largest membership association of professional historians in the world, representing every historical era and geographical area. Founded in 1884 and incorporated by Congress in 1889 for the promotion of historical studies, the Association provides leadership for the discipline, helps to sustain and enhance the work of historians, and promotes the critical role of historical thinking in public life. Everything has a history.

What is really at stake with this policy is the quality of preparation of your students. If passed, this bill would result in ignorance of basic facts about American history and undermine the education of Kansas’s students, including their ability to perform effectively on the US History Advanced Placement test or successfully complete college-level dual enrollment courses in US history.

This bears emphasis: The legislation you are considering would do significant harm to students in your state. The important gaps in the knowledge of high school students would limit their college preparedness and their access to early college credit.

It would also harm their employment prospects. As the AHA has documented through our extensive work on career preparedness in history classrooms, the aspect of history education employers value most is students’ ability to communicate with and understand people from different backgrounds. This policy would limit students’ exposure to complex and contested voices from the past, making them less competitive job candidates and imperiling their future career prospects.

The AHA urges you to reject these misguided, harmful, and unnecessary restrictions on history education. I attach a statement criticizing similar legislative efforts to restrict education about racism in American history, co-authored by the AHA in June 2021 and signed by 155 organizations, including seven college accreditation agencies.

James Grossman
Executive Director