News Topic

Advocacy, History Education


State & Local (US)

AHA Topics

K–12 Education

The AHA has sent a letter to members of the West Virginia House of Delegates opposing Senate Bills 498, 45, 182, 558, 587, and 618 and House Bills 4011, 4016, and 2595, which would restrict history education.

March 4, 2022

Dear Members of the West Virginia House of Delegates:

The American Historical Association registers strong opposition to West Virginia’s proposed divisive content legislation. Foremost of these is Senate Bill 498, but also including House Bills 4011, 4016, and 2595 and Senate Bills 45, 182, 558, 587, and 618. Formally, these bills would prohibit discriminatory teaching, but in effect would make it virtually impossible for teachers to help students understand the continuing impact of slavery and racism in American history. At the very least, teachers will be wary, uncertain as to the boundaries of the law.

Among other things, SB 498 prohibits West Virginia’s K–12 educators from teaching concepts such as “An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race, ethnicity, or biological sex.”

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 498 includes language that claims the bill is not to be construed to prohibit the “discussion, examination, and debate that the role that race, ethnicity, or biological sex has impacted historical or current events, including the causes of those current or historical events.” 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, these bills would result in ignorance of basic facts about American history and undermine the education of West Virginia’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. As higher education accrediting bodies require that institutions adhere to the principles of academic freedom and independence from external pressure, this bill could also threaten the accreditation of West Virginia’s public colleges and universities. Accreditation problems would, in turn, imperil your students’ access to federal financial aid.

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. Without accreditation, degrees from West Virginia’s universities would be much less useful on the job market.

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