News Topic

Advocacy, History Education

Thematic

State & Local (US)

The AHA has sent letters to the Alabama House of Representatives and Senate opposing HB 312, HB 8, HB 9, and HB 11, as well as SB 292, SB 9, and SB 7, which would restrict history education.


March 15, 2022

Dear Members of the Alabama House of Representatives:

The American Historical Association registers strong opposition to HB 312, HB 8, HB 9, and HB 11, as well as SB 292, SB 9, and SB 7. Formally, these bills 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.

For example, HB 8 prohibits K–12 schools and institutions of higher education from teaching concepts such as the state of Alabama or “the United States of America is inherently racist or sexist” and that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” HB 312 contains similar language, prohibiting that “any individual should be asked to accept, acknowledge, affirm, or assent to a sense of guilt, complicity, or a need to work harder solely on the basis of his or her race or 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 both HB 8 and HB 312 include language that claim the bill is not to be “construed to prohibit the discussion of divisive concepts in an objective manner and without endorsement as part of a larger course of academic instruction.” 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 Alabama’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 Alabama’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 Alabama’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 152 organizations, including seven college accreditation agencies.

Sincerely,

James Grossman
Executive Director


March 15, 2022

Dear Members of the Alabama Senate:

The American Historical Association registers strong opposition to SB 292, SB 9, and SB 7, as well as HB 312, HB 8, HB 9, and HB 11. Formally, these bills 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.

For example, SB 292 prohibits K–12 schools and institutions of higher education from teaching concepts such as the State of Alabama or “the United States of America is inherently racist or sexist” and that “any individual should be asked to accept, acknowledge, affirm, or assent to a sense of guilt, complicity, or a need to work harder solely on the basis of his or her race or 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 292 includes language that claims the bill is not to be “construed to prohibit a public institution of higher education from discussing any divisive concept in an objective manner and without endorsement as part of a larger course of academic instruction.” 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 Alabama’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 Alabama’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 Alabama’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 152 organizations, including seven college accreditation agencies.

Sincerely,

James Grossman
Executive Director