Since January 2021, legislators in 41 states have introduced “divisive concepts” legislation, seeking to restrict what educators can teach in the classroom. These bills have targeted how the history of racism and slavery in the United States are taught, but they have also had crucial implications for how educators approach many other historical topics, from the Holocaust to LGBTQ+ civil rights and more. Most legislation so far has focused especially on K–12 education, often with uncertain implications for higher education. Direct inclusion of higher education has gradually risen as well.
Several sessions at the 136th AHA annual meeting in Philadelphia will focus on the implications of divisive concepts legislation and offer guidance for supporting educators. Other sessions will address the teaching of history in K–12 and higher education classrooms more broadly. The common themes running through many of these sessions are: How does one teach history with integrity in today’s charged atmosphere? How can historians support each other and promote the teaching of honest history? How can we best counter the politicization of teaching evidence-based history?
Two sessions, both organized by an AHA Council or staff member, will explore the impact of divisive concepts legislation and offer strategies for those advocating for teaching history with professional integrity:
Friday, January 6, 10:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m.
This session brings together the leadership of the AHA—including Kathleen M. Hilliard, vice president of the Teaching Division; executive director James Grossman; and special projects coordinator Julia Brookins—with Lawrence Paska and Shannon Pugh, executive director and president, respectively, of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) to continue a conversation begun on a related panel at the NCSS annual meeting in December 2022. The panelists will address the chilling effect of divisive concepts legislation on educators and how to understand the restrictions posed by such bills. They will discuss their associations’ recent advocacy work supporting history educators and countering legislation restricting history education. The conversation will also highlight resources developed by the AHA and NCSS to assist their members and educators opposing such legislation.
Saturday, January 7, 8:30–10:00 a.m.
The debates over the teaching of divisive concepts are not limited to the United States. In this session, Hasan Kwame Jeffries (Ohio State Univ.), Miranda Johnson (Univ. of Otago), Abigail Branford (Univ. of Oxford), and session chair Julia Brookins (AHA) will examine how other countries face similar tensions in education policy, and what lessons we may learn from how such debates have unfolded. New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States are among the countries that will be discussed.
Other sessions will feature K–12 educators, discussing their personal experiences and strategies for teaching history and on the front lines of today’s history wars:
Sunday, January 8, 9:00–10:30 a.m.
During this roundtable, secondary school teachers and education administration professionals will discuss the fraught challenges of teaching history in K–12 classrooms today. For educators in states with divisive concepts bills on the books, teaching honest history may now carry a real risk to their careers. History educators and administrators whose primary goal is to teach history with integrity are grappling with an increasingly politicized atmosphere. State and local officials, parents, and students compete with educational professionals to determine how history should be taught. In this heated space, history teachers must strike a difficult balance, teaching students how to use the past to make sense of the present while situating historical actors in their own time. Join chair Michael Williams (National Humanities Center); panelists Nataliya Braginsky (Academic Skills Center, Dartmouth Coll.), Adam Davis (School District of Philadelphia), Elizabeth Mulcahy (Albemarle County Schools), and Tyrone Shaw (McKinley Technology High School); and commentator Scott Abbott (District of Columbia Public Schools) as they discuss these issues.
The Radical History Review has also organized several sessions on educational culture wars, past and present, and how educators can support each other. At Roundtable: Teaching the Truth in Secondary Schools during Contentious Times (Saturday, January 7, 1:30–3:00 p.m.), secondary school teachers will discuss the blowback they have encountered when teaching US history, and effective strategies they have used to respond. The panelists will elaborate on the chilling effect divisive concepts legislation has had on teachers, offer approaches to ensure evidence-based history is taught, and emphasize the many reasons students benefit from being taught honest history. Roundtable: The “Ed Scare”—The Current Conservative Panic over the Academy and Its Antecedents (Friday, January 6, 3:30–5:00 p.m.), chaired by Jonathan Zimmerman (Univ. of Pennsylvania), will examine historical examples of political attacks against the American education community.
Still other sessions will address the role of state standards in shaping—or not shaping—US history education. The AHA’s research staff will present 50 Shades of the American Curriculum: A Progress Report on the AHA’s Mapping the Landscape of Secondary US History Education Project (Sunday, January 8, 9:00–10:30 a.m.), where attendees will hear about what the team has learned so far about what is actually being taught in US history classrooms around the country. And Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth about Reconstruction (Saturday, January 7, 3:30–5:00 p.m.) will address a recent report that assessed the teaching of Reconstruction across 50 states and Washington, DC.
Historians are on the front lines of this debate over history education. These and other sessions at AHA23 provide crucial information, resources, and encouragement. For more sessions on teaching honest history and related topics, visit our guide to Sessions on Controversies in History Education at AHA23 or check out the full program.
Alexandra F. Levy is communications manager at the AHA. She tweets @AlexandraFL21.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.