The Integrity of History Education
Bills Censoring K–12 Classrooms Censor Higher Education as Well
Over the past two years, legislation that would ban so-called divisive concepts concerning race, gender, sexuality, and US history in classrooms and class assignments has spread rapidly across the nation. Legislators have introduced nearly 200 such “educational gag order” bills in 42 states.
In 18 states, with a population of 118 million—about a third of all Americans—one or more such provisions are now in force. This radical legislation denies divisions that undeniably exist in US society and presumes that if we sugarcoat or hide from young people the challenges we continue to confront, such divisions will miraculously disappear.
We have news for these legislators. Everything has a history, including race, gender, and sexuality. If our students do not understand these histories, including the conflicts and divisions relating to these and other social categories, they will not understand the complex world in which they live. Educators prohibited from teaching history with professional integrity cannot provide students the resources they need to become responsible citizens in a democratic society.
Most of these straitjackets are tailored for educators in elementary and secondary schools. In seven states, however, divisive concepts bans also explicitly apply to colleges and universities: Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Florida, where the higher education portion of the Stop WOKE Act has been stayed temporarily by a federal judge. But even the more common strategy of focusing on supposedly impressionable younger students, often with references to “indoctrination” and age-appropriate boundaries (which are not in and of themselves illegitimate), does not spare higher education from the bludgeon.
Educators prohibited from teaching history with professional integrity cannot provide resources students need to become responsible citizens in a democratic society.
As the Florida Department of Education’s (DOE) decision to ban a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies from the state’s high schools makes clear, laws and policies that censor high school classrooms affect colleges too, albeit often indirectly. Consider concurrent-enrollment (also known as “dual enrollment”) courses. In the 2010–11 school year, US high schools reported about 1.4 million enrollments in courses offering dual high school and college credit in academic subjects including history. These courses are typically delivered in a high school by an instructor who is credentialed and monitored by a local college and who in many cases holds an appointment as a college faculty member.
Procedures vary widely by state and institution, but in every case, these are college courses, taught by college-certified instructors, that are restricted by applicable K–12 divisive concepts laws because they are also offered for high school credit. In Texas, for instance, it’s illegal for concurrent-enrollment instructors whose courses are curriculum requirements to “require an understanding” of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project in a US history course—even if a teacher is merely asking students to compare the material with readings offering different perspectives.
In Kentucky, dual-credit US history instructors are required to teach their students “that defining racial disparities solely on the legacy of [slavery] is destructive to the unification of our nation.” Defining the scope of the “legacy of slavery” is challenging indeed, but one wonders what else the legislators have in mind as foundations of racial inequality in a state whose history reflects not only the importance of slavery as an institution but also its legacies: white supremacist terrorism, segregation, and the unequal distribution of public resources.
K–12 teacher training programs in colleges of education are another area where divisive concepts provisions supposedly focused on K–12 classrooms can reach into the college setting. It is not always clear whether a law with a K–12 scope would extend to direct censorship of the professional preparation of teachers in college classrooms.
In South Dakota, however, the enforcers of divisive concepts policies are taking no chances: Executive Order 2022-02, issued by Governor Kristi Noem in April 2022, implemented a ban on divisive concepts in K–12 schools and directed te state DOE to review its policies and content standards. That review, in turn, led to changes in teacher preparation at the college level. In its June report, the DOE deleted from the curriculum of an Indian studies course—a three-credit class required by law of all preservice teacher—a directive that the course “establish a fundamental awareness” of “race and gender bias, stereotyping, assumptions, etc.” To remove all doubt regarding their intentions, the report authors actually crossed out the requirement with a pen. The next step for the DOE, according to the report, is to “engage the Board of Regents, private colleges, and tribal colleges, encouraging them to undertake a similar review [of teacher preparation programs] to ensure alignment with the EO.”
Yes, you read that right: the South Dakota Department of Education wants tribal colleges to remove information about “bias, stereotyping, assumptions, etc.” from their Indian studies curricula for future educators. And they want public and even private colleges and universities to do the same—all because of an executive order that supposedly applies this absurd prohibition only to K–12 classrooms. This cannot, and must not, stand. No teacher with any professional historical expertise or integrity can in good conscience even imply to students that American history is not rife with “bias, stereotyping, [and] assumptions” in the treatment of Native Americans. To prohibit such content is wrong no matter where the school is located; to prohibit it in a state where one out of 12 residents is Native American is particularly egregious.
Laws and policies that censor high school classrooms affect colleges too.
Perhaps South Dakota represents an extreme case of how radical activists are trying to twist American education into a reactionary and procrustean version of patriotism. But it is only a short step from laws that censor teachers in K–12 schools to those that censor them in colleges and universities. Lawmakers sometimes copy legislative text from one context to another. In Tennessee, almost the entire text of the 2021 K–12 ban found its way into the higher education legislation that passed the following year. And perhaps the greatest long-term consequence of K–12 censorship legislation is just beginning to reach higher education. As students leave high school classes restricted by divisive concepts laws and enter college, they are likely to be less acquainted with accurate histories of their nation and communities. History professors already lament the gaps in students’ knowledge of US history; now that will be worse.
If higher education leaders and faculty hope to maintain the independence and educational quality of their institutions and to protect the democracy such institutions serve, they cannot afford to keep silent about legislation that censors their K–12 colleagues. Many have increasingly spoken out against divisive concepts legislation, even when it seems focused on the K–12 space—but more solidarity is needed. Historians can no longer sit by and lament the historical illiteracy of the students who walk into our college classrooms. Submit comments when your state seeks feedback on social studies standards. Participate in the committees that write such standards. Testify at public hearings when history education is on the agenda. Run for local or state school board. Use your expertise as a historian and make your voice heard. The independence and educational excellence of all American education is at stake.
And with that, the quality of democracy itself. Thomas Jefferson had it right when he insisted that public education should enable every citizen “to read, to judge and to vote understandingly on what is passing.” Laws that restrict public education about American history are laws that should not be passing at all.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA; he tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. Jeremy C. Young is senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America; he tweets @jeremycyoung.
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