History at a Crossroads
The AHA Responds to Attacks on Honest History
Much of my time lately, in collaboration with colleagues among the AHA staff and Council, has focused on what we refer to as “divisive concepts” legislation—so called because of that term’s popularity among state legislators driven by an urge to unravel the integrity of public education. Over the past two years, we’ve written letters to legislators and school boards in 20 states, directed especially to the implications of this legislation for history education.
Initially, these bills focused especially on race, and more specifically on how the history of racism in the United States is taught in K–12 classrooms. The authors of these pieces of legislation were apparently obsessed with what they were calling “critical race theory,” the 1619 Project, and alleged widespread practices whereby history teachers somehow made students feel responsible for racism practiced by their ancestors. This original focus remains in what has evolved since, but it is now complemented by references to LGBTQ+ issues, hiring practices, tenure, diversity training in just about any form, university governance, and more. There’s a bit of an “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” element to this legislation because much of it is crafted from templates provided by right-wing think tanks and journalists.
This recent legislative activity is itself complemented by similarly radical activism in the arena of state standards for K–12 social studies instruction. This is an important landscape, even in those states that do not assess student performance or where only a few grade levels have testing tied to the standards. Teachers who appropriately include controversial (but professionally respectable) materials, especially relating to race and gender, can invoke well-designed standards in response when encountering criticism from parents, local media, or school boards. Teachers with whom the AHA has been working have encountered this pushback in states and even communities with diverse political profiles. It most often comes from the right, but orthodoxy and parental pressures have many political valences.
Obviously it is disingenuous to say that the AHA is “staying out of politics” in this work. We’re diving deeply (and putting a lot of staff time) into processes that are political by their nature. But we are committed in this work to focusing on what we know: history and history education, and maintaining its integrity.
We are committed in this work to focusing on what we know: history and history education, and maintaining its integrity.
For the most recent (as of this writing in early April) versions of this increasingly broad legislation, look to the AHA’s Statement Opposing Florida House Bill 999, endorsed by 84 other organizations, and to the following op-ed published in the Columbus Dispatch on April 4, 2023, that I co-authored with Anne Hyde, vice president of the AHA Professional Division.
Unwieldy Bill Would Destroy Higher Education in Ohio
The people of Ohio can take pride in a public university system that offers a high-quality education at campuses spread widely across the state. Some members of the state legislature, however, seem prepared to sacrifice this asset to ideological special interests undermining both educational content and the institutions themselves. Ohio Senate Bill 83, perhaps best summarized as an unwieldy omnibus of contradictory mandates, would not only enable but even require classroom-level intervention by state officials. To ensure that faculty "not seek to inculcate any social political or religious point of view," Senate Bill 83 requires all course syllabi to be reviewed for keyword searches and content management.
We agree that classrooms must be spaces where students can experiment with ideas without worrying about ideological boundaries, places where teachers stimulate students to explore freely without “inculcating” anything other than the value of intellectual curiosity and disciplinary rigor and ethics. But oversight of this kind, scrutinizing content at the microscopic level of keywords, smacks not of guaranteeing the ideological diversity cited in the legislation but of the government surveillance more closely resembling the Soviet Union or Communist China than a public university system in the United States.
One wonders what the overseers will be looking for. Any respectable course in US history will be chock-full of references to racism, white supremacy, nativism, second-class citizenship, class conflict, forced migrations, and other terms likely to raise eyebrows of guardians of a version of history devoid of conflict and division. Freedom, innovation, liberty, democracy, dissent, markets, and other concepts that characterize admirable aspects of our national past would also be part of that course.
Senate Bill 83 poses a threat to public higher education itself.
Senate Bill 83 focuses especially on required US history courses, claiming legislative intent merely to prohibit “requiring” or “encouraging” students to endorse a particular ideology. However, the law requires teaching only six particular political documents in all US history courses. Such narrowness, without comparing those documents to a wider range of what Americans have read, discussed, and debated, is the very definition of teaching “ideology.”
American history is steeped in divisions and conflicts shaped by ideas about race and by cultures and institutional structures that perpetuate those divisions. This is fact, not theory or ideology. To ignore, or even minimize, those divisions renders it impossible to create the bridges and shared understanding necessary to maintain national unity. To heal wounds requires acknowledging, locating, and understanding them.
Healing, however, is not the purpose of this legislation. Couched in barely concealed euphemisms, the bill enforces an education that whitewashes the history of our nation and its people. Keeping to the margins such central issues as slavery; forced removals of Native Americans; and inequalities based on race, ethnicity, gender, and other characteristics excludes material likely to inspire the vigorous discussion that characterizes a good history class. If a college instructor cannot assign material that will make students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex,” as Senate Bill 83 dictates, how are students to understand what it meant for some people to own, buy, and sell human property and others to experience enslavement, commodification, and everyday violations of their humanity? The past is filled with decisions, relationships, and events that can easily make us feel uncomfortable about our predecessors. A good history instructor makes it clear that nobody in the class should feel responsible for what their ancestors did. But only by understanding what happened in the past can the students work to shape a better future.
Though this legislation might appear to respond to public concerns about history education, it does not. Professional, nonpartisan survey data indicates 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 reverberates into the present. According to a recent national survey conducted by the American Historical Association and Fairleigh Dickinson University, three-quarters of both Republicans and Democrats support teaching history about “harm that some groups did to others” even if it causes students some discomfort. Surveys by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (and others) indicate that employers look for critical thinkers who know how to ask questions rather than memorize answers.
Senate Bill 83 is not only a danger to the quality of history education. It poses a threat to public higher education itself. It would inappropriately inject university boards of trustees into decisions about faculty hiring and work responsibilities—an intrusion across the boundary of governance and management in any nonprofit entity. Similarly, the bill would replace evidence-based locally designed teaching and research evaluations with procedures and rubrics created by state officials, raising additional concerns about political intrusions on academic freedom.
Everything has a history. What is really at stake with Senate Bill 83 is the quality of preparation of Ohio university graduates. If passed, this bill would undermine education in Ohio by preventing qualified instructors from teaching honest and accurate history.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA; he tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. Anne Hyde is professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and the AHA Council’s vice president, Professional Division.
Tags: From the Executive Director Advocacy
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