What Are Students Learning?
“Divisive Concepts” in History Education
The stated goal of Glenn Youngkin’s first executive order as governor of Virginia, issued on January 15, 2022, was “to ensure excellence in K–12 public education in the Commonwealth.” The initial step along this presumably long and winding road would be “to end the use of inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory, and to raise academic standards.”
I’m all for excellent public education, and for raising academic standards where necessary. Indeed, Virginia at that very moment was in the midst of considering new—and, yes, raised—standards in American history, serious work that seems not to have crossed the governor’s radar.
There is little evidence, however, that the governor has a clear idea of what his state’s existing standards—at least in history—are. Since the context of his remarks suggests that his concerns lay largely in the teaching of history, and were part of a significant and ongoing national controversy, it’s worth parsing his words with some care. The pledge made frequently during his campaign, “to end the use of inherently divisive concepts,” stood atop an assumption: that those “concepts, including Critical Race Theory” are already in “use” in Virginia classrooms. Otherwise, there would be nothing to “end.”
This assumption also undergirds legislation introduced in 41 states since the beginning of 2021 and passed in 15 states by the end of July 2022. The AHA, in collaboration with PEN America, the American Association of University Professors, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities—and supported by more than 150 other organizations, including all regional higher education accreditors—has publicly opposed such efforts. More than 40 nonpartisan organizations, including associations of school boards and superintendents, have formed the Learn from History coalition to educate Americans on the threats such policies pose to public education, democracy, and civic culture.
Like other opponents of these legislative initiatives, we have insisted that no such thing is happening in the vast majority of American classrooms.
As part of its Teaching History with Integrity initiative, the AHA has gone further than most of its coalition partners and other history organizations in actively opposing “divisive concepts” legislation, including writing letters to legislators in states where these bills have a chance of success. Like other opponents of these legislative initiatives, we have insisted that no such thing is happening in the vast majority of American classrooms. For example, Idaho’s “divisive concepts” legislation, using language that appears frequently elsewhere, prevents public education institutions, including higher education, from teaching:
That any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior;
That individuals should be adversely treated on the basis of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin;
That individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin.
This is complicated terrain. History courses should address the fact that in the past, students were certainly taught the first of these items and often the second. I would not be surprised if some public school classrooms still sanction, if only implicitly, the normativity of a religion, gender identity, or national origin. But are students in secondary school history classes (in Idaho or elsewhere) being taught that some social groups are superior to others? Or that individuals should be “adversely treated on the basis of” social categories? Legislators clearly assume that these “divisive concepts” (which, when delineated, usually relate to race and racism) are embedded in the curriculum and widely in use by teachers. Their opponents (including the AHA) are equally confident that “critical race theory” has almost no presence in K–12 classrooms, and that whatever “divisive concepts” do appear in history curricula depict the realities of US history and lie well within the realm of evidence-driven, scholarly consensus.
But we don’t know. Neither side knows what is actually being taught in history classrooms, or even the broad landscape of what is supposed to be taught. Neither side has sufficient evidence to support its arguments in this debate.
A June 2021 report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute provides a useful entry point. Fordham researchers examined baseline standards for US history and civics courses in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The report scored each jurisdiction based on the rigor and clarity of its standards but did not explore how those standards found expression in district-level history curricula. Nor did the institute consider how the quality and availability of textbooks or other learning materials might support or impede student learning. Most important for our purposes, the report did not focus attention on the content that is the current bone of contention, especially issues relating to the history and impact of racism.
It’s bad enough that so much policy debate in both state and national legislatures is polarized and stretched to extremes. But even those seeking thoughtful debate on common ground don’t have the facts they need to assemble a sensible framework for constructive policy formation.
In some states, what constitutes a “divisive concept” is unclear; the prohibition on such material, however, is usually explicit and often comes with sanctions directed at individual teachers.
This is no way to have a useful conversation, one that affects not only students but thousands of teachers, many of whom are feeling the chilling effects that make effective teaching difficult, if not impossible. As one Texas legislator recently explained, if the law stipulates that teachers cannot say one race is superior to another, will they lose their job if they tell students that for more than a century, American textbooks and teachers told students precisely that? Should teachers be expected to take such risks to maintain their professional integrity?
The AHA wants to know the content of state standards, policies, guidelines, rubrics, and assessments. What content is mandated or provided in the 13,588 school districts across the country? What textbooks are in use, and what versions of American history are they presenting? What online materials are teachers using to devise lesson plans and assignments? We will complement this research with targeted surveys of teachers to learn as much as we can about what actually happens in classrooms, which often differs from the prescriptions generated by state and local authorities—though it is these prescriptions that are driving the debate and will be the initial focus of our attention.
I’m not sure what we’ll find. Perhaps we’ll learn that despite all the attention paid to critical race theory and the New York Times’s 1619 Project (specifically named and prohibited in some legislation), secondary school curriculum includes considerable material about Black Americans but little about racism as a continuing influence on the evolution of American institutions and social relations. Perhaps the Turnerian frontier will be more present than recent scholarship on Native Americans or—more likely—attempts at historiographical compromise will have shoehorned that newer scholarship into a framework that descends from Turner’s language and assumptions. I doubt we’ll find much Phillips or Dunning, but bland compromises explaining slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow regime with a passive voice seem eminently possible: noble victims with neither structural nor individual agents of their victimization.
Less than a week before Youngkin announced his first executive order as governor, a member of the Virginia General Assembly introduced HB 781, which stated unequivocally that “no school board or employee thereof”—in other words, no public school teacher—shall “Teach or incorporate into any course or class any divisive concept” (emphasis in the original). In New Hampshire, comparable legislation was proposed that prohibited the teaching of “any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America.” In some states, what constitutes a “divisive concept” or “negative account” is unclear; the prohibition on such material, however, is usually explicit and often comes with sanctions directed at individual teachers, including termination of employment. In all of this legislation lies the equivalent of a push poll: wording that prohibits a set of classroom activities and curricula in a way that implies such material is already being taught.
We are well aware that the content of secondary school history instruction is highly localized and often complicated. Whatever we find, at least we will finally know what we’re talking about.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
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