Regulate Teaching of U.S. Race History, But Keep It Real
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In state after state, legislatures are trying to regulate the teaching of history and social studies, but they keep running into trouble with language arts. That’s the recurring lesson of the arguments over bills aimed at keeping public schools from indoctrinating kids in left-wing views about race. The intent of these proposals is often laudable. The wording often isn’t.
If you listen to enough of the critics of these bills, or read some of the supposedly objective news coverage, you’ll assume they have bad intent too. In May, the New York Times reported on its front page that Idaho had passed a law denying funding to public schools unless they play down the legacy of slavery and racism. That’s not true. Idaho’s law, one of the most narrowly drafted of the bunch, says nothing about slavery.
What it actually says is that no school “shall direct or otherwise compel students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to” a number of tenets, including 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,” etc.
The accusations have gotten wilder since then. The historian Timothy Snyder blasted these legislative proposals as comparable to Stalinist rewritings of history and part of a war on democracy. He wrote that Florida had just banned teaching kids about Jim Crow. This, too, is false. Florida requires that instruction “must be factual and objective, and may not suppress or distort significant historical events” including slavery, Reconstruction, and the civil-rights movement.
A related criticism holds that the laws attempt to turn classrooms into “safe spaces” for white students, protecting them from having to learn parts of U.S. history that might bring them discomfort. It would be a damning indictment of the laws if true because, as a quartet of critics rightly pointed out in a much-discussed New York Times op-ed, an accurate account of any country’s history could lead some students to feel guilt or distress. To avoid that outcome, teaching history well would have to be forbidden.
That reading of the laws, thankfully, is a stretch. The Texas bill prohibits public schools from making it “part of a course” that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.” Tennessee has recently enacted a similar provision. Teachers in both states are forbidden to teach that white people as a group should feel guilty about slavery. They’re not forbidden to teach about slavery even when doing so has the consequence of inducing such feelings.
To say that it’s wrong in principle for legislatures to regulate classroom instruction – that it is big-government overreach – is like saying that government should keep its hands off Medicare. State and local governments fund the public schools and regulate what happens there, often in minute detail. A fifth-grade math teacher should not be allowed to spend class time detailing his views about President Joe Biden instead of explaining how to multiply fractions. If that’s “censorship,” it’s a kind that’s both proper and inevitable.
But regulation can be defensible in principle without a particular regulation being wise in practice. Some of the provisions in these bills are vague and sweeping. The Tennessee law prohibits teachers from including or promoting, or using supplemental materials that include or promote, “division” based on “creed” or political affiliation. What the Texas bill attempts to make mandatory – instruction about the history and evil of white supremacy – would be forbidden in Tennessee. The Texas bill, though, raises a similar problem when it prohibits making various illiberal concepts, such as the inherent superiority of one race, “part of a course.” How’s a history teacher supposed to talk about Nazism then?
Conservative activist Stanley Kurtz argues that these laws would be better if they forbade teachers from “inculcating” these concepts. Legislation in Oklahoma takes a similar approach, declaring it impermissible to teach children to believe a list of objectionable views but okaying discussion of these views.
The more precisely these laws are written, though, the less they will proscribe and the easier they will be to evade. A high-school history teacher could in theory draw his lessons entirely from Howard Zinn’s left-wing tracts and the most dubious essays of the 1619 Project without violating the Idaho law.
To ensure that students receive a sound education, one that exposes them to the great political debates and historical controversies of American culture without propagandizing them to one side or another, would require a lot more than passing even a well-written list of prohibitions. People committed to that project will have to develop curricula and win school-board elections. Legislation has its place, and can help catalyze broader political efforts. But if there’s one thing we should insist legislators learn before taking office, it’s that the law is a blunt instrument.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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