The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A GOP proposal targeting ‘negative’ U.S. history is cause for renewed alarm

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has set up a tip line for parents to report offending teachers. (Steve Helber/AP)
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In recent weeks, it has become inescapably obvious: The mania for muzzling how teachers address race and other topics is only accelerating.

We’re seeing dozens of GOP proposals to bar whole concepts from classrooms outright. The Republican governor of Virginia has debuted a mechanism for parents to rat out teachers. Bills threatening punishment of them are proliferating. Book-banning efforts are outpacing anything in recent memory.

Amid this onslaught, a proposed bill now advancing in the New Hampshire legislature deserves renewed scrutiny. It would ban the advocacy of any “doctrine” or “theory” promoting a “negative” account of U.S. history, including the notion that the United States was “founded on racism.”

Additionally, the bill describes itself as designed to ensure teachers’ “loyalty,” while prohibiting advocacy of “subversive doctrines.”

This proposal is drawing heightened attention from teachers and their representatives. With the push for constraints on teachers intensifying, they worry that if it succeeds, it could become a model in other states.

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“It’s the next step in their campaign to whitewash our history by rewriting it,” Megan Tuttle, the president of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association, told me in a statement.

If this passes, it will “stifle real discussion" in classrooms, Tuttle said, adding: “Then it’s only a matter of time before similar legislation has the same impact on classrooms around the country.”

This proposal opens a window on much of what’s wrong with the current wave of censoring panic. Many new proposals and laws are sloppily drafted, vaguely defining entire concepts off limits, such as “anti-American ideologies” or anything that deviates from undefined conceptions of the nation’s “authentic founding.”

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The vagueness of such prohibitions seems like a feature, not a bug. Taken alongside these proposals’ new punishments for teachers, they seem designed to make teachers feel perpetually at risk of running afoul of the law in ways they cannot anticipate.

This seems to go beyond the exercise of traditional state government authority to shape curriculums. Instead, it treats teachers as subversive elements to be rooted out at the slightest deviation from orthodoxy.

The New Hampshire bill offers a template for advancing this project. By explicitly stating its goal of prohibiting “advocacy of subversive doctrines” and ensuring teacher “loyalty,” it treats as its very premise the idea that a subversive element lurking within must be purged.

“I have not seen any other bill like this one,” Jeffrey Sachs, a political scientist who documents these proposals, told me. While old laws still on the books in some states require teacher loyalty oaths, Sachs said, this bill’s “loyalty” language is unique.

The bill does declare that teachers must not advocate doctrines or theories promoting a negative account of the U.S. founding or its history without “worldwide context.” It also outlaws advocacy for doctrines such as socialism or Marxism.

That creates the impression that the bill would limit only express efforts to indoctrinate children, without limiting the teaching of hard historical truths. In fact, that’s the defense offered by the bill’s chief sponsor.

But the problem lies — again — in its vague language. Take the teaching of certain abolitionist or civil rights tracts. Some writings from abolitionists suggested slavery and white supremacy were irredeemably baked into the Constitution or dramatically minimized the historical importance of the founding.

Others, such as those of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., described Whites as the “oppressor” and arguably treated the question of whether the United States will ever achieve its founding promise as an open and unresolved one.

What if a teacher teaches such tracts and expresses approval of them in some form? Could a teacher ask if the abolitionist critique was prescient, or whether the civil rights movement’s understanding that we’d fallen woefully short of our founding promise as of the mid-20th century was an accurate one?

Would that count as “advocacy” for a prohibited “theory” of the U.S. founding and history?

“A teacher could not lend credence to King’s description of the United States or the White Americans of his period without immediately placing American white supremacy within a worldwide context of racism more broadly,” Sachs told me.

Or could a teacher say anything positive about any writing that asks whether we’ve achieved our founding promise as of today? “If I were a teacher in New Hampshire, I would avoid any kind of negative account or representation of the United States and its founding,” Sachs continued.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that chilling the range of expression is a big driving motive here. As Sachs notes, some of these proposals explicitly command teachers to convey a “positive” understanding of U.S. history, which might have that effect.

In an important essay, political theorist Laura K. Field documents that proponents of such laws often cherry-pick from such historical writings to whitewash away how radical their critique of the U.S. founding and history truly were.

As Field explains, there is a “long lineage” throughout U.S. history of such radical criticism. At their various historical moments, these writings emphasized “how inequalities and injustice persist” rather than the “progress that has been made,” and didn’t refrain from highlighting the “moral failings” driving our “long-enduring gap between American ideals and practices.”

Don’t we want students to learn why great figures throughout our history thought to lodge such criticisms? Why, exactly, should this be treated as too much for students to bear?

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