For starters, the effort to dictate what students should learn about historical and modern racism is being led by Republican lawmakers taking their cue from former president Donald Trump, demonstrating that this is more about politics and posturing than sound education policy. More importantly, if there is any time when civics education should be expanded and amplified — not constricted and limited — it is now, when democracy itself is challenged.
A proliferation of bills has been introduced this year in states across the country that define what race-related instruction can be taught in public schools and colleges. The bills, at least four of which already have been signed into law, are aimed at tamping down and turning back any momentum in schools to respond to the reckoning about race prompted by last year’s police killing of George Floyd. Particularly onerous is legislation awaiting the governor’s signature in Texas — a state that impacts school curriculums around the country because of its huge textbook market — that would not only ban critical race theory but also minimize references to slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination, while emphasizing the uplifting events and grand achievements in the nation’s past.
“We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, the everything,” President Biden said at this week’s 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, the annihilation of a prosperous Black neighborhood by a White mob that was long overlooked in the history books. Oklahoma is one of the states that has enacted legislation that aims to limit what students learn about racism, and its role in shaping American laws and institutions — making Mr. Biden’s rebuke of those who want to whitewash history all the more powerful.
Supporters of the statewide bans claim that public schools are indoctrinating students with “Marxist” or leftist groupthink; use of the New York Times’ prizewinning but controversial 1619 Project has become a frequent target. Clearly, schools shouldn’t teach ideology, and educators should be mindful of parental concerns. But credence shouldn’t be given to the cynical notion that teachers can’t be trusted. “I give the students the facts and let them draw their own conclusions. That’s what learning is,” said a Dallas middle school teacher, articulating a core principle of pedagogy that should be animating the debate about how history is taught.
Three months ago, Educating for American Democracy, a scholastic initiative to redesign K-12 history and civic education for the 21st century, released a road map for states and school districts to strengthen the teaching of civics and history, and make it more inclusive. It didn’t set out a specific curriculum. It didn’t choose between a view of America as a land of glory or one that sees only racial injustice and exploitation. Instead, its message — the result of two years of study by more than 300 historians, political scientists and educators from diverse backgrounds and different political viewpoints — was to embrace and celebrate the contradictions, tensions and paradoxes in the country’s past, challenging students to think critically and form their own judgments. States should stop the misguided political interference that is already having a chilling effect on teachers and follow the lead of this thoughtful initiative.