US states have introduced 137 bills limiting what schools can teach on race, history, sexual orientation, and gender

‘When you listen to what educators are saying, they’re burned out, and many of them, I think, will head for the exits’

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Saturday 05 February 2022 17:12
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US states have introduced 137 bills limiting what schools can teach on race, history, sexual orientation, and gender since the beginning of this year.

According to researcher Jeffrey Sachs, the bills have been introduced in 35 states and have created a “minefield” for teachers as they try to educate their students on topics such as the Holocaust, slavery, and Jim Crow laws.

Dr Sachs has been following the developments for the writers’ organization PEN America, which is devoted to working for free speech.

One of the suggested laws, introduced in South Carolina, forbids teachers from speaking about any subjects that may prompt feelings of “discomfort, guilt, or anguish” based on political views.

“That means that a teacher would have to be very, very careful about how they discuss something like, let’s say, fascism, or racism, or antisemitism,” Dr Sachs told NPR. “These are political beliefs, and it means that teachers are going to have to second-guess whether they can describe that political belief in as forthright and honest a way as we wish for fear of falling afoul of this bill.”

Virginia’s recently sworn-in Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin immediately banned critical race theory, an academic field investigating racism in US institutions, from being taught in the state’s schools and put a hotline in place that parents can call to report teachers, despite that the subject isn’t a part of the curriculum.

A group of conservative mothers in New Hampshire is offering $500 in order to detect teachers who violate a state law forbidding some lessons on sexism and racism.

“I think it must be a very terrifying time to be an educator at any level in higher ed or in K-12,” Dr Sachs said.

“You have, unfortunately, the kinds of daily stressors that we’ve all become used to because of Covid,” he added. “And now on top of that, these educators are trying to negotiate outraged parents and media pundits ... When you listen to what educators are saying, they’re burned out, and many of them, I think, will head for the exits.”

“Some of the bills, I would say many now, include a provision that says something to the effect of ‘Teachers cannot be compelled to discuss a controversial contemporary issue, but if they do, they must do so evenhandedly and without any kind of favouritism’,” Dr Sachs noted. “However, many of those same bills also would require teachers to denounce, in the strongest possible terms, ideas like Marxism or socialism.”

A bill that’s being considered in Indiana says that ahead of any general election in the state, students must be taught that “socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism or similar political systems are incompatible with and in conflict with the principles of freedom upon which the United States was founded”.

“Socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism or similar political systems are detrimental to the people of the United States,” the suggested law claims.

Dr Sachs said that one of many problems with the bill is that it’s “requiring students to be exposed to this litany of claims about different ideologies. And it also requires that in doing so, teachers cannot show favouritism or bias in any one direction”.

“In other words, it’s a bill that can’t possibly actually work. Teachers are being pulled in two different directions, and the consequence is going to be a kind of self-censorship,” he added.

Another bill in the state forbids teachers from teaching “anti-American ideologies” but what that is isn’t specified.

Dr Sachs told NPR that many bills across the 35 states prevent teachers from speaking about “concepts like gender fluidity. It prohibits them from discussing ‘nontraditional gender identities’ and in many cases forbid[s] teachers from discussing controversial events that would presumably include, in many cases, ones like gay marriage or LGBTQ rights”.

The researcher added that many of the bills being proposed suggest that teachers should be required to “report to parents if their children are asking questions about their gender identity”.

A piece of legislation in Florida forbids teachers from “encouraging any conversation about sex and sexuality”.

Dr Sachs said the laws put teachers “in an impossible situation”.

“In a contemporary high school or middle school, even earlier in elementary school, these sorts of topics arise. And in particular, it would put LGBTQ teachers in a really difficult situation where they’re forced, essentially, to disguise their identity or the status of their relationships in order to fend off running afoul of these bills,” he said.

Dr Sachs added that the bills are similar to what is happening in countries in varying states of authoritarianism, such as Russia, China, Turkey, and Hungary.

“We are seeing these regimes targeting educational institutions and other sites of cultural production like museums or the media, [as] an attempt to drive these ideas out, to signal that to be a ‘real’ Russian or to be a ‘true’ Hungarian, one must be straight, one must be socially conservative,” Dr Sachs told NPR. “These efforts underway in these regimes, that are either authoritarian or unfortunately trending in that direction, all signal the kind of political energy that leaders believe they can get by attacking these ideas.”

Dr Sachs said that a law in North Dakota that has him “up at night” prohibits critical race theory in K-12 education.

“I just want to reemphasize here [that] this is not a law that prohibits people from endorsing or promoting critical race theory,” he said. “It’s a law that forbids them from even including critical race theory in the classroom.”

He added that he’s worried about how the law defines critical race theory. He said it’s “defined as the theory that racism is not merely the product of learned individual bias or prejudice, but that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality”.

“The law now is saying that whenever a teacher talks about racism, they may only describe it as a product of an individual’s own biases or prejudices,” Dr Sachs said. “They cannot describe it, even when the facts command them to, as something more endemic or embedded within American society.”

“It’s a way essentially of preventing teachers, I think, from being honest about a lot of the uglier sides of American history and contemporary society,” Dr Sachs said.

“Whenever you discuss slavery, your teacher would have to essentially say: ‘These slaveholders were racist’. The system that they were in, the laws that supported them, the economy that made that business profitable, you’d have to separate those institutional features and describe slavery purely as a product of individual bias, which does violence to the topic,” he said. “It fails to educate students, and I think might discourage students from thinking critically about contemporary institutions and identifying whether or not they also might be guilty of systemic racism.”

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