Widely Debated and Currently Controversial

In the state of Texas, a new law took effect on September 1, limiting what public social studies teachers can teach. The bill passed in the state legislature on an almost perfect party-line vote.

Among other things, the law, House Bill 3979, mandates that in required courses,

a teacher who chooses to discuss [a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs] shall, to the best of the teacher’s ability, strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.

Today, NBC News has reported on the effect this law is having in the Dallas/Forth Worth suburb of Southlake, where the school district is already embroiled in a political battle over racism. The district’s curriculum director was recently recorded (surreptitiously) during a training session with teachers, acknowledging their fears about the law. She told them,

We are in the middle of a political mess. And you are in the middle of a political mess. And so we just have to do the best that we can. … You are professionals. … So if you think the book is O.K., then let’s go with it. And whatever happens, we will fight it together.

But she added, giving an example of a potential conflict,

As you go through, just try to remember the concepts of [H.B.] 3979, and make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing—that has other perspectives.

Teachers heard on the recording reacted with shocked disbelief, speculating that this directive would apply to a book like Number the Stars, a widely taught historical novel about a Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Denmark.

She said, “Believe me, that’s come up.”


EDIT: On social media, many people have been attacking the administrator for supposedly suggesting it could be legitimate to present students with “opposing” sides on the Holocaust. I think they probably have misinterpreted what happened here.

Southlake has been at the center of a very public controversy over racism at its high school. That is presumably why NBC News was provided with this audio recording in the first place; NBC has been covering this situation in depth. In this context, Southlake school district is likely to have been targeted by far-right extremists; that’s how the world often works today.

In the audio released by NBC, the curriculum director is heard clearly indicating that she finds H.B. 3979 outrageous, committing herself to support teachers when they choose to teach controversial books. But she also provides teachers with strategic advice for protecting themselves against the law.

Because the text of H.B. 3979 does not discriminate against far-right extremist ideas.

In my reading, it is significant that the curriculum director corrected herself when she started to talk about supplementing the curriculum with “a book that has … an opposing” perspective on the Holocaust, switching to “a book … that has other perspectives” on the Holocaust.

Remember the actual language of H.B. 3979: When a teacher discusses a controversial social studies topic, they must “explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” Given that language, teachers targeted by extremists would be providing themselves with legal cover for teaching the Holocaust truthfully if they could find “diverse and contending perspectives”—which could mean a lot of things other than Holocaust denial or approval—to include in the discussion.

And given Southlake’s recent history in the public eye, I’m inclined to believe the curriculum director, at least in a general way, when she says this issue has “come up” already.

I certainly hope that any court would rule that the Holocaust does not qualify as a “widely debated” topic. (“Currently controversial,” unfortunately, would include, by definition, virtually anything that resulted in a teacher being targeted.) But teachers and school districts do not have infinite resources for going through the process of finding out how courts will rule when they interpret bad laws.


A second EDIT to add: It is also worth understanding the internal dynamics of Southlake’s school district, to the extent they are publicly known.

The Dallas Morning News and the Forth Worth Star-Telegram report that a fourth-grade teacher there—a Carroll ISD 2020 “teacher of the year,” in fact—was recently the target of political harassment for having in her classroom a book called This Book Is Anti-Racist. The politicians on the school board—including two who had received donations from the parents’ PAC who complained—voted to reprimand the teacher for doing her job. In making this decision, the politicians were overruling the school administration, who had investigated the complaints and had cleared the teacher of wrongdoing.

In an environment like this, for anyone to attack a school administrator for trying to protect teachers against political harassment, as the curriculum director in the most recent controversy did, is to compound the chilling effects of Texas law, making it more dangerous to be a history teacher in Texas, not less.

A Case for Trusting Human Nature

Jonathan Marks’s new little book Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education (Princeton University Press, 2021) is flawed but important.

It is flawed partly because its conception of liberal-humanistic education seems to be almost exclusively a Great Books model, which offers a limited view of what higher education should encompass. The book is important, on the other hand, because it’s written primarily, though not exclusively, to Americans who think of themselves as political conservatives, and it asks them to defy their own movement’s leaders by supporting, and generally having faith in, American colleges and universities.

I say Marks addresses readers who “think of themselves” as conservative because it’s not always clear how much practical common ground he has with the Trump-era conservative political movement, despite repeatedly declaring himself to be a conservative in this book and despite writing for well-known conservative publications including Commentary and the Weekly Standard over the years. A lot of self-declared conservative academics have that problem in 2021.

But nevermind: I know with some certainty that an audience exists for this book on today’s American right, however small a part of the conservative political coalition these readers may be. Likely readers include conservative high schoolers and new undergraduates—and their parents—who should definitely read this book as a counterweight to the massive stacks of books and articles that explicitly aim to terrify them.

Speaking to conservatives’ anxieties, Marks argues—correctly—that recent commentators have largely misrepresented what U.S. college campuses are like. College campuses, he writes, can be overwhelmingly left-leaning without being a stifling atmosphere for conservatives like him. (A full professor, he chairs the department of politics and international relations at Ursinus College.) Colleges are committed to rational discussion, and this means they have great potential for liberating minds. And pundits’ claims that millennials and Gen-Z undergraduates are intolerant little wilting orchids? They sound, to Marks, almost exactly the slurs older people cast upon the youth of his generation.

Let’s Be Reasonable asks readers to have faith in human nature: in the willingness of students and professors alike to answer the call to engage in rational discourse for the sake of rational discourse, trusting that it will have a freeing effect on the conversation’s participants.

Five Weeks On

Caution: This swinging door on campus engages in positive self-talk.

I can’t say this has been my least stressful semester of teaching.

On one campus, my very first class period was interrupted by a tornado warning. Later, I learned that an EF-3 tornado had been leveling a neighborhood five miles away from our classroom. On another campus, major flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida shut down freeways during my morning commute, turning an hourlong trip into a three-hour tour of various neighborhoods. (And then I had to figure out how to get back home that night.)

A few days later, a driver who couldn’t tell where the lanes were—because the state apparently hasn’t been maintaining roads at all during the past two years—hit the side of my car as we tried to exit one of those same freeways. Nobody was hurt, and we were both able to drive home, but I can’t say the accident reduced my anxiety about knowing that American roads, per mile traveled, are 24% deadlier than they were before the pandemic.

Indeed, homicidally reckless behavior is routine on the roads here. On Friday, for only one example, a driver followed me for two miles on the freeway with her headlights switched off, half an hour before dawn. Nighttime stealth driving actually isn’t unusual in this region; a typical week furnishes me with more than one example. Such motorists, as foolish as they are, scare me far less than all the drivers who seem determined to vent their social aggression at high speed in heavy traffic, day after day. There is not a doubt in my mind that their behavior is worse than it was before the pandemic.

So far, meanwhile, I have taught COVID-positive students in at least two classes without getting a symptomatic infection. The first time, this caused considerable anxiety because I developed what I now assume was an unusually bad case of nasal allergies around the same time. (I eventually tested negative for COVID. To get my test, I had to drive past road crews that were cutting down broken trees along the path of the tornado.) The second time I learned about a student’s positive test, I barely thought about it, given everything else going on.

Maintaining any topical continuity in my classes this fall, of course, has been nearly impossible due to high absenteeism, as students are forced to quarantine or deal with all the other things that seem to be breaking in American society right now. And in most weeks, I have had almost no prep time between classes, given my commute. That, too, dramatically degrades the quality of the instruction students are getting.

All in all, this semester feels apocalyptic in a way few ever have before.

That Was Fast (UPDATED)

My Labor Day began with the labor of rearranging a covid test for myself, plus the work of planning how I will teach most of my classes online this week.

That’s because last night, one of my employers announced that the whole campus is switching to remote instruction temporarily—until at least Friday. The reason for this change is a rapid increase in known COVID-19 cases among students, combined with the risks of Labor Day holiday travel.

In the same email, the university announced that about 90% of all the students and workers on campus are at least partially vaccinated. We have had five days of class so far this semester.


UPDATE: I’m pleased to say we’ve been told we will head back into the classroom on Monday.

The university has determined that only two (i.e., about four percent) of the known cases have been traced to possible classroom transmission. Most of the rest come from “large social gatherings in off-campus venues.” (I assume some cases were simply instances in which a student arrived on campus for the semester with an infection contracted elsewhere, but we haven’t been told that.) Symptoms, we’re told, have been generally mild; some of the infected students assumed they were suffering from seasonal allergies.

And on a personal note, I got a negative result on my PCR test this week.

I think it’s important to provide this update because as far as I can tell, this university’s key precautions—required COVID-19 vaccination, an indoor mask mandate, and a dedicated team working on testing and contact tracing—have been successful so far. That’s in spite of the fact that we have full classrooms and are working in the middle of a large city.

As we look ahead toward a near future in which covid is an endemic problem, we seem to be finding ways to make things work.

Cyborg Teaching in the Third Plague Year

I went to campus yesterday to finalize the preparations for my first day of in-person teaching since March 2020. Among other things, this involved testing out the gear I’ll be wearing in the classroom, facing a total of about 90 mostly vaccinated students.

Pictured or implied:

  • A deceptively calm instructor in a self-administered haircut
  • A KN95 respirator on the FDA’s (now-defunct) emergency use authorization list
  • An “ear saver” that maintains a tight seal around the KN95 while relieving strain on the ears during extended use
  • A $30 rechargeable personal PA system worn on a strap, with a wired headset, to allow me to project my voice effectively through the mask (over the whir of the classroom’s air filtration unit) without shouting

I think it should work. It’s going to be weird as heck, but it should work.