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, could include, by definition, virtually anything that resulted in a teacher being targeted by anyone.) 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.

Goodness Happened Here

Map from inside the back cover of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed

In the introduction to Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, his account of the rescue operation run by the villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during the Holocaust, Philip Hallie relates a story about the importance of allowing oneself to be moved by goodness:

For years I had been studying cruelty, the slow crushing and grinding of a human being by other human beings. I had studied the tortures white men inflicted upon native Indians and then upon blacks in the Americas, and now I was reading mainly about the torture experiments the Nazis conducted upon the bodies of small children in those death camps.

Across all these studies, the pattern of the strong crushing the weak kept repeating itself and repeating itself, so that when I was not bitterly angry, I was bored at the repetition of the patterns of persecution. When I was not desiring to be cruel with the cruel, I was a monster—like, perhaps, many others around me—who could look upon torture and death without a shudder, and who therefore looked upon life without a belief in its preciousness. My study of evil incarnate had become a prison whose bars were my bitterness toward the violent, and whose walls were my horrified indifference to slow murder. Reading about the damned I was damned myself, as damned as the murderers, and as damned as their victims. Somehow over the years I had dug myself into Hell, and I had forgotten redemption, had forgotten the possibility of escape.

On this particular day, I was reading in an anthology of documents from the Holocaust, and I came across a short article about a little village in the mountains of southern France. As usual, I was reading the pages with an effort at objectivity; I was trying to sort out the forms and elements of cruelty and of resistance to it in much the same way a veterinarian might sort out ill from healthy cattle. After all, I was doing this work not to torture myself but to understand the indignity and the dignity of man.

About halfway down the third page of the account of this village, I was annoyed by a strange sensation on my cheeks. The story was so simple and so factual that I had found it easy to concentrate upon it, not upon my own feelings. And so, still following the story, and thinking about how neatly some of it fit into the old patterns of persecution, I reached up to my cheek to wipe away a bit of dust, and I felt tears upon my fingertips. Not one or two drops; my whole cheek was wet.

‘Oh,’ my sentinel mind told me, ‘you are losing your grasp on things again. Instead of learning about cruelty, you are becoming one more of its victims. You are doing it again.’ I was disgusted with myself for daring to intrude. …

But that night when I lay on my back in bed with my eyes closed, I saw more clearly than ever the images that had made me weep. …

Lying there in bed, I began to weep again. I thought, Why run away from that which is excellent simply because it goes through you like a spear? … [Cruelty] I knew. But why not know joy? Why not leave root room [sic] for comfort? (1-4)

—Philip P. Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened Here. New York: Harper & Row, 1979

I came across this account when I was a teenager, at a critical time in my early historical education. Hallie’s story became part of the way I came to terms with what I was learning—part of the way I fended off a creeping sense of nihilism.

I revisit this story from time to time, and I’ve come to think it plays a crucial role in my understanding of the job of a history teacher. I’ve written before about the conviction that stories of goodness and defiance must be part of teaching. But this isn’t simply a matter of finding a way to have hope. Hallie explains how personal the stakes are. To allow a sense of joy in the face of goodness is necessary for remaining—or finding—ourselves.