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.

Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story

Last weekend, in my response to Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, I focused on what I think Wilfred McClay got wrong about teaching U.S. history. I wrote that McClay’s version of an American nation-narrative lacks “a sense of real stakes, of divergent possibilities, of the weight of choices and conflicts in their own moments” because it shies away from conflict.

Land of Hope does not want its major American protagonists to have been disastrously, avoidably, mulishly wrong—they can have been badly mistaken, but they must have meant well. It apparently wants history’s apparent losers to have been inevitable victims, doomed by forces beyond anyone’s control or by paradoxes with no way out, rather than to have been acted upon by other people who made choices that could have been made differently, choices against which the oppressed protested and fought at the time. And it does not want national reform to have come through vicious struggles for power.

That last desire, I think, helps explain Wilfred McClay’s strident criticism of the “1619 Project” in other venues, despite the deeply patriotic and humane spirit it shows. The 1619 Project asserted not that America is irredeemably corrupt, as some of its critics seem to think it did, but that everything good about America has come through struggle—specifically, struggle by people who don’t play a very active role in Land of Hope. “Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.” That is a contingency Land of Hope cannot seem to face.

The fear of contingency thwarts Land of Hope’s stated purpose of giving students an inspiring and coherent national narrative. Stories without meaningful conflict, without the possibility of different outcomes, are lifeless to everyone except perhaps those who identify most strongly with the actual outcomes. Worse, they are also ahistorical, in the sense that most academically trained historians believe contingency is a core concept of their discipline.

Yet I strongly sympathize with McClay’s goal of producing a student-friendly history of the United States that not only holds together as a story, but also provokes sustained reflection on normative American civic values. I often have been critical of academic training in history that does not teach instructors how to build narratives in the classroom.

I would even say that McClay’s narrative voice is often a voice I recognize in myself. We are both unabashed moralists, at the end of the day, committed to the idea that studying American history can make people better citizens. And frankly, I am quite conservative in temperament; there’s something in the book’s temperature, as it were, that I find comfortable—an inclination to be patient with flawed institutions, perhaps, and a conviction that it is as important to shore up valuable aspects of existing American life as it is to fight for reform.

So what is my alternative to McClay’s approach? How do I think a “great American story” can be told better? How, in fact, do I try to tell such a story in the classroom?

Continue reading “Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story”

Why I’m Still Thankful I Teach in the Age of Trump

Two years ago at Thanksgiving, I wrote about my gratitude for the ways Donald Trump’s America had become a great place to teach history. I think what I wrote has held up well.

This year, after another general election—and during a mismanaged pandemic that has already killed some of my friends’ relatives, made the death of one of my friends (from other causes) lonelier and more surreal, forced some students to drop my courses because they couldn’t function for weeks after they were infected, and made effective teaching at any level all but impossible—I’m taking stock again.

It takes more effort to write it this time. But here’s why I’m still thankful I get to teach history in the age of Donald Trump.

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What Americans Think About the Humanities

Click to view the report on another site

On Monday, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a 100-page report called “The Humanities in American Life.” It comprises the results from a national survey administered last November. The researchers asked more than 5,000 respondents about their engagement in “humanistic activities” and their attitudes toward humanities education.

On the whole, the report’s findings should encourage most humanities workers, including social studies teachers and historians. But careful examination of the details may be especially useful. This report identifies important discrepancies or tensions in public attitudes.

Champions of humanities education should be prepared to expose or remedy—or exploit—these tensions. There are both dangers and opportunities here.

Continue reading “What Americans Think About the Humanities”

Parachutists and Truffle Hunters

Front cover of ‘Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History’

American history educators sometimes find themselves taking sides in a peculiar long-running battle of the culture war.

One side in the battle says that history instruction has become relativistic and impressionistic, discarding coherent narratives for fragmented particular stories. People who take this side believe that history is in danger of losing public support as an integrating force in civic life, and that students have a tenuous grasp of fundamental facts.

The other side says that traditional narratives depict nationalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic inequality as the natural order of things. People who take this side believe that historians must encourage students to think of history primarily as a critical process. A reliance on unified traditional narratives, they think, tends to perpetuate injustice. And the traditional canon of facts is largely a collection of facts about wealthy white men—what about the facts students should know about other people?

The picture I have just drawn is too stark. Most academically trained history instructors I know actually have a foot in each camp. As a matter of theory, too, both camps make a point that could be valid, and I suspect most well-trained history teachers take the point. But we tend to think one camp’s complaint has been exploited to nefarious ends more than the other’s.

But here’s where I think the battle could be more useful to the profession than it typically is: It should lead us to think about how students construct or question the larger narrative frameworks that they necessarily rely upon to make sense of critical history.

Continue reading “Parachutists and Truffle Hunters”