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.

Colleges Are Mostly Supportive Toward Evangelicals, Say InterVarsity Members (UPDATED)

If you’ve followed this site long, you know I have a particular interest in addressing the popular notion that U.S. higher education is a hostile environment for conservative students—including students with conservative religious commitments.

Last week, a major evangelical Christian campus ministry, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, released the results of a member survey conducted online for its PR firm, Pinkston, between May 3 and June 3. All eleven questions in the survey (PDF) may be interesting to college educators.

For my purposes here, the most interesting is Question 8: “How would you describe your college campus’s attitude toward Evangelical Christians?” Among the 316 students (from 127 campuses) who responded, the consensus was that college is a good environment for evangelicals.

More than a third said their college is either “extremely” or “very welcoming and supportive”; and an equal number said their college is “moderately welcoming and supportive.” Fewer than five percent said their college is “not at all welcoming and supportive”:


Now, it’s probably important not to overinterpret these results. The sample size was small, representing a tiny fraction of InterVarsity’s membership and just 17% of the college campuses where InterVarsity has chapters.

More importantly, it isn’t clear what kinds of colleges appeared in the sample. This ministry has representatives at religious institutions as well as secular colleges and universities. That could obviously affect whether students felt they were in a welcoming environment. It’s also possible that different students have completely different kinds of criteria in mind for feeling supported on campus. (I would especially like to know more about the 20% who say they feel “slightly” welcome.) And there’s always the question whether respondents’ campus experiences, positive or negative, have been defined primarily by administrators, by faculty members, or by other students.

Christian Universities6
Secular Universities116
Private Universities40
Public Universities85
Community/Junior Colleges10

(UPDATE: Elizabeth Chung, an account coordinator at Pinkston, has very kindly supplied me with a basic breakdown of the types of colleges represented in the survey responses. I’m not sure exactly how these categories overlap; for the purposes of this post, the crucial facts are that only a handful [6] of the campuses were Christian universities, and most [85] were public universities.)

It’s also very likely that the respondents—for whatever reason—are less politically conservative, on average, than white* American evangelicals generally are. This could play a role in their sense of comfort on campus. When asked what social issues are most important to them (Question 11), the greatest number of respondents (39%) named racial justice as one of their top three issues; the next highest number named climate change. Reducing abortion was fourth on the list of responses, named by just over one quarter of students as one of their top three interests.

(* Most respondents were white [62%] or Asian American [18%]. Almost two thirds [65%] were women.)

Nevertheless, the data we have are the data we have. However far they go, we can tally this survey as the latest of many pieces of evidence that American higher education is generally not the hostile environment many conservative religious students are told to expect.

The Conspiracy Theorist in Your Class

This week, the historian Elizabeth Stice warned readers of Inside Higher Ed that college professors in the United States may face a rising number of undergraduates who believe in conspiracy theories—including the kinds of toxic conspiracy theories that drive anti-Jewish and anti-Asian violence.

Stice issues a challenge to instructors:

The situation is further complicated today, because many people are already skeptical and suspicious of higher education. Those who doubt ‘experts’ are unlikely to be easily convinced and will be wary of being ‘brainwashed’ in other directions. …

We stand at a crossroads. How will colleges and universities counter the rise of conspiracy thinking that compulsively creates internal enemies and distorts reality? How will we do it in ways that are compelling and convincing? The battle is not for attaining the moral high ground but for expanding minds. … What is our plan?

Unsurprisingly, considering her role as a history professor, Stice writes that the liberal arts disciplines have a particularly important role to play in promoting reality-based thinking among students.

I would like to use this opportunity, though, to argue (again) that it’s not simply liberal arts courses that have a critical role to play here—and not only at the undergraduate level. What matters is the comprehensive model of a liberal arts education as a cultivation of the student’s entire imagination, starting early.

I’m convinced that any individual course is as likely to stoke conspiracy theories as to alleviate them. That’s because conspiracy theories happen, for the most part, as a result of inquisitive and articulate people dealing with partial information about how the world works.

This is one of my concerns about recent controversies in both K-12 and higher education. Often American political and academic leaders seem fixated on certain kinds of courses—for example, on the first-year courses that colleges sometimes require on the topic of diversity—or certain academic theories that may or may not be taught at all—while adopting rhetoric that undermines public confidence not in those specific things, but rather in the very concept of an education that happens holistically across many different disciplines.

And many academics in the classroom, for their part, seem fixated on addressing such problems by doubling down on expertise, promising to teach specialized skills of research and analysis, as if better research skills would solve the problems that arise when Americans “do their own research” in the absence of a well-rounded understanding of how the world works.

Meanwhile, some pundits confuse a failure to offer a diverse education (covering many different approaches, concerns, disciplinary tools, and debates) with the individual instructor’s or specific discipline’s supposed failure to permit “viewpoint diversity” in the classroom—as if a content-neutral concept of viewpoint diversity weren’t tailor-made for conspiracy theorists and other defectors from reality.

But what can any teacher do about this problem? How can a huge institutional and policy problem be addressed in my classroom?

For a history teacher, I think one answer is to go big and small at the same time. We need to introduce students to the bigness of the past—its variety, its complexity, the inherent insufficiency of any single interpretation—while also showing students that the past is about real people’s lives, not about abstractions.

Teaching Controversial History: Four Moves

Inspired by some recent conversations and experiences, I have been thinking about how I approach the task of teaching controversial topics.

Much of my approach, I think, is directly inspired by having been a fairly prickly kind of student myself. I still see a lot of myself in students who aren’t prepared to buy what their instructors are hoping to sell. (Let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that we instructors are correct, though of course that is not universally the case.)

I think I can reduce my approach to four basic instructional moves. These moves strike me as both pragmatic and principled; I make these moves because they tend to work, but they work because they’re the morally right thing to do anyway.

Continue reading “Teaching Controversial History: Four Moves”

College Students Mostly Feel Comfortable Speaking in Class, Study Finds Despite Itself

This week, Heterodox Academy—an organization founded in 2015 to promote “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement” in universities—released the results of a survey conducted in the fall of 2020 on U.S. college campuses.

This second annual Campus Expression Survey, in a report authored by Melissa Stiksma, a doctoral student in industrial-organizational psychology at George Mason University, purports to substantiate Heterodox Academy’s claim that “students and professors have been ‘walking on eggshells,’ censoring their opinions and thereby depriving others and themselves the opportunity to learn from counterarguments and constructive debate.”

Republican students are especially susceptible to self-censorship on campus, according to the report. To be sure, the report attributes this self-censorship primarily to the fear of other students’ opinions, rather than to fear of reprisals from professors or administrators. But Stiksma told Inside Higher Ed that it shows “that Republican students are not part of the conversation on some of the biggest issues” on American campuses.

These are bold claims related to heated public debates about the future of American higher education. But I find that the survey—on the whole—does not support these assertions.

Continue reading “College Students Mostly Feel Comfortable Speaking in Class, Study Finds Despite Itself”