Opinion: Divisive concepts law doesn’t stop honest teaching of history

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Jim Garrett is a professor of social studies education at the University of Georgia. Before earning his doctorate at Michigan State University, he taught high school social studies.

In a guest column, Garrett advises teachers to understand what Georgia’s divisive concepts law does and doesn’t dictate. Signed into law last year, House Bill 1084, dubbed the “Protect Students First Act,” prohibits the teaching of nine concepts Republicans consider divisive.

By Jim Garrett

I’ve worked with hundreds of teachers in this state who experience a creeping sense of vulnerability in their position and hostility toward their work. As we hear more and more stories of book bans, anti-critical race theory laws and intolerance for introducing students to the most important conversations of our time, we are right to be concerned. The damage can be great when censorship like this occurs.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

As a researcher, teacher-educator and community-engaged educator whose work has always centered the most difficult aspects of what we share as a culture, people often ask me “what do we do?”

First and foremost, find and know your people. This means making community with educators, parents and community members who have integrity and who want to do right by students in teaching them honest, factually accurate history that assists in understanding the world they occupy.

What messages of support have you received, or not, from your administration? The goal is to know your situation, the situation of others, and the actions being taken on behalf of teachers. Take this knowledge and use it to determine what you feel open to in terms of risk, but make your decision knowing that you are the expert.

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Second, know the language of the law and know your curriculum. Our first line of defense is being able to show how the texts we use and the questions we ask directly relate to our curriculum.

Next, spend time with the legislation, not only to understand what it says, but for what it does not say. First, Georgia’s “Protect Students First Act” does not mention the words “critical race theory.” Therefore, as a point of fact, CRT is not “banned” as a topic in public history and social studies classrooms.

Second, even the so-called “divisive” topics are not banned. The law states that nothing in it “shall prohibit the use of curricula that addresses the topics of slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, or racial discrimination, including topics relating to the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in racial oppression, segregation, and discrimination in a professionally and academically appropriate manner and without espousing personal political beliefs.”

If you know anything about CRT, you know that it is one way to explore the ways that enactment and enforcement of laws results in oppression, segregation and discrimination. The bill explicitly says you can respond to students who have questions about these topics. It also says that the law does not prohibit “the discussion of divisive concepts,” if it is done in an academically and professionally appropriate manner.

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Meaning, this law absolutely does not prevent teachers from teaching accurate and honest history, even the claim that “The United States is a fundamentally racist county.” You could present this idea and the reasons why someone would think it by, for instance, having students read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ lead essay from the 1619 Project and you could then ask students whether and why they agree or not, and with which parts.

Third, know and address the fact that teaching and learning is an emotional situation, especially concerning the traumatic history of racial violence and the ways that resistance to it has been part of the United States since before its founding. The law reads that it is a divisive concept that an individual, by virtue of his or her race, “should” feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.”

My interpretation is the Legislature worried teachers are telling students they must feel guilt or anguish about the histories of racial oppression and resistance to it. Whatever the language, the evident effect is to chill the atmosphere of the classroom and inhibit teachers from even the possibility of students being upset about something they’ve encountered. I’ve taught the most heinous aspects of human history and researched the dynamics of teaching and learning difficult and charged topics.

My research and that of others supports the idea that no one ought to encourage, much less obligate, someone to feel shame or guilt or anguish or encourage or demand that a student is distressed. However, many people can and do experience those emotions.

We need to encourage the expression of those reactions and explore them rather than dismiss them. Racial terror lynchings, for instance, are among the most distressing historical phenomenon to contend with, though the distress may be experienced differently by people from different racialized backgrounds. If we avoid the feelings evoked by encountering instances of historical violence, how are we to contend with them in our time, which is marked by different, but no less real, racialized violence? The law does not say we have to avoid these discussions.

If state law doesn’t forbid teaching critical race theory or material from the 1619 Project, then what is happening? Why do people say we have to be careful when we teach about slavery because it gets “close to the line”?

It is true some school boards have passed explicit bans on CRT. Allied groups should organize to remove them. In some individual school buildings, administrators may reasonably want to avoid trouble by asking their teachers to steer clear of topics that may enliven students’ (or parents’) passions, such as electoral politics.

Parents, teachers and students should encourage administrators to resist these moves away from possible controversy. The most vulnerable of all, teachers, also may reasonably wish to avoid the specter of being fired because they had their students read about reparations or white privilege. Parents and students should voice their support.

Teachers and curricular staff have been removed from their positions for doing their work. I am not minimizing the situation. But they’re not being restricted by the “Protect Students First Act.” These are hyper-localized problems that energized, organized and focused groups can strategically address. By saying we are prohibited from teaching certain topics (given that we aren’t in districts where prohibitions are in place), and by continuing to let their rhetoric influence our decisions, we do their work for them.

We should stop. We can stand up and claim our professional space, use our expertise, knowledge, skills, and communities of practice as warrants for our much-needed, research-supported practices. Teachers are public intellectuals, and there is strength in our numbers and in our collective agency to push back against anti-intellectual impulses and allied agendas that continue to circulate around us.