Opinion: Georgia anti-education bills favor myth over reality

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Academics: Proposals would codify lying to students about ‘difficult history’

In a guest column, two University of North Georgia professors cite the misinformation behind proposed new laws to limit what schools can teach about American history and how they can teach it.

T. Jameson Brewer is an assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of North Georgia. Brandon Haas is an associate professor of social foundations and leadership education at the University of North Georgia.

By T. Jameson Brewer and Brandon Haas

At present, several bills in the state Legislature — including House Bill 1084 and Senate Bill 377 — weaponize grievance politics in the culture wars during a Georgia election year. These bills are our state’s iteration of “anti-critical race theory” proposals across the nation.

In Florida, lawmakers are seeking to make it illegal for white students to feel discomfort. In Oklahoma, a recent proposed bill would allow parents to sue teachers for $10,000 per day if they discuss any topic that does not perfectly align with a student’s closely held religious belief.

The House and Senate bills here in Georgia do not mention critical race theory by name. But they are part of this growing ideological trend to manufacture and capitalize on outrage as it relates to what students are taught or not taught in schools — the front line, as it were, of the nation’s culture war.

While there have long been efforts from the political right to censor curriculum and ban books in U.S. schools, these efforts have reached a fever pitch over the past two years. First, parents shouted at local school boards to ignore medical science and reopen schools as well as remove mask mandates during the height of the pandemic. Then, concerns over the teaching of CRT began to spring up across the country.

The simmering perception that K-12 schools and universities are engaged in teaching students to hate the United States or themselves was captured in the Trump administration’s 1776 Report. That report, not penned by historians, is full of inaccuracies in its attempt to promote fascist-like indoctrination that the United States is without historical or contemporary issues. Among many concerns, the 1776 Report attempts to suggest that George Washington freed his slaves and, thus, the United States does not have a legacy of racial oppression. Those with an accurate understanding of history know Martha Washington freed one of approximately 123 slaves.

Credit: University of North Georgia

Credit: University of North Georgia

Recently, the Heritage Action group tweeted about “uncovering” the teaching of CRT in Gwinnett County Public Schools despite K-12 districts suggesting that they do not teach CRT. Yet, this tweet was not the “gotcha” that Heritage may think it was for a few reasons: (1) The course in question was an Advanced Placement language and research course (that is, a college-level course), (2) students learn myriad frameworks for examining and critiquing issues, and (3) this type of critical thinking is precisely what we should want education to teach our students. All of that said, Superintendent Calvin Watts, noted that the syllabus in question was never used in classes. A district spokeswoman said it was a sample syllabus submitted to the organization that provides AP curriculum.

Georgia’s proposed bills seek to establish that racial injustice is an artifact of the past that no longer exists. They state that educators cannot suggest that the United States or Georgia is fundamentally biased based on race. Yet, any examination will clearly show that racial bias was a fundamental component of our legal, social, and educational system — from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarcerations. The question, then, is whether or not these inequalities still persist. For this, students need to develop the ability to examine, evaluate and critique myriad forms of data and generate their own fact-based conclusion.

While part of any learning process is extending beyond our comfort zones, that discomfort is not what is at stake with these bills in Georgia, Florida and a dozen other states. It is uncomfortable to admit that white schools receive so much more in funding than nonwhite schools. Admitting this reality begs action. If we claim that the U.S. affords all children with a level playing field, the receipts showing that the field is structurally uneven suggests that we either forfeit the claim of equality or seek to remedy the inequality.

Another issue that arises is where these actions on curricular restrictions will lead. Will Georgia follow in the footsteps of Tennessee and begin banning Pulitzer Prize-winning books about the Holocaust? Senate Bill 226 seeks to provide a mechanism for parents to “raise concerns” about the content of books in schools in an effort to remove them. However, it perpetuates the notion that teachers, librarians, and other school officials are incapable of making sound decisions relating to curriculum and content, despite earning bachelor’s and advanced degrees in their areas of expertise.

The larger problem created by SB 226 is that it creates a slippery slope of giving power to those who lack training in curriculum, instruction, and library media. This trend should alarm anyone who does not fancy a Nazi Germany-style authoritarian government over a democratic republic. In fact, one of the initial steps taken in Nazi Germany was banning of books, control of school curriculum and requirements of “loyalty oaths” and coerced patriotism as we are seeing in a variety of proposed laws across the country.

The United States has a checkered past that is troubling for all citizens. This is known as difficult history and provides students with an opportunity to understand how the past shapes the present so that they can be thoughtful and effective citizens. As novelist and essayist James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Will Georgia codify lying to students? Will we ban or burn books? While the next political outrage may find another arena to target and destroy for political gain, there are real harmful implications of the one currently targeting schools and books in an effort to satiate the public’s broad ignorance about buzzwords such as critical race theory. These bills are not anti-CRT, whatever that may mean. They are explicitly anti-education.