Steve Brawner| Fort Smith Times Record
How should schools teach about history? And who should decide? The answer to the second question helps determine the answer to the first.
Arkansas state legislators are confronted with both with two bills by Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle).
House Bill 1218 would prohibit public school districts and state-supported colleges and universities from teaching material that:
Promotes overthrowing the government
Promotes division between, resentment of, or social justice for a race, gender, political affiliation, social class or particular class of people
Advocates the isolation of a group of students based on ethnicity, race, religion, gender or social class
Violates federal civil rights laws
Negatively targets specific nationalities or countries
Schools that violate these terms could lose 10% of state foundation funding.
The bill wouldnt prohibit discussing controversial aspects of history and wouldnt outlaw discussing the Holocaust,genocide,historical oppression of people based on ethnicity, race or class,or African-American history. It also wouldnt prohibit students from participating in voluntary activities.
Lowery is also sponsoring House Bill 1231, which would prohibit the use of public school funds to teach the 1619 Project, which is a curriculum developed by the New York Times that teaches that 1619, when slaves were first brought here, is Americas true founding date rather than the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The 1619 Project elicits strong reactions from people. Supporters say it explains slaverys importance as an economic and political institution. Opponents say it inaccurately devalues the nations more noble, high-minded principles.
The bills have not yet been heard in committee.
Heres the thing about laws: They ultimately put the lawyers in charge, which makes everyone hesitant to do anything and turns us all into i-dotters and t-crossers. School districts would have to decide what promotes division and then theyd have to be really careful about teaching anything. If they cant negatively target a nationality or country, then what could they say about Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Chinaor Iran?
The second half of the bill tries to foresee its own potential problems by listing what schools can teach, but then it becomes self-contradictory. Schools could teach about oppression based on race but couldnt promote social justice for a race? Thats a minefield. It lists exceptions to its own prohibitions, but what does it leave out unless controversial aspects of history covers everything? Ultimately, lawyers would decide.
The 1874 Arkansas Constitution makes the state ultimately responsible for maintaining a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools, even as schools were locally run back then. In recent years, the courts have interpreted the phrase to give the state an increasing role in public education, particularly regarding funding. Meanwhile, historical events have moved power from the schoolhouse to capitols, and not always for bad reasons. If President Eisenhower had to send troops to Little Rock in 1957 to end school segregation and protect those students from the mob, so be it.
But turning schools into arms of the state and federal governments also has a downside in a diverse, divided country. There are real differences between red states and blue states, and there are differences between parts of Arkansas. Mountain View is different from Malvern, which is different from Helena-West Helena. 48 languages are spoken in the homes of students in the Springdale School District, the states largest with large populations of Hispanic and Marshallese students.
The truth is the truth, but certain approaches to history will work better in one school than they will in another. People who live in different places and have different experiences will see history differently. Communities will have different expectations. Whats divisive in one district, or classroom, would be merely controversial in another.
Force can resolve differences, and sometimes thats necessary, as it was in 1957. But we should be hesitant to use force, which is what a law is. We can also try persuasion. The other choice is accepting that differences will occur, often even celebrating that fact, and trusting schools and teachers to make these decisions.
So we return to our first two questions. How should schools teach about history? And who should decide? Well see what answers come from the Capitol in the coming days.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.
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