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Janresseger: A Climate of Fear Makes It Harder for Children and Their Teachers to Consider Our History

We have all seen pictures in the news and listened on television to parents shouting at the members of their local school boards. The parents have been inflamed by a well coordinated campaign to infuriate parents about the teaching of so-called “divisive” concepts. I am alarmed when I watch this sort of thing. But I think being horrified by the theater and screaming at school board meetings or the laws being considered in more than half the statehouses to ban so-called Critical Race Theory misses something important.

It is essential to clarify exactly who are the extremists stirring up the controversy and how they are misrepresenting the American history curriculum in public schools.  But another perspective on the controversy has too often been missing.  What is our experience and our children’s experience when we learn accurately and honestly about the injustices that are part of the nation’s history?  Does it feel dangerous? Does it hurt us psychologically?

The National Education Policy Center does a great job of explaining how right-wing ideologues are actively sowing discord in our communities by stealing and changing the meaning of an old graduate school and law school concept—Critical Race Theory—which, in higher education, has been used to describe systemic, structural racial bias: “Well-established and powerful far Right organizations are driving the current effort to prevent schools from providing historically accurate information about slavery and racist policies and practices, or from examining systemic racism and its manifold impacts. These organizations include the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Goldwater Institute, Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and Manhattan Institute…. The work and social media posts of Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo offer a good example of how far Right ideologues push the anti-CRT narrative… On Twitter, Rufo states his objective and brags about his success: ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—-into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

It is important for us to understand the role of the Manhattan Institute and Christopher Rufo and others who seek to distort our politics for their own political purposes.  I worry, however, that we are not paying enough attention to the educational consequences for our children, although several organizations have warned us.

In conceptual terms, the National Education Policy Center summarizes the educational impact of the far-right when they stoke the current controversy about the teaching of American history: “The anti-CRT narrative is thus used to accomplish three goals: to thwart efforts to provide an accurate and complete picture of American history; to prevent analysis and discussion of the role that race and racism have played in our history; and to blunt the momentum of efforts to increase democratic participation by  members of marginalized groups.”

In a similarly abstract definition, the American Historical Society and the Organization of American Historians summarize the controversy and condemn a bill passed last June in Texas: “Texas House Bill 3979—‘relating to the social studies curriculum in public schools’ and signed into law on June 15, 2021—prohibits slavery and racism from being taught as ‘anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.’ Such laws… risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn and seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements.”

These formal explanations are essential, but something is missing. The goal of ideological, far-right political operatives is to ignite a visceral emotional response. The goal is to terrify white parents and make them believe their white children will feel uncomfortable or guilty or sad if they learn about racial oppression in American history.  Many of these parents have been able to insulate themselves in mostly white communities and largely avoid considering people whose culture and life experience might bring different perspectives on our history. By creating an atmosphere of fear, the far-right seeks to further sow anxiety and division.

By contrast, in a thoughtful Washington Post column, Michael Gerson considers how studying history is intended to challenge our various parochialisms and, within the relative safety of the classroom, to show us, if we are willing to see and hear, the complexity of our society: “‘The attempted declawing of historical studies may be politically useful for Republicans in some places. But it bears little relationship to the way history is actually learned. All good history teaching involves layering the perspectives of a period’s participants. For this reason, the great debates of U.S. history cannot be held within polite, nonoffensive boundaries… Struggling to understand these layered perspectives is practice in critical thinking and mature citizenship. The discipline of history teaches us to engage with discomforting, distressing ideas without fearing them.”

Gerson also points to the new Texas law, but he examines precisely how the law functions psychologically to freeze teachers’ capacity to help children consider other perspectives: “The state of Texas—confirming its status as the laboratory of idiocracy—did the most damage. It has forbidden the teaching of any ‘concept’ that causes an individual to ‘feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.’  The consequences for violating this law are unspecified. But the vagueness is the point. White children—really the White parents of White children—have been given an open invitation to protest any teaching on U.S. racial history that triggers their ‘discomfort.’ Which for some parents will mean any teaching on racism at all. This will inevitably lead to self-censorship by teachers who want to avoid trouble.”

Reading Gerson’s column caused me to think back to a community-wide discussion last winter (on ZOOM, of course) of Derek Black’s new book, Schoolhouse Burning.  Black’s immediate topic is the danger of the widespread collapse of public school funding over the recent decade and today’s politically conservative (Betsy DeVos pushing vouchers) and neoliberal (Arne Duncan pushing charter schools) attempt to privatize the public schools. I was part of two small group conversations about this book, but on neither evening did participants find the greatest interest in the chapters on the current wave of vouchers and charter schools. Instead people wanted to talk about the chapters in the middle of the book that trace the development of the institution of public schooling during and after the Civil War—the demand for schooling by freed slaves, the expansion of public schooling during Reconstruction, and the convulsive aftermath in the years after Reconstruction ended n 1876.  Derek Black explores this post-Reconstruction  period when the formerly Confederate states segregated schools racially and imposed extremely localized school funding to avoid undertaking the education of Black children. Our discussion last year included African American and white participants; in almost every case, people were fascinated by the details in the chapters which covered what for most of us, at least, was a hidden history we had never been taught at school. Everybody talked and talked about what they learned from the historical chapters in this book. Learning this history just seemed important; it didn’t feel threatening to anybody.

We were appalled by much of this history, but it was also layered with something positive: “All fifty state constitutions include an education clause or other language that requires the state to provide public education.  Most of these clauses were first enacted or substantially amended in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. By law, Congress explicitly conditioned Virginia’s, Mississippi’s and Texas’s readmission to the Union based on the education rights and obligations they had just put into their constitutions… (A)fter the Civil War, no state would ever again enter the Union without an education clause in its constitution.” (Schoolhouse Burning p. 53)

There is a lesson from these history chapters in Derek Black’s book. What happened in history does, in fact, speak directly to our problems today. In Ohio we have been caught for decades in debates about the school finance provisions in our state constitution, and we now anticipate a lawsuit over the constitutionality of private school vouchers. Our community conversation last year made us more appreciative of the role of our state constitution and for the strengthening by Congress in the context of the Civil War of the protection provided by government for the rights of our nation’s most vulnerable children.

In his recent column, Michael Gerson observes: “A history curriculum designed to ensure the comfort of White people would have more than a few gaps. And teaching down to such a standard undermines one of the main purposes of historical education, which is to foster a useful discomfort with injustice.”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—wo...