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The third-worst new law in Texas
Is still plenty bad
When Texas adopted its current constitution in 1876, the charter specified that the legislature meet only every other year, lest the lawmakers be tempted to pass too many laws. The 87th legislature, which met this year, did not get the message. It approved over 700 laws.
Two of the laws are particularly provocative. One nullifies the abortion-rights protections of Roe v. Wade; the other attempts to suppress the Democratic vote in the state. Each has attracted national attention, with good reason. The first has already engaged the Supreme Court and almost certainly will do so again. The second might well elicit similar scrutiny.
A third law won’t get that far in the courts, but it might have greater effect on a larger number of people, especially young people. House Bill 3979 is labeled “an act relating to the social studies curriculum in public schools.” The social studies law details what school teachers must teach and what they must not teach.
Republicans have controlled Texas politics for almost three decades; this is their law. Unsurprisingly the must-teach topics include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Less automatically, the must-teach topics also include Frederick Douglass, Sally Hemings, Dolores Huerta, the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, the Indian Removal Act, and the Underground Railroad, along with Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez. A special section of the law mandates coverage of “historical documents related to the civic accomplishments of marginalized populations,” including the Chicano movement, the women's rights movement, the civil rights movement, and the American labor movement.
If history were simply a catalog of facts, the catalog the law specifies would be fairly unobjectionable. Most of the appropriate boxes are checked.
When it comes to interpreting the facts, a different attitude appears. But not at first: the law starts well. Teachers are required to cover “the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong.” The law goes on to prohibit teaching “that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.” Progressives should have no complaint here.
Schools are warned against imposing politics on teachers. “A teacher may not be compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs,” the law says. A teacher may choose to enter controversy, but must proceed impartially. Such a teacher “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.”
This sounds like plain good pedagogy. Explore topics without prejudging them.
The plot thickens when the concepts of systemic racism and patriarchy are alluded to but not named. Teachers must not teach that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously”; that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex”; or that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”
The law is more forthcoming on the most prominent expression of the systemic racism argument. Teachers may not “require an understanding of The 1619 Project.” Realizing that teachers might be tempted to bootleg the thinking of the 1619 project into the classroom, without the label, the law declares that teachers must not teach that “the advent of slavery in the territory that is now the United States constituted the true founding of the United States,” or that “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are 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.”
On its face, this part of the law displays a reasonable desire to prevent school children from being indoctrinated with leftist views on race in American history. School children, a captive audience, should not be indoctrinated with anything. And saying that liberty and equality are more the authentic founding principles of the United States than slavery and racism is hardly extreme, though some on the left might argue otherwise.
But the effect of the law will extend far beyond its wording. The law will cast a pall over classrooms. At a moment when some of the most basic facts of public life are regularly denied, how confident can classroom teachers be that even innocuous comments will not be seen as biased? Is the planet warming? Did Donald Trump lose the election of 2020? Is covid a hoax? Is America governed by Satan-worshipping pedophiles?
All but the boldest teachers will steer clear of substantive conversations that have political overtones. For at least some of the supporters of the law, this is doubtless the intent.
The law will be hard on teachers, but the real losers will be the students. They will not be asked, or even allowed, to use their minds to think about issues that affect the world they are inheriting. They will come to think about politics the way Victorian children were taught to think about sex—that is, not to think about it at all. Instead they will leave politics to those who make it their business, namely the Republicans who currently control the Texas government.
The social studies law doesn’t rise to the level of outrageousness of the abortion law, which would deprive women of a right the Constitution has guaranteed them for half a century, or the election law, which undermines the basis of democracy.
But it is pernicious in a way that will impair the ability of a generation of Texans to fulfill their responsibility as citizens.
For those of us who teach history, this is especially sad, for students will draw the conclusion that history is utterly dull and devoid of connection to anything important in their lives.