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National wave of curriculum bills fails both students and American history

AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey
Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on July 7, 2022. The books are banned in several public schools and libraries in the U.S., but young people can read digital versions from anywhere through the library.

Utah is the latest state hit by the national wave of bills targeting public education. A new public school curriculum bill introduced in the Utah Legislature, HB 427, would “prohibit the use of instructional materials and classroom instruction inconsistent with the principle of inalienable rights, equal opportunity, and individual merit.”

Vacuous as this description might seem, the bill is hardly empty of meaning. HB 427 acts to curtail curricular freedom and nuance, insisting that all instructional materials in Utah public schools demonstrate specific principle beliefs, including that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions that other members of the same race or sex committed in the past; and that an individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race.” 

If passed into law, this bill would effectively shelter students from the past, spoon-feeding them versions of the world that make no one feel uncomfortable about anything, least of all actual facts. It’s not only a paternalistic attitude, but one that would stultify the classroom.

A teacher mentioning the concept of unconscious bias might run afoul of the prescribed principle “that no individual is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” An AP Government discussion on how redlining has contributed to the wealth gap in America could challenge, at least in part, the principle “that meritocracy or character traits, including hard work ethic, are not racist but fundamental to the right to pursue happiness and to be rewarded for industry.”

In states like Utah, where local politics skew hard in one direction, such curriculum bills promote a myopic vision of America at best. Imagine: a near single-party government wants to dictate what can be discussed in the classroom.  

When has that ever gone wrong?

The legal overreaches of HB 427 may appear like a Utah problem, but it’s part of a growing national trend. Since 2020, anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) bills have been passed by the state legislatures of Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Kentucky, Idaho, Texas, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, North Dakota and Tennessee, creating a gag order on educators and a chilling effect in classrooms across the country. In multiple other states, the same effect has been accomplished through executive orders and action by state boards of education.

Emboldened by these victories, conservative parent groups and state legislators have turned their attention to school libraries, stoking fear about “pornography” in libraries by cherry-picking sentences, paragraphs or single images from books to vilify the entire work.

PEN America has reported that, between July 2021 and June 2022, at least 2,532 individual books were banned across the country, facilitated by small, highly mobilized regional groups that have created an outsized political impact. Sadly, state governments are responding.

Make no mistake: this Utah bill isn’t unique but rather part of a movement of special-interest groups that take advantage of overwhelmed parents’ busy home and work schedules. Such bills don’t reflect the voters’ general will or interest, but instead chip away at our freedom to read and access information itself.

Book bans, anti-CRT legislation and curriculum monitoring are the result of a growing, zero-sum mentality about American culture: If we give time and attention to histories that have been ignored — even suppressed — somehow this takes away from the stories we’ve already metabolized … and if we read books by and about people of color, this must come at the emotional expense of white people.

Rather than see inclusion as a loss, why can’t we treat the broader range of materials as an expansion of American culture itself?

We cannot value fear more than we value facts.

No one is demanding that our children feel guilty; we are asking, simply, that they learn to process the wide, diverse, contradictory and, yes, uncomfortable wealth of information that comprises history.

We can never be “exceptional” if we accept only one story to be told. 

Paisley Rekdal is the co-chair of PEN America’s Utah Chapter, a former Utah Poet Laureate and a Presidential Societal Impact Scholar and professor of English at the University of Utah.

Peter Bromberg is the associate director of EveryLibrary, a nonprofit that provides pro bono consulting and training to libraries nationwide.

Rebekah Cummings is the co-chair of the Utah Library Association Advocacy Committee and an associate librarian at the University of Utah.

Tags anti-racism curriculum banned books book ban Book bans Critical race theory educational curriculum First Amendment rights freedom History of the United States Libraries Library Public Libraries public school curriculum School curriculum School library Utah

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