State laws are corrupting the study of history by forcing ‘opposing viewpoints’ in the classroom
The implementation of recently enacted legislation in Texas is sounding an alarm that should reverberate through state legislatures and local school boards across the United States. Texas Senate Bill 3 (SB3) requires that K-12 teachers present “opposing viewpoints” on “widely debated and controversial” issues. This was bad legislation from the beginning. We are now seeing its consequences.
Most historical issues are better understood as having different angles of vision rather than “opposing sides.” In some cases, the facts are the facts; although they can be interpreted in different ways, they remain stubbornly the facts. Moreover, different interpretations still require evidence; in many cases, an “opposing” interpretation (versus a different angle of vision) cannot be supported by existing evidence. In some cases, consensual community values preclude “opposing viewpoints” on a particular issue. The Holocaust and slavery offer obvious examples.
Historians, teachers and students can and should look at the causes and implications of these horrors from different angles. We can condemn the Holocaust as a crime against humanity, and still seek to understand why it happened, thereby retaining our moral sense while exploring the historical context revealed by the rise of the Nazi Party. But we cannot, and should not, expect teachers to offer “opposing” views on the essence of either slavery or genocide, except as a way to how controversies emerged over such inhumane aspects of our past.
This is what seems to have happened in the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, where the executive director of curriculum and instruction informed teachers to “make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.” Judging from the district’s subsequent apology there can be little doubt that this was not about “angles of vision” relating to evidence, causes or historical significance.
The vague wording of SB3 not only creates absurd situations that require teachers to figure out how to offer “opposing viewpoints” on slavery, but also gives license to parents and administrators looking to challenge the teaching of incontrovertible facts relating to controversial issues.
The result is confusion and fear on the part of K-12 teachers, who are certified in pedagogy and age-appropriate instruction and remain vulnerable to misinformed parents and school board members; administrators who support their professional staff have already been subject to unwarranted pressure.
Let us be clear here: SB3 and similar legislation in other states is meant to require social studies not to promote the idea that chattel slavery, lynching and other forms of racially motivated violence and the long history of legally mandated racial discrimination “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.” This is not true.
Historians, teachers and students who read the founding documents can debate whether these aspects of our past are “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to” the words in those documents. Some might argue that the roots of american racism lie in the documents themselves. These are different angles of vision as we read the documents.
The problem lies in the dismissive phrase “anything other than.” These phenomena are more than deviations, betrayals or failures; they are central aspects of our past, with a lasting impact documented by professional scholarship. We cannot pretend otherwise if we are to address their impact with our integrity intact, and with the hope that we will learn from the past rather than merely celebrate it.
SB3 and comparable legislation introduced in 27 states corrupts the study of history and reduces students to political pawns. Children deserve to learn history from teachers who are professionally trained to teach it, and they are entitled to a curriculum consistent with professional scholarship. If that history includes criticism of our nation, its institutions or even its people, such reckoning can take place constructively and even respectfully. But it is likely to generate “discomfort,” and teachers should not be required (or even expected) to comfort students with an “opposing viewpoint” that runs contrary to available evidence.
Jacqueline Jones is president of the American Historical Association and professor emerita at the University of Texas.
James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association.