Texas House Bill 3979 and Learning American History

What’s the right way to teach American history, and the role of race in it?

A bill in Texas, HB 3979, takes a stab at the question. It’s part of a push to direct the way students learn about racism and participate in activism. It’s also part of a broader backlash against an approach to history called critical race theory. You can read more about the Texas bill in this Texas Tribune article, which says in part:

The Senate-approved version revives specific essential curriculum standards that students are required to understand, including the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. But it stripped more than two dozen requirements to study the writings or stories of multiple women and people of color that were also previously approved by the House, despite attempts by Democratic senators to reinstate some of those materials in the bill.

The Senate did vote to include the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 13th 14th and 19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the complexity of the relationship between Texas and Mexico to the list of required instruction.

Now, let’s look at the bill itself. What I think is most interesting is tucked into a couple of paragraphs on page 2:

(1) no teacher shall be compelled by a policy of any state agency, school district, campus, open-enrollment charter school, or school administration to discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs;

(2) teachers who choose to discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs shall, to the best of their ability, strive to explore such issues from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.

The temptation is to get caught up in the Texas controversy, and whether critical race theory specifically should be baked into school curriculum. But I don’t think that’s an essential conversation. More important, I think, are a couple of questions the bill’s language raises: Must Social Studies teachers be relevant? And when they try to be relevant, must they be fair?

They're not simple questions. In a perfect world, we would want teachers to bring their lessons as close to the present day as possible. We love it when Math teachers craft word problems that show the practical use of algebra, when English teachers relate the emotions of characters to how students feel, and when Social Studies teachers connect past struggles to current events. The information is more valuable when students understand immediately that it’s useful.

But making those connections is challenging in any subject, and especially so for Social Studies teachers. It’s a lot easier to offend someone with a political debate than with a brain teaser.

So what should we do?

My personal answer is that we should take more ownership over the learning experience, as families and communities. That’s because in many ways, I developed The Black Experience in America: The Course from the very conditions the Texas Senate is trying to avoid. The swirl of controversy inspired me to put together a curriculum to better illuminate where our country has been, and where it might go next. And I tried to frame the lessons in a way that doesn’t force a particular point of view, but encourages people to explore ideas. Technology is making it possible for families and communities to access this kind of information more seamlessly and affordably than ever.

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