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Last week Republican lawmakers in Missouri tried to ban the teaching of the American Revolution in public schools. This is not what they thought they were doing, but this is what they did. In House Bill 1474, ostensibly an act designed to integrate a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” into existing legislation governing public schools, they included the following passages:

“As used in this section, “curriculum implementing critical race theory” includes, but is not limited to, any curriculum that:
(1) Identifies people or groups of people, entities, or institutions in the United States as inherently, immutably, or systemically sexist, racist, biased, privileged, or oppressed; and
(2) Employs immutable, inherited, or objective characteristics such as race, income, appearance, family of origin, or sexual orientation to:
(a) Define a person’s identity;
(b) Classify persons into groups for any purpose including, but not limited to, the targeting of only certain groups for education, formation, indoctrination, viewpoint, or transformation;
(c) Perpetuate stereotypes; or
(d) Assign blame to categories of persons regardless of the actions of particular individuals.

2. For purposes of this section, a curriculum implementing critical race theory includes, but is not limited to, the following:
(1) The 1619 Project initiative of the New York Times;
(2) The Learning for Justice Curriculum of the Southern Poverty Law Center;
(3) Teaching Tolerance, or any successor curriculum;
(4) We Stories;
(5) Programs of Educational Equity Consultants; or
(6) Any other similar predecessor or successor curriculum.

3. No school district, charter school, or personnel or agent of such school district or charter school shall:
(1) Teach, use, or provide for use by any pupil any curriculum implementing critical race theory as part of any curriculum, course materials, or instruction in any course given in such school district or charter school; or
(2) Teach, affirm, or promote as an accurate account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America any of the claims, views, or opinions presented in the 1619 Project as part of any curriculum, course materials, or instruction in any course given in such school district or charter school.”

The target of these passages is “critical race theory”, a conservative bogeyman that is now constantly invoked to suggest that public schools and colleges are indoctrinating children into some sort of Marxist understanding of society. This is flatly false, but that has not stopped lawmakers in a number of states attempting to pass legislation like this which, if it became law, would literally ban specific ideas and educational materials from classrooms.

This is objectionable in itself, a direct assault on the professionalism of teachers and the freedom of students to learn. Teachers are trained professionals who work more closely with their students in an educational context than anybody else (except perhaps their parents). They have the responsibility and the capability to select which material is most appropriate for their own classroom, and while public oversight over public schools is entirely appropriate, the total banning of educational resources is not. Pretty much any content can be taught if it is placed within an educationally appropriate context: tying teachers’ hands by telling them they cannot use certain resources diminishes their ability to do their job and prevents students from engaging with potentially valuable ideas.

The attempt is especially grievous because the specific materials slated for banning in HB1474 are highly respected and widely used. The 1619 Project and Learning for Justice are programs from well-established organizations backed by serious scholarship and educational expertise. They are used across the nation – banning them would be an astonishing act of governmental overreach. We Stories is a local St. Louis-area program that developed in the aftermath of the Ferguson Uprising to help families have better conversations about race and racism. It uses picture books and YA literature to help parents talk about race and racism with their young children, and some local public libraries have labeled curricular titles in their system so parents can more easily find and request them. Banning the program could lead to problems even carrying these picture books in schools, since the legislation seems to blanketly prohibit the use of materials related to the curriculum in their entirety. There is something evil about the banning of children’s books with titles like “The Skin You Live In” and “I Like Myself!”— it makes me wonder what happened to these legislators to make them the way they are.

But the problems don’t stop there, for the wording of the bill is so astoundingly broad that it would ban the teaching of almost all American history. Take a look at the excerpted passages again, and you will note that they say that the bill would ban any curriculum that “identifies people or groups of people, entities, or institutions in the United States as…systemically…oppressed” and “Employs…objective characteristics such as race, income, appearance, family of origin, or sexual orientation to…Classify persons into groups”. For fun I made a list of things this bill would ban teaching in public schools, and here are a few entries on that list:

  • The American role in the Allied liberation of concentration camps in World War 2, for how can that be discussed without talking about the systemic oppression of those in the camps due to “objective characteristics” of those people?
  • The migration of the Pilgrims to the newly-founded colonies in pursuit of religious freedom, for they were systematically oppressed and are identified by the “objective characteristic” of their religious faith.
  • The Exodus story, which is unteachable without reference to the systemic oppression of the Jews by the Egyptians.
  • And, perhaps most ironically, the American Revolution itself, which would fall foul of these provisions as, in order to teach it properly you would have to identify the American colonists as systemically oppressed by the British crown.

Were HB1474 to be passed as written, history would become literally unteachable in Missouri public schools—including many parts of history that fire the loins of the conservative lawmakers who support the bill.

3 lessons we can learn from HB1474

  1. The absurdly over-broad scope of this legislation is an indication that these bills are not carefully written or checked, which one would hope to be a prerequisite to propose a law that would dramatically affect public education. This carelessness is evidence of the bad faith in which these bills are birthed: Republicans do not need these bills to be successful so much as they need to keep alive the culture war which fires up their supporters, and they know that dashing off ridiculous bills like HB1474 will provoke a passionate response from progressives who actually care about children’s education. If the bills are defeated, well, at least they got to say “Cultural Marxism” and “Frankfurt School” a lot, and own the libs.
  2. The bill ironically reveals something it seeks to obscure: the value of teaching history by examining instances of systemic oppression. This bill and those like it are motivated by the fear that teaching children that some groups have been and continue to be oppressed by others will somehow make them less patriotic and less committed to the American experiment. But, as my list above demonstrates, numerous key features of the traditional American narrative are themselves stories of the fight against systemic oppression, from restrictions of religious liberty to the desire of scrappy colonists to govern themselves. The American story—even the purely white-focused, triumphalist American story the right wishes to promote—cannot be told without an appreciation of structural oppression and attempts to dismantle it.
  3. Perhaps the most important lesson of HB1474 is this: the conservative lawmakers who frame and push these bills deeply disrespect children, and have no regard for their intellectual development or freedom. These bills are presented as an attempt to protect the rights of parents —but what about the rights of children? Parents do not own their children’s minds, and public schools exist not to help parents replicate themselves in the minds of their children. Public schools exist to help children develop their own ideas. Our children have the right to engage with controversial ideas in pursuit of their own mental liberty. They have a right to hear different accounts of American history, so they can learn to make their own judgments. This bill would undermine those rights, and for this reason alone we should oppose HB1474, and all bills like it.

James Croft is a philosopher, activist, and Humanist storyteller. As Leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, he is professional clergy for one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. A...