Statue with eyes and mouth covered in tape.

By Jane Morris

So much about what and how teachers can teach kids is under tight control. The curriculum is practically scripted, which goes against the reason most of us became teachers in the first place. A huge aspect of teaching others about something is relaying the information in a personal, individualized way, or else we are merely glorified babysitters handing out worksheets. When you are teaching a subject such as language arts or history, there must be room for genuine discussion, or else the students might as well be learning online with no teacher. But the hot new thing in many places across the U.S. is trying to control even more of what and how teachers teach and restricting a student’s access to books in general, which is extremely alarming.

Separation of Church and State

Most Americans would probably agree that in public school, politics should be taught from a neutral standpoint. Teaching about communism is not the same as teaching kids to want to become communists. In a country whose foundation is the separation of church and state, most should also agree that religion be taught from a neutral, informational standpoint that teaches respect for all beliefs and ideologies. Teaching what atheists believe is not the same as teaching kids why they should be atheists. It’s the same for history lessons. All aspects of history should be taught without bias and at an age that is determined to be developmentally appropriate by psychologists and other experts. That doesn’t mean we remove or sugarcoat traumatic parts of history. It means that we might hold off on speaking about the event altogether until the students are developmentally ready to grapple with the subject matter.

But when students are deemed to be of an appropriate age to learn about terrible parts of our past, such as slavery, is it possible to teach these aspects of history from a depersonalized and neutral standpoint? Must we be forced to read simple facts about genocide from a dry textbook instead of reading a firsthand account from a person who lived through the atrocity? Why would this even be an issue for some people? This is where things get complicated.

Picture of Elie Wiesel.

You Can’t Separate Emotion from History

If history were so straightforward as to be taught from a neutral standpoint, we would be living in a perfect, utopian world. History is painful, brutal, messy, and unbelievably cruel. As the famous quote says, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In order to prevent future cruelty, we must teach our children about the cruel, unthinkable things that people have done to other people. Teaching about the terrible parts of history, such as slavery or genocide, is best done through first-hand accounts. That is the best way to humanize the inhuman. But now it seems that some people want to sanitize these topics so much as to make them barely recognizable from what they actually were.

Educational Gag Orders

Since January 2021, 183 educational bills have been introduced in 40 different states meant to restrict the teaching of certain topics in K-12 schools and even in higher education. The majority of these bills target race, racism, gender, and American history, preventing teachers from even “prohibited” or “divisive” concepts. 19 of them have already become law in 15 states, which affects 122 million people. What is most concerning is the vague language used in these bills, which can be used in random scenarios, including banning a large amount of literature and historical materials just because it makes one person feeluncomfortable.” There is specifically a focus on getting rid of content by and about people of color, which is particularly alarming. Eleven of the proposed bills have become law in nine states, and many more are gaining traction. PEN America is an organization that was created in 1922 by famous writers such as Robert Frost to protect freedom of expression. The organization refers to these bills as “educational gag orders.”

Their site includes extensive research on these educational gag order bills, but here is a basic overview of a few of the most frightening bills that would effectively “prohibit the teaching of specific ideas, concepts, or curricular materials in public schools and higher education.” 

Bust of artistotle.

Alarmingly Vague Educational Bills

Several bills have been proposed and/or passed recently that allow parents to object to their child learning about just about anything for any reason. An executive order from Governor Kristi Noem in South Dakota “prohibits public K-12 schools from teaching anything that “promotes inherently divisive concepts.” Yet what do they mean by “inherently divisive concepts?” The ACLU of South Dakota issued a response opposing the order. They argue that the order violates the First Amendment right to receive information and knowledge. “Instead of encouraging learning, Noem’s executive order will have a chilling effect on academic freedom.” Basically, laws like this can be used too broadly to ban just about any subject for any reason. 

Teachers aren’t trying to hide anything, and most of this material is usually available online for parents to see anyway. The problem is trying to accommodate each parent’s objection, in a short period of time, and having to figure out what the child will do instead. Teachers already have too much to do within a day. Some bills suggest that teachers might be required to upload an entire year’s worth of material before the school year starts, which I can tell you is impossible because of how many changes occur throughout the year.

A Utah bill would permit parents to refuse to allow their children to participate in school lessons they find objectionable and to sue schools or education officials for any perceived infringement of their rights as parents. Again, the issue here is accommodating each parent’s objection without alienating the child. Fear of a lawsuit will make an already stressful job feel impossible.

Similarly, a bill in Florida would allow parents to sue over perceived violations of a parents’ bill of rights that was enacted last year. And a Missouri bill would allow the state’s attorney general to sue schools for the same reason. A bill in Indiana explicitly connects parents’ rights to the continuing controversy over how schools discuss race and racism. It would mandate the creation of “parent-led curriculum review committees,” which means any adult with a child in the school system will be able to object to materials that have been properly vetted by trained professionals.

Women holding a sign that says - Trust our teachers.

One Parent Doesn’t Like It? It’s Gone.

Although one parent’s complaint shouldn’t remove access to the book altogether, many schools remove the book or lesson after only one objection out of fear. A parent should have the right to say that they do not want their child to read a certain book, but they should not be able to remove access to that book for everyone else. But that is the way things are unfolding in public schools around the country. There is so much fear around offending a parent that items are being removed at an alarming rate. 

On Jan. 25, 2023, the principal of Central Bucks High School South in Philadelphia ordered a school library to take down a poster with a quote from Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. The quote, part of Wiesel’s 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, read, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” The initial decision to remove the poster was in tandem with the Central Buck School Board’s passage of policy 321 in January, first introduced in September, which bans teachers from promoting “advocacy activities” displaying symbols of “any partisan, political, or social policy issue.” Katie Lowe, program and collections director at the Elkins Park-based Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center, said,   “The Holocaust is not about elevating one religion or another. It’s a historical incident. What’s especially concerning is the implication that teaching the Holocaust is a political act. Because it’s not political to teach historical facts, and it’s not political to encourage and foster empathy in our students.” 

Similarly, Michael James, a teacher at an Escambia County public school in Florida, said that an employee removed posters of figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Harriett Tubman, and former President Obama from his special education classroom. The teacher quit because he felt this was racist behavior and the reason cited for removing the posters was that they were not
“age appropriate.”

All these bills do is increase the public’s mistrust of teachers and a general feeling of a lack of respect. Teachers are already tasked with handling way too many behavioral issues on top of a neverending pile of paperwork. If they are forced to accommodate every parent’s feeling of discomfort, an already impossible job will become that much more difficult. When did it become a bad thing to feel a little uncomfortable? As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” To be truly educated, our students should be allowed to examine various concepts and issues without fear of being “indoctrinated”.  And if the public’s mistrust of teachers is too great, perhaps they should consider homeschooling their children to ensure they never learn about anything that might cause a moment of discomfort.

Author Bio

Jane Morris is the pen name of a teacher who would really like to tell you more about herself, but she is afraid she’ll lose her job. Jane has taught English for over 15 years in a major American city. She received her B.A. in English and Secondary Education from a well-known university and her M.A. in writing from an even fancier (more expensive) university. She has a loving family and cares about making people laugh more than anything else.

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