In New Hampshire of all places, they seem to have forgotten what it means to “live free.”
Not to be outdone in the great national GOP crusade to ban certain books and control how teachers talk about history and race in their classrooms, lawmakers in the Granite State have proposed legislation mandating teachers’ allegiance to the lawmakers’ version of American history.
“An Act relative to teachers’ loyalty” updates a Cold War-era bill designed to protect schoolchildren from “subversive doctrines,” including communism, by requiring this: “No teacher shall advocate any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America in New Hampshire public schools which does not include the worldwide context of now outdated and discouraged practices. Such prohibition includes but is not limited to teaching that the United States was founded on racism.”
The loyalty law is designed to sanitize American history and spread the blame for the worst stuff, like slavery, around. The effect, says Jeffrey Sachs, who has been following gag orders across the country for PEN America, is to suggest that this country’s original sin was merely a function of outdated thinking.
“It is forcing teachers, whenever they’re discussing a negative and ugly moment in the country’s past, to place it in a context that excuses it or casts it in a more favorable light,” he said. “It’s meant to exonerate the United States.”
It also, not coincidentally, seeks to keep that sin firmly in the past, said Sachs, a New Hampshire native who teaches politics and history at Acadia University.
As with the state’s “divisive concepts” legislation which passed last year and bars teachers from suggesting that any group of people is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” the wording of this loyalty bill is vague enough that any history or civics teacher could be targeted.
That’s no accident. Some of the legislators sponsoring these bills have made it clear where they’re coming from: One has said systemic racism does not exist, especially not in New Hampshire; another said she wants teachers to instruct their students in “proper history” that is not “one-sided.” Yet another refused to concede that the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted enslaved Black people as less than full citizens, was racist, suggesting that it was instead designed to end slavery. (She later acknowledged her “errors.”)
It’s one thing for people to hold ignorant views. It’s quite another for those who aren’t educators to impose those views in classrooms, and to threaten teachers who don’t toe the line. In the Granite State, as everywhere, parents who are unhappy with how their children are being taught in school can have conversations with their kids and their teachers, like the rest of us do, rather than going full-on Stasi.
Think that last line a reach? The New Hampshire chapter of Moms for Liberty, a supposedly grassroots group of activists who have made it their business to protect white students from discomfort and terrorize teachers across the country, has offered a $500 bounty to the first person to successfully catch a public school teacher breaking the “divisive concepts” law.
But even without the vigilantism, educators say the laws — even those that haven’t passed — have already stifled discussions of racism, sexism, and other difficult topics in schools, as teachers steer clear of hazardous territory.
“There is an extraordinary chill on public education and teachers,” said state Senator David Watters, a Dover Democrat who has filed legislation to roll back the gag rules. “You could lose your job and your house if you get sued.”
There are currently 150 bills pending in 35 different states seeking to shut down “anti-American” teaching to varying degrees, Sachs said. Some are so broad they bar any lesson which makes students — they mean white students — feel guilt or discomfort.
Set aside the fact that no teacher, no matter how careful, could ever anticipate every student’s response to a lesson. Discomfort is exactly the right response to some of this nation’s history, and its present: It’s natural for kids to be sickened by slavery, appalled by racism and discrimination. The more they understand, and empathize with, those who are treated unjustly, the more likely they are to do something about it.
Maybe that’s exactly what these crusaders fear.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.