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How Can Teachers Stay True to History Without Breaking New Laws?

When it comes to America’s latest “history war,” one of the biggest consequences is that it has made many K-12 educators scared and confused about what they can and can’t say in their classrooms.

Since 2021, at least 28 states have adopted measures that restrict how teachers can teach the history of racism in the U.S. Many more states have proposals on the table. The laws have been portrayed in the media as measures that would prevent teachers from teaching “divisive concepts” or lessons that would cause “discomfort, anguish or guilt.”

As a historian who studies some of the most brutal aspects of American history – from anti-Black lynching in the South after the Civil War to the use of torture during the war on terror – I don’t believe teachers have as much to worry about as many may think. Some observers have posited that the wave of new education laws will have a chilling effect on how history is taught. But a close look at these laws shows that they are generally written so broadly that they can’t effectively stop teachers from teaching history in a way that’s fair, accurate and true.

Weaknesses seen

Some, such as law professor Jonathan Feingold, go so far as to say most of the laws actually call for more CRT, not less. I wouldn’t go that far. However, I do see a lot of leeway and loopholes in the laws. Here, I offer several examples of ways teachers can introduce difficult subjects that involve racism in the U.S. without violating the new laws that govern how teachers can discuss it.

Focus on the free market

In teaching about the history of American free markets, teachers would be justified to point out that slavery – and the associated industries of cotton and tobacco, to name just two – were all major components of the economy before the Civil War.

Examining the concept of liberty

Since liberty has been a long-standing pillar of American society, no teacher could be faulted for having students examine if and how the nation historically has lived up to the notion that liberty had truly been secured “for all.”

Teachers could also examine the starkly different visions of liberty that developed over time. For instance, students could compare and contrast the visions of liberty espoused by Confederates in relation to the views held by President Abraham Lincoln and other Unionists.

Paying homage to freed men in battle

By studying these men and the reason they received these medals, students will learn the role that Black people themselves played in the abolition of slavery – the largest expansion of liberty in American history.

Given the current political climate in the U.S., there is no reason to assume more laws that govern what can be taught in public schools will not be passed. But based on how the laws are being written, there are still plenty of ways for teachers to tackle difficult subjects, such as racism in American society


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