Roman Emperor Caracalla (painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema)

History by legislative decree

Guest Author
Guest Author

Students in my classroom recognize that Social Studies is more about knowing the questions than knowing the answers. Yet some legislators think they have all the answers and want to impose them by legislative decree.

In 2019, Kentucky educators worked collaboratively to develop new Social Studies standards underscoring the pedagogical value of inquiry and analysis. These standards begin, “Social studies classrooms are the ideal locations to foster civic virtue, apply inquiry practices, consider current issues, engage in civil discourse, and build a civic identity and an awareness of international issues.”

It would be dangerous to dismiss the idea of classrooms as laboratories for democracy. Educators need space for the art of teaching and diverse contributions of students. Stifling classroom discourse would rob educators, students, and families of educational agency and opportunities to “engage in civil discourse and build a civic identity.”

Students forge civic identity through the process of inquiry, both at home with their families and in classrooms, facilitated by professionals with degrees in their field. Legislatively imposing curriculum undermines an inquiry process that relies on questioning, investigating, applying evidence, communicating conclusions, and, when necessary, taking informed action. It is also not the job of the legislature to determine curriculum – while lawmakers oversee the accountability system for schools, curriculum remains the authority of local boards and SBDMs (which include both educator and parent representatives). In other words, curriculum is a matter of local control.

The proposed legislation moves away from this level of control, even listing documents educators must teach. While some of these are already taught, others are more bizarre (e.g, a partisan tome promoting Barry Goldwater). The list explicitly includes the Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments to the Constitution — but not the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, or Fifteenth Amendments which aimed to expand the promise of equality and finally enshrine in the Constitution the “new birth of freedom”  which many hoped would frame the nation’s founding after racial tensions boiled over in the Civil War.

Regardless of the list’s composition, its most alarming aspect is simple: a legislature with the power to dictate what documents and texts must be taught in classrooms also has the power to dictate what documents and texts must not be taught.

A legislature with the power to dictate what documents and texts must be taught in classrooms also has the power to dictate what documents and texts must not be taught.

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This has a chilling effect on the freedom of thought which is core to education. To allow an inherently political legislative body to dictate curriculum creates a barrier to intellectual freedom and sets a dangerous precedent that could readily be exploited.

History is rife with examples of regimes abusing similar powers to redefine history. Nothing is more antithetical to the “American principles” the proposed legislation purports to defend. In fact, a recent CBS News poll revealed 83 percent of Americans oppose banning books, and 76 percent believe that schools should “be allowed to teach … historical events that might make some students uncomfortable.”

Legislators, then, are out of touch with the conversations happening in my classroom and around our country. My passion for teaching is fueled by the energy students bring to our classroom and discussions. My job is not to teach them what to think about our world and the content we explore. My focus is on helping them learn how to think about these concepts. These conversations are not always easy but they are vital.

In Fayette County Public Schools’ “Portrait of a Graduate” — developed with community input — we affirm students should graduate “civically engaged” and “culturally competent.” As our classrooms become more diverse, we have an obligation to ensure every child sees themselves in the curriculum and understands their story is woven into the American story. That’s why attempts at whitewashing this curriculum are so widely opposed and so fundamentally egregious. We cannot take meaningful steps toward closing opportunity gaps if we shut students out of the curriculum with which we expect them to engage.

Nor do we aim to shut out parents and families. They can access course material through online systems like Google Classroom or Canvas. They can request conferences with educators. They can even engage their children in meaningful conversations at home about course concepts. They can take advantage of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and dual credit offerings for their child – current offerings which, in fact, are placed in peril by this legislation.

No one is arguing that parents shouldn’t be involved in their child’s learning. The question is, should politicians in Frankfort be directly involved in these decisions?

We should all be committed to empowering young Americans who can think about and engage with American history and define its promise – who walk away from our classrooms with the ability, the perspective, and the will to carry out that promise. Students, families, and educators are dedicated to this through local decision-making and collaboration. Will our legislators be as well?

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Tyler Murphy is Chair of the Fayette County Board of Education and a National Board Certified Social Studies teacher at Boyle County High School.


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