Well, it finally made its way from Texas to Kentucky. We finally have a bill that says we have to teach the “good side” of the Holocaust.
And of Jim Crow. And of slavery. Of internment camps, and beatings of union workers, and the Trail of Tears.
Think I’m exaggerating? Read on.
The opening of the bill – relatively anodyne
In a possible effort to thread the needle between the out-there anti-CRT crowd on the far right, and the somewhat more reasonable people in the rest of the electorate, Senator Max Wise has introduced SB 138, otherwise known as the “Teaching American Principles Act.”
If you were to read the bill without any knowledge of current events and fights in public education, you might find the opening somewhat anodyne: we should teach that all individuals are created equal, that Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law, and so on. The bill then takes a small swipe at reparations and systemic racism, but doesn’t mention them specifically.
There’s the standard “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” language (“an American has the power to succeed when 22 he or she is given sufficient opportunity and is committed to seizing 23 that opportunity through hard work, pursuit of education, and good 24 citizenship”). And, there’s some language about slavery, using the Declaration of Independence as a reference document (“the institution of slavery and post-Civil War laws enforcing racial segregation and discrimination were contrary to the fundamental American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence”), which Joe Gerth has already done an excellent job of analyzing.
The bill also provides a list of documents that must be “embedded” in middle-school and high-school curricula across the state. I’ll not include the list here; it’s long, and actually pretty well balanced (although I could do without the Ronald Reagan commercial for Barry Goldwater). Whether the legislature should be dictating curriculum at this level is a debate for another time.
But then, we come to the paragraph that takes this bill from possibly well-intended but flawed, to something that needs to be torn into pieces, burned with fire, buried underground, and the ground salted.
The “teach both sides of the Holocaust” part of the bill
Read these two paragraphs from the very end of the bill, and see how they strike you:
An employee of a local school district or public charter school shall not be compelled to discuss current events or controversial topics related to public policy or social affairs with students.
Any instruction or instructional materials on current events or controversial topics related to public policy or social affairs provided to public school or public charter school students shall explore those topics from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one (1) perspective, regardless of whether the individual that provides the instruction is employed by the local school district or public charter school.
Did you catch that? “Any instruction on current events or controversial topics ... shall explore those topics from diverse and contending perspectives ...”
Guess what, Senator Wise – the Holocaust is controversial. There are people who believe it never happened, people who believe it should have happened, and people who are horrified that it happened. It is also an example of massive evil. But we can’t say that, can we? If I teach about the Holocaust, I have to approach it from “diverse and contending perspectives.”
Or how about Jim Crow? What is the “other side” of that era of discrimination, the KKK, and death?
Or, what about the death of George Floyd? That’s in your “current events” clause, Senator. Should I call up the police officer who killed Floyd to get the police officer’s perspective?
Let’s not even get into discussions about ethics, or science, or anthropology. Should we give equal weight to the people who believe the earth is flat? How about the people who believe the moon landing was staged?
And if a teacher just cannot in good conscience try to find the “good side” of the Holocaust, should they just leave it out of the curriculum? If a student asks about a recent murder of a Black person by a police officer, should the teacher say “sorry, can’t talk about it.” And if a new bill is filed in Frankfort about sexual abuse of students, should the teacher try to give “both sides” of rape?
Good grief, what a train-wreck piece of legislation.
By using such amorphous language, by trying to have his educational cake and eat it too, Senator Max Wise has instead created one of the worst education bills ever filed in Frankfort. Outlawing controversy, dumbing down history, and covering over our past with a bald eagle and an American flag does a grave disservice to both our teachers and our students.
Guess what, Senator? Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If your bill becomes law, instead of learning from the dark pages of our past, our children will be doomed to follow down some of those same dark roads. Schools are for more than pouring facts into our children’s heads. They are also there to raise up communities that are better than their past. But the only way to do that is to face the past squarely, the good and the bad, and learn from it.
Glossing over the past is what autocrats, dictators, and tyrants do. Let’s be clear: 1984 is a warning, not an instruction manual. This bill has to die ... and quickly.