Lawmakers to consider restrictions on teaching about race

Legislation aimed at preventing students – including high school and college students – from being exposed to certain ideas about race and American history will be discussed this week at the Statehouse.

Bills have been filed in both the House and Senate to set parameters for teaching and learning about race, sex, religion and other potentially divisive topics. One of them, Senate Bill 167, is set for a hearing Wednesday morning before the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.

Indiana Statehouse

The first thing to know about these bills is that they aren’t original or unique to Indiana. They are part of a coordinated national campaign against so-called critical race theory, with similar versions having been filed or passed in dozens of states. The language is copied from an executive order by former President Donald Trump and from “model bills” promulgated by right-wing advocacy groups.

The second thing to know is that they are, at best, a solution in search of a problem. The folks pushing them seem to think Hoosier teachers are woke activists pushing a leftist agenda centered on identity politics. They aren’t. Teachers are like everyone else: some are liberal, some are conservative – some are very conservative – and many don’t care about politics.

SB 167 comes across as being against things that any reasonable person would be against. It’s against the idea that “any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation is inherently superior or inferior.” It’s against thinking that any group is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.” It doesn’t want white students to be told they’re responsible for slavery. It suggests students shouldn’t be made to feel “shame or guilt” for the misdeeds of their ancestors.

There’s even a passage that says nothing in the bill should be interpreted to ban teaching about “historical injustices” committed against people because of their race, religion, sex, etc.

If the bill were narrowly tailored to deal with rare instances of indoctrination, we might be able to shrug it off. It’s not. It says that courses and instructional materials may not include those objectionable concepts about race, sex and religion. In other words, the ideas and opinions can’t be introduced so students can debate them and better understand their appeal and their flaws.

For example, would the bill ban reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”? Because Malcolm certainly expressed ideas that the legislators would object to. Would it prevent showing the racist 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” to help students understand the rise of the Ku Klux Klan? Would Indiana’s 1851 constitution, which said “no negro or mulatto shall come into or settle in the State,” be off limits?

And SB 167 wouldn’t govern only K-12 schools. A section titled “Dignity and Nondiscrimination in Postsecondary Education” would apply the same rules to college and university teacher education programs.

SB 167 also creates complex and burdensome rules for developing and approving K-12 curriculum. School boards would have to appoint panels of parents, teachers and community members to recommend curriculum. Schools would have to post instructional materials and lesson plans on the internet or make them available for parents and the public to inspect. Parents would be able to opt their kids out of lessons or readings they don’t like.

There’s also language requiring advance approval from parents for surveys and counseling and a provision restricting internships and service classes in which students might advocate for a cause. More solutions in search of a problem.

Legislators will no doubt say they’re going to bat for transparency and parent involvement. Those are good causes: schools should be transparent about what students learn, and many of them could do a lot more to welcome meaningful involvement by parents and families.

But these bills aren’t about transparency and involvement. They are about creating division – the very thing their authors accuse “critical race theory” supporters of doing. And they show a remarkable lack of faith in Hoosier students, who are fully capable of learning to make sense of a complicated world, even if it means occasionally grappling with concepts that make their elders uncomfortable.

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