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How new state laws and book ban movements have made the teaching of US history contentious – 5 essential reads

A group of students scrolling and reading on their tablets
Certain state laws are banning the instruction of critical race theory. FatCamera/E+ via Getty Images

Of all the subjects taught in America’s public schools, few have become as contentious as U.S. history. At least 37 states have adopted new measures that limit how America’s undeniable history of racism – from chattel slavery to Jim Crow – can be discussed in public school classrooms.

Educators in certain states face laws that restrict classroom discussions about racism. Florida’s Stop Woke Act for example, limits what educators can say about racism in K-12 schools.

For insight on the restrictive laws and what educators can do, The Conversation compiled a roundup of archival stories from several scholars that explain their origin and intent, as well as how they could potentially affect everyday instruction in America’s schools.

1. The value of learning about systemic racism

History educators Jeffrey L. Littlejohn and Zachary Montz described how restrictions on teaching about systemic racism in Texas public schools prevent students from learning vital historical lessons.

The scholars referenced Joshua Houston, an enslaved servant from Texas who became the county’s first Black county commissioner, and his son Samuel Walker, who notably founded a school which served as one of the first county training schools for African Americans in Texas.

“Americans cannot appreciate the accomplishments of Joshua and Samuel Walker Houston without examining the vicious realities of Jim Crow society,” Littlejohn and Montz wrote. “The lesson of their lives, and of the Juneteenth holiday, is that freedom is a precious thing that requires constant work to make real.”


Read more: Juneteenth, Jim Crow and how the fight of one Black Texas family to make freedom real offers lessons for Texas lawmakers trying to erase history from the classroom


View of a classroom, with the educator teaching while standing next to a map of the world.
Some educators across the U.S. worry about the backlash from teaching about racial discrimination. Maskot via Getty Images

2. The importance of historical knowledge

Boaz Dvir, an assistant professor of journalism at Penn State and grandson of Holocaust survivors, is concerned that many educators are shying away from examining racism and genocide in the classroom due to new and proposed state laws that restrict conversations on crimes against humanity.

Consequently, Dvir wrote that an alarming 63% of American millennials and Generation Z lacked basic knowledge about the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust.

According to Dvir without vital lessons on such crimes against humanity and the factors that give rise to them, students “may not have the knowledge and insight they need to sustain and thrive in a 21st-century democracy.”


Read more: I'm an educator and grandson of Holocaust survivors, and I see public schools failing to give students the historical knowledge they need to keep our democracy strong


3. Critical race theory’s impact on AP courses

Suneal Kolluri, a researcher who studies Advanced Placement courses – which provide students an opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school – raises another set of concerns regarding AP history and other history courses.

In 2022, two Oklahoma school districts got downgraded accreditation for violating the state’s anti-critical race theory law – a field of intellectual inquiry that looks into how race has been embedded into the legal system. Kolluri described his concern that AP courses could face similar penalties in states with restrictions on conversations on race.

“At a time when mostly Republican-led state legislatures have passed a rash of laws to restrict how public schoolteachers can educate students about America’s racist past, I worry that AP courses like U.S History and U.S. Government and Politics could be in jeopardy,” Kolluri wrote. “The danger is posed by those who support the various new state laws against the teaching of divisive topics and critical race theory.”


Read more: Advanced Placement courses could clash with laws that target critical race theory


Student reads textbook in library.
Research shows book banners often target stories by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. kundoy/Moment via Getty Images

4. The ongoing battle over book bans

Book bans in the 1980s focused on secular humanism, because it argued that there can be fulfillment without a belief in God. But of late, book bans have focused largely on critical race theory.

Fred L. Pincus, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland examined how the book ban movement in the 1980s relates to the one occurring today. He wrote that both book ban movements objected to the critical teaching about race and racism.

Pincus also wrote that right-wing critics have claimed that critical race theory is designed to cause white students to feel guilty. As of June 2023, a total of 214 local, state and federal government entities across the U.S. have introduced 699 anti-critical race theory bills and other measures.

“Of course, some white students – and other students, too, for that matter – will feel uncomfortable upon learning not only about the history of American racism but also its present manifestations,” Pincus wrote. “Reality is sometimes uncomfortable.”


Read more: Battles over book bans reflect conflicts from the 1980s


5. How to teach about racism within the new laws

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a professor of history at University of North Carolina, examined the ways teachers could stay true to American history without breaking any of the new laws.

For example, he suggested ways to mention slavery within the context of lessons about other topics, such as the free market before the Civil War and how it relied on violence and forced labor.

“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,” Brundage wrote. “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.”


Read more: How teachers can stay true to history without breaking new laws that restrict what they can teach about racism


Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

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