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John Nichols: Educators and their unions will defend the honest teaching of history

John Nichols: Educators and their unions will defend the honest teaching of history

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The cynical assault on honest instruction about American history has come to Wisconsin. State Sen. André Jacque, R-DePere, and state Rep. Chuck Wichgers, R-Muskego, are promoting legislation that aims to prevent public schools from teaching critical race theory concepts about the role systemic racism has played in warping public policy and undermining efforts to forge a more perfect union.

Wisconsin Republicans did not come up with this legislation on their own. They tapped into a national political strategy for stirring up resentment going into the 2022 midterm elections. At the heart of that effort is fearmongering about critical race theory and related efforts to examine the history of institutionalized racism.

Conservative strategists hope Republican politicians and Fox News hosts can convince suburban swing voters that the issue that matters most in their lives is the history curriculum at the local high school. It’s an old “culture wars” strategy, but it only works if the GOP spin goes unquestioned.

That means that challenges to the big lie du jour are being treated as threats — not merely to the absurd arguments of CRT critics but to Republican electoral prospects in 2022. Vitriolic attacks from right-wing talk radio and on social media make it hard to explain CRT as what it is: an academic project that seeks to expand thinking about systems that perpetuate racism.

But Randi Weingarten is unafraid of the right-wing speech police. The American Federation of Teachers union president took them on last week with a robust defense of public education that teaches the whole story of America.

“Let’s be clear: critical race theory is not taught in elementary schools or high schools,” she said. “It’s a method of examination taught in law school and college that helps analyze whether systemic racism exists — and, in particular, whether it has an effect on law and public policy. But culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism or discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic. They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history.”

Weingarten, a savvy observer of politics at its best and worst, has identified the danger in blunt terms.

“These culture warriors want to deprive students of a robust understanding of our common history. This will put students at a disadvantage in life by knocking a big hole in their understanding of our country and the world,” she told the virtual AFT TEACH Conference. “Yale historian Timothy Snyder likens it to the ‘memory laws’ of Soviet and other repressive regimes. Authoritarians take actions designed to manipulate interpretation of the past, assert a mandatory view of events and forbid discussions of accurate historical facts. But you — the professionals in the classroom, the people who use your expertise to help our students succeed — you know better. We teach history, not hate.”

This pushback scared the proponents of the assault on CRT. Fox News, right-wing talk radio and the Wall Street Journal ripped into Weingarten. The Journal editorial page was especially angry with the union leader for comparing the whipped-up crusade against CRT “to historical revisionism in the Soviet Union and other repressive regimes.”

The reality, of course, is that rewriting history in order to prevent education about what really happened is what authoritarians do. Former President Donald Trump has been peddling a false narrative about the 2020 election. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is claiming that the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol wasn’t an insurrection. So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that opponents of thoughtful instruction regarding systemic racism want us to believe there is something un-American about teaching that slavery, segregation, redlining, economic inequity and structural racism in the criminal justice system have fostered contemporary inequality.

In addition to attacking Weingarten, the Wall Street Journal attacked delegates to the annual meeting of the National Education Association for supporting a call for “a national day of action to teach lessons about structural racism and oppression.” In particular, it seems, the Journal editors were concerned that proposals for action have come from Black Lives Matter at School and the Zinn Education Project.

“That’s Zinn as in Howard Zinn, the late radical whose history of the United States boils down to one long tale of the people versus the oppressors in power,” warned the editorial page, which declared, “The NEA and AFT get behind progressive political indoctrination.”

The editors would do well to read Zinn’s writings, which celebrate the struggles of working-class people of all races and backgrounds against elites who would create a society where the balance is invariably tipped in favor of the wealthy and powerful. Zinn’s books aren’t about indoctrination but liberation. They argue that knowing the full history of the United States, the good and the bad, the tragic and the inspiring, will free people to forge a more economically, socially and racially just and democratic United States.

That’s what the critics of teaching about systemic racism, who decry “critical race theory,” fear the most. They know that voters who want justice and democracy are unlikely to empower the likes of Donald Trump and Ron Johnson. So the right is trying to cancel those who dare to suggest that America is a work in progress that benefits most from a rich understanding of its full history — and of its full potential to address the inequities that extend from that history.

“Teaching the truth is not radical or wrong,” says Weingarten. “Distorting history and threatening educators for teaching the truth is what is truly radical and wrong.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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