The illegal act of teaching history in Tennessee

A Liberal Dose


I have spoken often in this space about the spate of “divisive concepts” laws passed by our state’s general assembly, which impose draconian restrictions on how subjects such as race, gender, and so on may be addressed in a classroom. Each one is a little worse than the last and further abridges both academic freedom/free speech and teachers’ ability to convey the truth about history. So, it is not really surprising that a new one - the worst yet - is currently making its way through committee at the state capitol.

First, let’s revisit the history and context of this phenomenon (something they used to let historians do). The whole thing got a huge jump start in September 2020, when then-president Donald Trump went on a tirade about “critical race theory” and the New York Times “1619 Project.” The former is the study of how legal systems have been affected by race, and the latter is a study of slavery’s fundamental role in establishing the colonies that became America. There had been a lot of push-back that summer by conservatives who were insulted by the protests that occurred after the murder, that spring, of George Floyd.

Immediately after Trump made it a national issue, legislatures in red states started proposing what at first were called anti-critical-race-theory laws (and Fox News started talking about it around the clock). That catchphrase has faded, and now the same thing is being done over “DEI” (diversity, equality, and inclusion initiatives.) Tennessee was no different. They started out with laws pertaining to K-12, and with the next wave expanded it to public universities. Not coincidentally, at the same time school libraries around the country (as a result of new state laws) started removing books about race, gender, LGBTQ+ issues… and even the Holocaust. Like the other red states who did so, Tennessee’s laws specified a list of “divisive concepts” that were now illegal in the education system: implicit bias, systemic or structural racism, male chauvinism and patriarchy, and etc. Even books about people like Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson started getting tossed out.

The first drafts of the higher ed laws called for immediate termination of any professor who taught about these things, until they realized that academic freedom concepts (so far) upheld by the Supreme Court give professors a lot more protection than high school teachers. Now the threat is that any student who is made to feel guilty, or uncomfortable in any way, by classroom material or discussion can sue the professor. Imagine what it would be like to be a minority in such an educational system and find that any discussion about any suffering your people (or you) have experienced must be curtailed by law, because it might make someone else (who’s probably not a minority) feel bad. As a Cherokee friend of mine said, “My people were victims of genocide. That hurts MY feelings.” Imagine, too, how unprepared students are going to be when they go out into the real world lacking basic knowledge students in most other states received.

So, what is the newest version? HB2348/SB2610, which would be an amendment to an existing law about the crime of supporting terrorism. It “prohibits an entity supported in whole or in part by public funds from knowingly providing meeting spaces or other forums, including, but not limited to, electronic and print platforms, to a designated entity by which the designated entity may solicit material support, recruit new members, encourage violent action, or advocate divisive concepts” and makes it a class-E felony.

A felony. Related to terrorism.

What kind of groups could this prohibit? United Campus Workers. American Association of University Professors. NAACP. Native American groups. Heck, the Democratic Party. They all oppose these laws, and the suppression of academic freedom and free speech.

Supporters of these laws are people constantly complaining about “cancel culture” and “erasing history.” And who often “encourage violent action.” Seems it only applies to one side.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.        


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  • Peckerwood

    Good, its about time someone started holding these people poisoning our kids minds accountable.

    Monday, February 26 Report this