When Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 3979 last June, educators, legislators, newspapers and many citizens warned that the new law delineating how social studies may be taught in public schools placed quality education in real peril.
Last week, the fears expressed by major business leaders and civic groups throughout Texas surfaced into reality as an audio recording of an official from the Carroll Independent School District nakedly demonstrated the perversity of the law.
“Make sure if, you have a book on the Holocaust that you have one that has an opposing — that has other perspectives,” Gina Peddy, the school district’s executive director of curriculum, told teachers during a training session Oct. 8. Ms. Peddy’s remarks were subsequently made public in a recording of the teacher training session obtained by NBC News.
“How do you oppose the Holocaust?” one teacher asked Ms. Peddy.
“Believe me, that’s come up,” she said in response.
Carroll Independent School District Superintendent Lane Ledbetter issued a clarification and public apology in an effort to tamp down the controversy that erupted from disclosure of Ms. Peddy’s guidance to the school district’s social studies teachers. Ms. Peddy’s words were “in no way [intended] to convey that the Holocaust was anything less than a terrible event in history,” he said.
“We recognize there are not two sides of the Holocaust,” he added.
The Carroll school district brouhaha underscores the real dangers imposed by HB 3979, which is aimed at prohibiting the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” in Texas’ public schools. The law forbids discussion of viewpoints in social studies classrooms that assert that some people are “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
“House Bill 3979 is a strong move to abolish critical race theory in Texas, but more must be done,” the governor said in a statement when he signed the bill into law.
Critical race theory is a construct used to evaluate the structural causes of racial inequity. One cause for inequity is that for decades, federal home loan programs did not make loans to African-American and Mexican-American families. This is part of America’s tortured history with race. However, critical race theory has not been taught in Texas’ public schools.
The new law is inherently dangerous because it is confusing and ambiguous. The law mandates that alternative viewpoints be presented in discussions of controversial current events.
On Aug. 12, 2017, hundreds of ultra-right extremists conducted a torch-lit parade in Charlottesville, Virginia. Their stated purpose was a protest of removal of a statute of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s chief general during the Civil War. Billing itself as a “Unite the Right” event, the demonstration was the largest and most violent assembly of white supremacists in recent memory.
“Jews will not replace us,” chanted the demonstrators as they marched through Charlottesville’s streets. One of the protesters, James Alex Fields, Jr., drove his car into a crowd of individuals protesting the ultra-right rally. Fields, a self-confessed neo-Nazi, was convicted of the first-degree murder of Heather Heyer, and eight counts of malicious wounding for injuries he inflicted on others.
Asked about the rally, former President Donald Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the protest.
House Bill 3979 places Texas’ public school teachers in a virtual straitjacket in any discussion of events like the Charlottesville melee. Instead of being able to direct a discussion about the dangers of unbridled hate, dedicated educators face peril if they endeavor to enlighten their students.
The deleterious impact of the law is even more glaring when viewed through the prism of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. By any objective standard, as forthrightly acknowledged by Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the time, the unbridled mob that stormed the Capitol was engaged in an organized effort to disrupt the foundations of American democracy. Now, with the passage of time, and given former President Trump’s apparent popularity with his partisans, many Republican leaders avoid this subject.
What is the proper role of a social studies teacher in educating students about this important event in recent history? Under HB 3979, must a teacher present the views of the insurgents who stormed the Capitol, who espoused the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from President Trump?
These are vexing questions that Texas public school teachers and administrators must confront. Education should inculcate critical thinking skills. Such skills must be honed through study and discussion of our state and nation’s history and current events.
There are, of course, other fringe points of view about the Holocaust. Holocaust deniers, like British author David Irving, contend that Hitler’s extermination of more than 6 million Jews is an exaggeration and misinterpretation of history. Now, some in America contend that the events of Jan. 6 were actually a peaceful protest that ran amok.
It’s worth remembering that the Nazi Reich strictly circumscribed the contours of teaching in Germany’s public schools. Great works of literature were banned. Music created by Jewish composers such as Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler was disparaged and condemned by the Third Reich. Teaching the works of Jewish philosophers was outlawed, and instruction of racial superiority of Aryans was mandated in public schools.
Meaningful and quality public education is a cornerstone of our most precious liberties. The dangers of HB 3979 surfaced last week for all to see. The law constitutes a severe disservice to the citizens of Texas. The next session of the Legislature should repeal this very bad law.
A version of this editorial appeared in the Oct. 21, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice of Houston.