February 22, 2024
Troy D. Smith
“The Illegal Act of Teaching History in Tennessee”
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 pushback 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 K12, 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.
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.
Buy the book A Liberal Dose: Communiques from the Holler by Troy D. Smith HERE