Ishena Robinson, Deputy Editorial Director
Published: April 28, 2022
This is the third installment of an LDF series examining the recent rise of anti-truth laws. You can read the first installment examining the anti-CRT movement and book bans here. The second installment, which takes a broader historical view, can be read here.
Efforts to censor, suppress, ban and otherwise limit discussions about race in America’s public school classrooms have grown since the first installment of this series covering book bans and anti-critical race theory (CRT) mania. In fact, the censorship spree also now includes laws silencing mentions of gender identity and sexual orientation. This evolution of anti-Black, truth ban bills into all out assaults on various historically marginalized groups underscores what has long been clear to LDF in our fight to defend truth in America’s public institutions: there is a multi-pronged attack on the lived experiences, voices, and political participation of the many diverse communities that make up this country, aimed squarely at limiting their ability to influence American democracy.
But we also know that progress is unrelenting, despite the forces that may try to keep truth and justice at bay. The history of our own organization proves this, as do the people working within LDF and around the country to make our institutions more honest, inclusive, and reflective of the mosaic that is America.
Below, three advocates for truth in education share why supporting—rather than limiting—this approach is not only critical to giving all students the quality education they deserve, but also a prerequisite to building an informed citizenry empowered to shape this nation into one where all communities can thrive.
Kate Schuster (KS) is Director of The Hard History Project, an initiative bridging the gap between K-12 teachers and museums and other archival collections in educating students about the histories of slavery, settler colonialism, racism, sexism, and their intersections. Dr. Kesha Moore (KM) is a Senior Researcher and Development Specialist with LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute. And Katrina Feldkamp (KF) is an Education Fellow at LDF, working on our campaign to protect and defend truth in education.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TEACHING TRUTH
Why do you believe it is beneficial to have more accurate discussions in our K-12 classrooms about our nation’s history?
KM: All children have a right to know the truth, to know who they are, to know who they live with, and what their community is like. Parents in particular have this impression of young people as blank slates and as vulnerable. But race is not something that people have to go to school to be taught. We have research showing that children as young as preschoolers recognize race, and respond according to the racial messages that they have internalized. So what happens when we live in racially-segregated communities and our children go to racially-segregated schools and we don’t teach them about what race is and is not—they look and see racial differences in groups and tend to think, “Oh, it must be something about those people.” Because they haven’t been taught that race is a category that we’ve used to organize ourselves and give people privileges based on.
Have you seen this in your own teaching career?
KM: As a college professor, I had to go back and help my students unlearn what they thought to be true. And their response to me would be, “Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t someone tell me this before?” I think our last two generations, Millennials and Gen Z in particular, have grown up in a much more racially and ethnically diverse America than any generation before them. And politically, when you poll them, they are much more open to thinking about difference, to understanding themselves in relationship to other people. And they are much more open in terms of accepting various gender identities.
They get social constructs in a very real way. Before they have even been to a sociology class, they know that there are all different kinds of ways of being in the world and they’re very sensitive to the fact that just because someone exists with a different identity, they should not be marginalized and insulted. They’re a very empathetic generation. And so they’re not the ones that we’re protecting. They not only exist in a place that’s much more diverse, but they want it.
And understanding these constructs is critical to living and thriving in our multiracial democracy.
KF: Before we can challenge systems of racism, sexism, homophobia—we have to understand how they formed and whose interests they serve today. If we don’t have those conversations, and if anti-truth efforts succeed, we risk raising entire generations of students who are not equipped to challenge injustice, who aren’t equipped to participate in a multiracial democracy. And I think worse—who don’t even understand that racism is inflicted by a lot of these systems. And that’s not to say that we currently are succeeding. I think in many instances, we already are cultivating generations of students who don’t properly understand these things, but anti-truth efforts are taking us backward and we simply can’t allow that.
This is also about the right to receive an education. We know that accurate, inclusive education—that both addresses hard histories and talks about the way that those systems currently manifest in society—has been proven to boost the quality of education that all students receive. So, it improves performance and educational experience for Black students, for girls, for transgender students, for nonbinary students, for queer students. But it also benefits cisgender students, white students, and boys—and we have statistical evidence that integrating education in that way (not just in history, but also in math and in literature) does boost performance. It means that students are more likely to attend school, to be engaged, and complete their assignments. And we see that their social and emotional functioning improves, as does their concept of self.
So, accurately teaching history has far-reaching benefits for all children.
KS: Yes, and the risk is that if we decide not to teach these things, if we decide to teach a fake history of this country, then we’re doing a lot of damage to ourselves and our students.
In the first place—students will figure out that we’re lying to them and then they won’t trust us and the other knowledge they’re getting in school. Also, students need to understand the roots of the past in the present, otherwise they won’t ever be able to make sense of, for example, demands for equitable sentencing in criminal cases or demands for equity in health, parity in policing, in incarceration, or even understand problems like hunger and housing access that have their roots in the past.
Overall, what we’re trying to do is build a better democracy, and a democracy requires informed and active citizens. That’s what schools are for, in my mind, and so we take that mission seriously
Before we can challenge systems of racism, sexism, homophobia—we have to understand how they formed and whose interests they serve today. If we don’t have those conversations, and if anti-truth efforts succeed, we risk raising entire generations of students who are not equipped to challenge injustice, who aren’t equipped to participate in a multiracial democracy.
Can you speak a little bit more about the notion that discussing issues of history accurately is too complex or may make students uncomfortable?
KS: Textbooks have changed. They are considerably less likely, now, to shy away from the violence of slavery. They’re more likely to tell stories about lynching and they’re also considerably less likely to say that the Civil War was about “states’ rights,” for example. So I think we’re in a moment where some people are maybe feeling, as the kids say, “some kind of way” about the difference between the textbooks that they read and that students are reading and they’re thinking, well, “history doesn’t change.”
That misunderstands the work of historians, which is to be constantly investigating, turning up more documents, engaging in the study of history and telling new stories that we haven’t told before. And so part of what we’re seeing is an effort to tell stories that haven’t been told before, and I think that there’s some people who are finding that that’s making them uncomfortable.
KM: Also, I’ve been uncomfortable as a Black female student. I’ve been uncomfortable in many, many classes. Uncomfortable when the only time that we talk about people who look like me, it’s about slavery. Uncomfortable when, as a science major, all the scientists that we talked about were men. I was uncomfortable when I had a conversation with my statistics professor where I was trying to figure out why I would do so well on the quizzes, but not the tests, and his answer was, “My test is designed to separate the men from the boys.”
And what I got from that is that it’s not meant for me. I don’t belong here. And I should not be surprised that I don’t do well because he is not surprised that I don’t do well. So there are many students who are already feeling uncomfortable in schools. Those students tend to be students of color. They tend to be students who have a sexuality or gender identity that doesn’t conform to white, heteronormative understanding. They tend to be female students. Those are the students who are uncomfortable. There are lots of ways in which schools are not now safe spaces for women, for people who are not gender-conforming, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color.
And part of what the changes to the curriculum have been designed to do is to try to create a broader picture of ourselves, so we understand ourselves in relationship to each other. We all start with a shared understanding of who we are and how we are in relationship to each other. Now, if we cannot do that, we are going to continue to allow the students who are currently uncomfortable in school and who are currently being harmed, they’re going to continue to be hurt.
And continue to endure discrimination.
KF: Yes, which is why teaching hard history and having these hard conversations in schools should be celebrated: it’s a buffer to discrimination. We know that when students understand this history, they are less likely to engage in discriminatory harassment. And they’re also more likely to report it when they see it or intervene. That is a very hopeful thing. They feel more connected to one another, and that is a direct contradiction to this narrative we’re hearing that actually these histories make students feel anguish or guilt or discomfort. That’s not borne out by the data. It’s not borne out by what we hear from students. What we hear is that across the board, they feel more supported by their environment and they’re more likely to support each other.
Have teachers observed this?
KM: In my research, I interviewed elementary and high school teachers. And there was not a teacher who said, “my students don’t need this information” or “they don’t want it,” or “they’re too young for it.” But what I have heard is that there are students, particularly white students, in their classes who talk about how much they appreciate having these conversations in school, because they can’t have them with their parents.
They see what’s going on on television and they’ll ask their parents about George Floyd, but their parents don’t want to talk about it, or don’t want to talk about it in the way that they’re curious about. Children are innately curious—that’s a good thing, that’s why we send them to school. They’re not asking to be protected from this information. Students of color can have these conversations for the most part in their families, in their communities. But for white students, for many of them school is maybe the only place where they get to engage these ideas and learn about themselves in their community. It puts them at a disadvantage when they don’t have the privilege of learning that.
If we don’t want students to feel uncomfortable, we would really be rallying behind how we can create a curriculum that reflects the full community and allows us all to be able to learn, live, work, and play together.
Today’s anti-CRT movement epitomizes yet another dangerous and anti-democratic effort to suppress and deny the voices, power, and lived experiences of Black and Brown people in America. Now the target is the truth. Read the first installment of LDF’s series examining the recent rise of anti-truth laws.
WAYS TO ENSURE SCHOOLS TEACH THE TRUTH AND EMPOWER STUDENTS
What can people do to support and advance inclusive education and the truthful teaching of history, which are under under attack today?
KF: I think one of the things we want people to keep in mind is that this push [against truth] is not coming from inside of schools and school communities. That’s not to say there aren’t parents at school board meetings who are decrying truthful teaching, but most of this push is coming from national discourse and outside of communities.
And so it’s important that people feel empowered to get involved in their school district and their school board. There are a couple of ways they can do that. The first and I think most important is supporting young people in their school district. We know that there are students across the country who are pushing back on anti-truth efforts. They’re often the first people to say, “Hey, these books actually don’t make us feel guilt or anguish. They allow us to learn. They allow us to better support our peers.” And there are students demanding access to inclusive education and even fighting parents in their own district.
How can we best help these students in their fight against anti-truth efforts?
KF: Students are ready to do that work, but sometimes they need support. Sometimes they may be facing retaliation from school administrators. So I think seeking out the young people in your community and asking how to support them is number one. I think the second is, show up to your school board meeting. And if you’re concerned that this is a place for parents who are really active in the school district, or maybe that you don’t have a child in the school district, but your niece attends the school district, show up. We know that most parents, especially Black parents and other parents of color, actually want inclusive education.
So demonstrating that inclusive education is important—as parents or communities members—is key.
KF: Yes. Many of the vocal critics of inclusive education that are participating in school board meetings, that we’ve seen coverage of, are not even parents in the district. And yet they’re taking up a lot of air at these meetings. So show up, hold your local leaders accountable to the students that they’re serving, and to the parents in their communities.
KM: We need to do much more of what we have tried to do already. The state I live in, New Jersey, has an Amistad Commission that was established in 2002 and outlines why it’s important that every student grows up with a comprehensive understanding of not just what happened in slavery, but its impact in the world today.
I am in conversation with other educators who are looking at how this has actually been translated into the curriculum. Because I don’t think my children, who just graduated, learned that in school, even though it exists on the books. So, part of the work is not just repealing the educational gag orders that have already been laid out, but affirmatively making educational legislation that says it’s important that our curriculum reflects who we are as a nation. And then it’s all in the implementation. Things have to be monitored—just because it’s written down on paper, doesn’t mean it’s actually being translated into reality. That’s one thing we can do in the public policy space.
What about at the classroom level?
KM: Teachers who are teaching for equity are doing this because of a strong commitment that they have to their students. And they are going above and beyond because it is not easy for them to do. We should honor and support and reflect on that work in our support of teachers and educators more broadly.
KS: I think the more we try to constrain teachers the less we are showing our respect for them in our society. We’re not treating them as highly trained professionals, which they are. We’re treating them instead as a vehicle.
And teachers are, of course, critical to ensuring the accurate teaching of history and inclusivity in education.
KS: The Hard History Project has done a couple of projects working with teachers to try to change the way that teachers approach teaching about slavery. So, for example—not starting with a story of victimization, but starting with stories about Africa, the history and culture of people in Africa, and also taking care to center stories of agency, resistance, and resilience among enslaved people. That’s really important because it encourages students to see the humanity of people, and it’s not just a bunch of atrocities. There certainly are countless atrocities, but one of the core beliefs we have is that you can teach about traumatic events without inflicting trauma. And one of the ways that we do that is to flip the script and center the stories of humanity and resilience.
“One of the core beliefs we have is that you can teach about traumatic events without inflicting trauma.”
That’s one of the reasons that we love working with the Freedom On the Move archive. It’s a vast collection of stories of people who, the records that we have of them, are from their enslavers or from their jailers. These “runaway ads” are still telling us about real people who had hopes and dreams and skills and were actively asserting their agency. I think that makes folks relatable. And so I do think there are some ways out of this for us, which is that it is a wake-up call in some ways that we do need to change the way that we’re talking about historical atrocities. To think more about, what is the purpose of this? How is this going to teach us to think? Not just about the past, but the present. And one thing that history education should do, is it should build empathy.
And how can we best support students in the classroom?
KM: We need to give them the opportunity to ask questions safely without being penalized. As I said, kids are curious, they’re born curious, but they learn, “I can’t ask that. I can’t talk about these things.” But school can be that place where students can feel like they can ask the questions they have about understanding themselves, their family, their community, their friends, what they see on television—and know that they’re going to get accurate information and they’re going to be treated with respect.
So many young people are getting information off of social media, where there’s so much disinformation, and we haven’t necessarily taught our students how to think critically. And so they believe things because people who they like have said them. That’s dangerous for them individually, because they aren’t able to make decisions that are most informed. And it’s dangerous for us as a society because what other people think and feel affects us. We want to support our students in making sure that they have places where they can do fact checking, where they can be taught the skills of critical thinking, and where they can be affirmed with whatever questions they ask. Where they can know be told that there is no stupid question, you are a bright, meaningful contributor to our society, and we have a responsibility to support you in your own kind of self-discovery and exploration.
The experts above make clear that students, and our country as a whole, are made better from learning more about each other and the truth of where we are coming from. This plainly debunks the unfounded claims behind state-level measures to suppress conversations promoting diversity and inclusivity in schools—and to whitewash American history by covering up any facts that may cause feelings of “discomfort.” Unvarnished truth has been the precursor to many of our nation’s pivotal incidents of forward progress. Indeed, the horrific scenes of police bludgeoning voting rights advocates on Bloody Sunday, which were broadcast to televisions in living rooms across the nation, helped to finally bring about the realization of those hard-fought civil rights for Black people in America.
Truth and shared understanding about the experiences of all who make up this country are necessary components for the continued march towards becoming a better nation, a more perfect union. Public school education must fully equip the generation who inhabit America today, and who will inherit it tomorrow, to not only chart their own lives, but to trailblaze progress for this country at large. This fight for truth is for them, for us, and for our very nation. We must protect it.
We are including these tidbits as blog posts so that they are searchable. They do not relate specifically to book banning efforts, but they do seem relevant to issues of censorship and the misguided attempts to limit access to books that children want to read.