The Right Wing War on Teaching the Truth

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At least thirty-six states have introduced or enacted bills or rules to restrict teaching about history, identity, and today’s social realities. Right-wing activists are mounting attacks at school board meetings, libraries, and on social media. They aim to ban teaching critical race theory (CRT), “divisive topics,” and discussion of gender and sexuality.

The real target is the truth.

Although the framing of these laws and penalties varies across states, they are all part of a coordinated right-wing campaign to enforce a single message to educators: Shut up or else.

Tennessee prohibits teachers from even including material in the curriculum that promotes “division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people.” This law could make it impossible to teach the U.S. Constitution as a document written by white men that protected slavery  or Andrew Jackson’s justification of the Indian Removal Act. Florida’s so called “don’t say gay” law restricts lessons on gender and sexuality — intended, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis, to stop the spread of “woke gender ideology.” Penalties for violating these bans range from fines against teachers and revocation of their teaching licenses, to withholding state funding and rescinding school districts’ accreditation, to the threat of lawsuits by parents.

By requiring educators to lie to students through omission, euphemism, and sanitized accounts of the past and present, these are anti-education measures as surely as those that once made it illegal for enslaved people to learn to read.

After the Zinn Education Project (coordinated by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change) invited educators to “pledge to teach the truth” (“We, the undersigned educators, refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events”), the right-wing website The Daily Wire published the names of roughly 5,000 educators who signed the pledge, and organized a hit list by state and community. Dozens of teachers received hate mail, online harassment, and calls for their dismissal.

The demand that our classrooms become sites of inquiry about racism, sexism, and the long struggle for freedom comes from young people themselves. They see the “savage inequalities” in their daily lives, and they want to know “Why is it like this? How did we get here? What can we do about it?”

In many places, Republican legislators introduce “anti-CRT” bills alongside efforts to restrict the vote. They know what polls reveal: Young people aren’t voting for them. On climate change, young people want immediate action; they want increased taxation of the wealthy, college debt relief, and affordable health care; they see our country’s increasing racial and gender diversity as good, and cite racial justice as a worthy goal. Republicans do not propose a single policy to address their concerns. By targeting K–12 education, conservatives avoid the cause of their own unpopularity — a free market, serve-the-rich political project.

The right’s assault on the truth has dangerous consequences beyond the ballot box. When a gunman murdered five people (and injured dozens more) in an LGBTQ bar in Colorado Springs in November, the police insisted the killer’s motives were uncertain. But after several years of nonstop attacks on LGBTQ people by right-wing media, only the willfully ignorant could fail to draw a connection. The teenager who killed 10 African Americans in Buffalo last May wrote a manifesto filled with right-wing media tropes about the “great replacement theory.”

Across the country, educators bravely defy Republicans’ curricular gag-rules and incendiary rhetoric. One need only scan the table of contents of recent issues of the social justice education magazine Rethinking Schools to find the kind of critical teaching that is off-limits under many of these bills: “Shape-Shifting Segregation Policies: Using Mexican American School Segregation to Discuss Structural Racism” (Winter 2020–21), Can a 4-Year-Old Know Her Gender Identity? Yes. (Summer 2022), “Teaching the Radical Rosa Parks” (Fall 2020). Educators teach for justice by helping students see injustice, imagine possible remedies, and develop the tools to enact them.

These attacks are scary, particularly for educators who are already vulnerable: teachers of color, LGBTQ educators, early-career educators, and those working without strong unions. Overt resistance may not always be possible. That is why educators need parents, students, community groups, civil rights organizations, labor unions, and elected officials to join us to defend teaching the truth — testifying at school board meetings, writing letters to the editor and op-eds, and unseating the elected officials who are the architects of these attacks.

Teaching for justice is not easy. But those who do this work join an esteemed collective of educators, past and present, who have taught children that, to paraphrase Eduardo Galeano, tomorrow can be more than just another name for today.

Ursula Wolfe-Rocca taught high school social studies for 20 years. She is an organizer and curriculum writer for the Zinn Education Project and is on the editorial board of Rethinking Schools magazine. This essay was adapted from an editorial in Rethinking Schools.