The right-wing fight to suppress the teaching of uncomfortable truths in public schools reached a comical new low this week in a Virginia bill that blatantly misstated a basic fact about U.S. history.
Wren Williams, a 33-year-old Republican, pre-filed the bill on Tuesday, the day before he was sworn in as a new member of the Virginia House of Delegates. It proposed a new standard for regulating high school social studies curricula in the state, including a requirement that students learn about “the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.”
This was a clear misunderstanding of the 1858 “Lincoln-Douglas debates,” in which Stephen Douglas, a then-sitting senator from Illinois—not Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist—faced off against Abraham Lincoln on the issue of slavery.*
Naturally, Williams was dragged online for the on-the-nose error, which seemed to prove exactly why censorious legislators should not be entrusted with the teaching of historical facts.
But on Friday, the Virginia Division of Legislative Services, a nonpartisan government agency that formats and edits drafts of legislation, claimed responsibility. The error “was inserted at the drafting level, following receipt of a historically accurate request from the office of Delegate Wren Williams,” according to a statement from the division.
The Douglas-Douglass mix-up will surely be corrected before the bill comes up for debate. But the bill also includes deliberate attempts to censor teachers and reshape the facts of U.S. history to flatter white men—the sorts of provisions Republican lawmakers have been advancing in state legislatures across the country in a manufactured panic over the supposed teaching of critical race theory. (In its November gubernatorial election, Virginia rejected Democrat Terry McAuliffe in favor of Republican Glenn Youngkin, who made the issue a pillar of his campaign.*)
The Virginia bill would prohibit instructors from teaching that the U.S. is “systemically racist or sexist” or that “the ideology of equity of outcomes is superior to the ideology of equality … of opportunities.” It would also ban school boards from hiring anyone “with the job title of equity director or diversity director or a substantially similar title.”
Williams cribbed most of his bill, including the part that refers to “the first Lincoln-Douglas debate,” from a law that passed in Texas last fall. Both bills include a provision even more disturbing than the swapping of Stephen Douglas for Frederick Douglass: one that prohibits school boards from requiring teachers to cover any current event or “controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.”* Teachers that choose to do so must represent multiple competing viewpoints on the issue, “without giving deference to any one perspective.”
That’s perhaps not so worrying in theory. But for a vision of how this law might be applied in practice, look to Texas, where a school administrator said it required that students have access to “opposing” perspectives on the Holocaust. In a hearing over a similar bill in Indiana that would prevent teachers from attempting to reveal or affect a student’s “attitudes, habits, traits, opinions, beliefs, or feelings,” a Republican state senator said that educators should be “impartial” when teaching about Nazism and fascism.
When criticized for their statements, both the Texas school district and the Indiana legislator apologized. But their alarming directives were fair interpretations of the state laws as written. If a teacher must take an impartial “both sides” stance on every current event or controversy, she will be forced to give credence to some truly ghastly viewpoints. How will she teach about the mass detention of Uighurs in China? The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia? The Jan. 6, 2021, assault on Congress?
A decade ago, we might have assumed that a violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol to overturn the results of the presidential election would not be a controversial issue with two politically mainstream sides to unpack. We would have been wrong. Williams, the author of the Virginia bill, set aside his law practice for two months in 2020 to help Donald Trump challenge the vote count in Wisconsin. Who knows what current, seemingly universally despised ideology will be up for debate a few years down the road?
Most social studies teachers will end up covering who the president is at some point in their classes (and whether certain incumbents win or lose their reelection campaigns). If Williams and his ilk take charge of the curriculum, it wouldn’t be hard for them to require an ambivalent stance on that bit of U.S. history, too.
At this moment in time, it’s unlikely that teachers in Texas and other states with propagandist curriculum laws will be forced to cover Nazism as a value-neutral political ideology. But these laws will have an immediate chilling effect on educators, who may be justifiably scared to discuss historical events (and what we can learn from them) for fear of losing their jobs.
It’s not just unflattering facts about the Founding Fathers that Republicans are trying to keep out of public schools. It’s critical thinking itself.
Correction, Jan. 18, 2022: This piece originally misspelled Stephen Douglas’ first name and misstated that Virginia ousted its Democratic governor in the November election. The incumbent Democratic governor was not a candidate in the election; Virginia does not permit governors to serve consecutive terms.