A Bill Proposed a New Way to Teach History. It Got the History Wrong.

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tags: culture war, Virginia, teaching history, critical race theory

Amid a flurry of bills nationwide that seek to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools, one such proposal in Virginia stood out.

Tucked inside a bill introduced by Wren Williams, a Republican delegate, was a glaring error: Among the concepts that school boards would be required to ensure students understood was “the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.”

But as scholars, Mr. Williams’s colleagues in the House of Delegates and others on social media noted, that debate was between not Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, but Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, a Democratic senator from Illinois.

“The gross mistake in this bill is indicative of the need to have scholars and teachers, not legislators/politicians, shaping what students at every level learn in the classroom,” Caroline Janney, a professor of Civil War history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said in an email.

On Friday, Addison Merryman, a spokesman for Mr. Williams, released a statement from the state’s Division of Legislative Services, which took the blame for the error.

The mistake was inserted at the “drafting level following receipt of a historically accurate request from the office of Delegate Wren Williams,” according to the division, which described itself as a nonpartisan state agency that drafts, edits and releases “thousands of legislative drafts” for the General Assembly each session.

Mr. Merryman did not respond to additional questions about whether a historian had been consulted on the legislation or about concerns that the proposal could run afoul of the First Amendment. (Parts of that bill, such as a section that tells school boards not to “teach or incorporate into any course or class any divisive concept,” have been criticized as overly broad and likely to infringe on the free speech of students and educators.)


The legislation would forbid school boards or educators to teach “any divisive concept,” encourage students to participate in political activism or “public policy advocacy,” or hire equity and diversity consultants.

The legislation’s wording “prohibits teachers from helping students understand the continuing role of racism in the development of American institutions and culture,” said James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, which represents more than 11,500 historians. “It provides a chilling effect that makes teachers wary of teaching accurate American history.”

He said the bill had come from the same template as legislation introduced in more than 30 other states that seeks to ban or limit the teaching of “divisive concepts” relating to race and racism in classrooms.

Read entire article at New York Times