Higher education must act against educational gag orders (opinion)

“Some teachers are revising their lessons to clean them up, while others have said they will deliberately try to break the law. None of these answers are correct. – Brian Behnken, associate professor of history and Latino studies/a at Iowa State University

For many in higher education, the dangerous wave of nationwide legislation that seeks to exert ideological control over education has probably felt like a distant concern, since the force of the promised interference has been largely directed against K-12 teachers and programs. But that is now changing dramatically as Republican lawmakers take it upon themselves to meddle in higher education with proposed bans and bans on accepted ideas and concepts that have been on the curriculum for many decades.

McCarthyism has been resurrected in a new form. Goodbye, Red scare, hello, “ed scare”.

Today’s “dangerous ideas” are explicitly focused on race and racism or sexual orientation and gender identity, with critical race theory emerging as the latest boogeyman and, with it, anxieties about LGBTQ identity. In the name of protecting school children and students from a phantom threat, lawmakers and school boards across the country have attempted to ban specific viewpoints and concepts from the classroom.

Local campaigns to remove books about racism, gender and LGBTQ identities from K-12 schools are having a resounding success. In the past few months alone, we have seen censorship proposals that were previously considered too sweeping to be seriously entertained: removing all books on LGBTQ issues from libraries and curricula in oklahoma; prohibit all sexual education for minors in public schools in South Carolina; to install cameras in classrooms or broadcast live class discussions in Florida, Iowa and Mississippi; to invite any taxpayer to participate in any class “at any time” in indiana; install new forms of teacher monitoringwhere teachers would be required to report in public databases every resource, book, textbook, webpage, homework, poem, song lyrics, painting, etc., distributed in every classroom, every day, so that politicians and the public can inspect, track and monitor.

Right-wing backed websites like Campus Reform have facilitated the harassment and intimidation of professors for years, and there have been numerous incidents that show that politics dictate higher education policies and laws. These include the recent decision to bar professors from testifying against state policies at the University of Florida and the passage last year of HB 233 in Floridawhich mandated inquiries into the political leanings of professors and gave students the right to record classroom teaching about which they wished to complain.

So what makes this moment different?

The simple answer is: the magnitude of the effort. What began in 2021 with a set of bills targeting “divisive concepts” and the teaching of “The 1619 Project”—a project of The New York Times which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” – has since grown into a multi-pronged effort to exert ideological control over the entire education sector. , we followed 156 educational gag order bills introduced in 39 states since January 2021, and this campaign continues to grow. There is at least 49 different invoices active in 25 states during the current legislative session that explicitly target colleges and universities. And that’s only in the first two months of 2022.

The bills introduced this year are also increasingly straying into new territory in terms of what they seek to prohibit and prohibit, and they combine those bans with stiff penalties. Some of these prohibitions run counter to documented history, critical thinking, and even logic. For example, teaching students of the history of Mississippi that the state functioned as a racist institution during times of slavery and Jim Crow could result in the loss of public funding for a college, even in a historically black private college. Teaching students about gender equality or racial equality in any classroom that is a basic requirement for a degree program at a public higher education institution would violate a proposed law in Oklahoma. teach something in Caroline from the south that a member of the public thinks is “omitting relevant and important context,” and they could report you to the state attorney general for investigation.

Bills under consideration in six states (Alaska, Iowa, Missouri, new York, Oklahoma and Caroline from the south) would ban “The 1619 Project” from college classrooms, even when paired with contrasting views. Seven states would effectively ban classroom discussions of affirmative action or reparations for descendants of enslaved black people, even when professors do not advocate such policies.

The educational gag orders that have become law are already having an impact, both overt and hidden. Laws in Iowa and Oklahoma passed last year that did not explicitly apply to college courses have nevertheless been interpreted that way, as some colleges and universities have tried to avoid the risk of their teachings crossing a line. Iowa State University released advice on the applicability of a law related to mandatory training on racism and sexism in government entities, including public post-secondary institutions, with a litany of reasons why professors may need to modify teachings or readings in required courses in order to comply. After Oklahoma passed its educational gag order, Oklahoma City Community College was dropped a course on race and ethnicity. The University of Texas at Austin bowed to an outside complaint and temporarily halted a research study on anti-racist education.

And if anyone still thought that this movement was only about protecting students from racism or “divisive concepts,” that rhetoric is increasingly being replaced by outright statements about banning critical theory of race and the punishment of teachers. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made no secrets of its intention to soon apply such a ban to public higher education institutions, threatening to abolish tenure.

The effects of fear in education are already frightening for teaching.

Brian Behnken, associate professor of history and Latino studies/a at Iowa State University, told me that in response to the new law, “some professors are revising their courses to clean them up, while others said they would deliberately try to violate the law.None of these answers are good.

Behnken, who was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of his university, added another concern that some colleagues had expressed to him: that university officials, in attempting to ensure compliance with the law and its vague provisions , turn into censors. “Some professors fear that the university will punish us, or perhaps not defend us, or defend us strongly if we were to be challenged or attacked under this law,” he said. “This fear of what the punishment may be also motivates people to restrict their speech or simply feel lost or unsure of what is acceptable.”

Despite the daunting landscape, there are things higher education administrators can do to help. Now is the time for the colleges to mobilize the opposition. A recent report by education researchers Mica Pollock and John Rogers have pointed out that “clear messaging” and explicit leadership support for racial equity work has helped some schools “stay the course” in the face of threats to impose bans and restrictions. gag orders. Such unqualified support from university administrators for faculty would also be helpful in minimizing the chilling effect of educational gagging orders at the college level.

Beyond that, colleges should act to mobilize opposition to the fear of education. University presidents have a powerful voice when they speak collectively; they should use it. Administrations should work to oppose these proposals in state legislatures. Faculty, independent of any intellectual debate about the disciplines under attack, must recognize their common cause and support resolutions affirming academic freedom. Campus voices must be mobilized. Call your state legislators. Testify at legislative hearings. Write an editorial or letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Now is the time to speak.

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