The irony was rich in Utah’s Capitol on Monday when members of a legislative committee stopped discussion of a divisive bill that was intended to block Utah schools from discussing “certain divisive concepts.”
On a 3-2 vote, the Senate Education Committee voted to adjourn rather than hear out debate on a bill proposed by their own chairman, Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden. The move left Johnson spluttering into a dead microphone and a cadre of people who had come to testify in favor of his SB257 without a chance to speak.
Education, like legislation, is little but a litany of divisive concepts, examined, understood, held up to the light, pushed to explain themselves. It’s not only true in history books, with all those chapters with “War” in the title, but in science, as our understanding of the universe changes through observation, experiment and argument.
It is also true in democratic governing. So learning to handle divisive concepts as students is proper training for handling them as self-governing adults.
Not that Johnson’s bill was worthy of further debate. It was another one of those that have popped up in Utah and in other states, measures that far-right activists are using to build support and raise money by stoking a phony fear that our public schools are somehow filling our little darlings’ heads with a 21st century kind of racism. A kind of racism that, instead of denigrating Black and brown people, is aimed at degrading white folks and their history and making the white children of today feel, if not inferior, then just guilty.
Actually, if you get down into the weeds of the 15-page bill (most of it, as is our Legislature’s habit, a recapitulation of existing law) and read Johnson’s specific definition of what constitutes “divisive concepts,” it isn’t quite as horrible as it might appear.
The bill meant to prohibit in school — K-12 and colleges — lessons that any one race, nationality or other “identity trait” is inherently better than any other. That any character flaw or merit is tied to one’s identity trait. That anyone alive today should be blamed or feel responsible for racist laws and actions of the past. That any nation is inherently racist or that the government of the United States should be violently overthrown.
The bill also specifically would not prohibit teaching real stuff about American history, even the parts that are about racism and oppression, as long as they are “truthful, balanced, historically accurate, and unbiased.”
If someone had put most of that language into state law 70 years ago, it is likely that nobody would notice, and that nobody would ever have accused any school or teacher of violating it. Because there is no evidence that anyone is teaching any such thing.
But in today’s culture wars, reading all that legalese is not something that your average tiki-torch-bearing Oath Keeper is likely to do. All some of the most easily enraged people are going to remember is that it is against the law in Utah to teach “divisive concepts” in school.
But any history or civics lesson that doesn’t consist of a full-throated advocacy of the United States of America as the best of all possible nations, complete with a history utterly untainted by slavery, racism, sexism, xenophobia or genocide will, in some minds, be divisive. So, were a law like that in place, the likelihood that some teacher will be harassed, threatened or sued for simply telling the truth is far too great.
It is also more than a little possible that, just telling middle schoolers the plain facts about slavery, Jim Crow, the Sand Creek Massacre, resistance to women’s rights and suffrage, violence against LGBTQ people, and so on and so forth — without ever using modifiers such as “bad” or “evil” or “disgraceful” — might lead some active mind or open heart to conclude on his or her own that, yeah, our nation, our society and our government have done a lot of really awful stuff.
Students might well conclude, without being specifically taught to think so, that, in the words of Johnson’s bill, “the state or the United States is fundamentally, systemically, or irredeemably racist, sexist, or nationalistic.”
Move to strike the word “irredeemably,” Mr. Chairman. Otherwise, it’s a fully reasonable conclusion. One that should moderate over time as the rising generation feels that it has been given the chance to make up its own mind, equipped with not only the whole story but also with the power to make things better.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has spent more than 40 years in a profession dedicated to the idea that a society gets better by telling the awful truth about itself.