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Warning: These Comments May be Divisive

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

Published by arrangement with Bacon’s Rebellion

Rather than allowing teachers to expose students to ideas that challenge long-held beliefs and perhaps teaching those students to think critically, Governor Youngkin would prohibit teachers from raising ideas that make some people uncomfortable.

When he first directed the Superintendent of Public Instruction to delete departmental policies and guidance to local school divisions that promoted or made reference to “inherently divisive concepts,” I was not too concerned. My attitude was, basically, “OK. He won the election. He can tell his appointed Superintendent what to do. The “inherently divisive concepts” are fairly narrowly defined. It’s their website; they can do whatever they want to on it. Local teachers will probably ignore most of it anyway.”

But, he has gone further. He has established a tip line (e-mail address) and encouraged parents to use it to report “where there are inherently divisive practices in their schools.” He has proposed a budget amendment requiring each school division to ensure that no instruction in their schools includes “inherently divisive concepts.” He is also backing legislation (SB 570 and HB 1068)  that would codify this directive in state law.

I would like to think that Youngkin did not really think through the idea of establishing the tip line; that it fits into the category of, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

The backlash has been widespread. And, as should have been anticipated in this Internet age, there has been a lot of mischief, or sabotage, depending on one’s perspective. Some have organized a Tik-Tok campaign to flood the site with silly stuff. An activist in Virginia has sarcastically asked in Tweets that followers not send in false messages. One of my favorites was from someone complaining that “Albus Dumbledor was teaching that full blooded wizards discriminated against mudbloods” in the Hogwarts school.

Others saw a positive opportunity. The VEA urged teachers and parents to send in positive comments about their schools. A civil rights activist urged Black parents to flood the site with complaints about the schools shortchanging the teaching of Black history.

I would hate to be the poor staff member assigned to monitor and make sense of the stuff coming in on the tip line.

In the end, the tip line will probably prove to be of little use to the administration. Nevertheless, many teachers report being scared and feeling intimidated about how they approach their subjects. Perhaps that was the goal all along.

The effort to incorporate this prohibition of “inherently divisive concepts” in state law is even more worrisome. The legislation defines “inherently divisive concepts” as “the “advancing any ideas….” In certain areas. Think about that for a minute. The Governor and some state legislators are supporting legislation that would forbid the inclusion of certain ideas in the schools. And I thought that one purpose of education in a democracy was to encourage the free flow of ideas.

“Inherently divisive concepts” is a spectacularly vague concept. What is meant by divisive? In some respects, any subject that is controversial, upon which many people disagree, or makes some people uncomfortable could be viewed as pitting some people against others or being “divisive.” Therefore, the following topics possibly could be viewed as “divisive”:

  • Sex education and birth control
  • Origination of the universe about 14 billion years ago, possibly as the result of a “Big Bang”
  • Formation of the Earth about 4.5 billion years ago when gravity pulled swirling gas and dust together
  • Emergence of life on Earth at least 3.5 billion years ago as microscopic microbes
  • Cruelty of slavery in the South with slaves being beaten and families broken apart and sold off
  • Massive Resistance in Virginia
  • Preservation of slavery as the main reason for the secession of Southern states that led to the Civil War
  • Origins, motivations, and results of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam

Having students debate topics can be an excellent way of beginning to develop critical thinking skills such as the analysis of competing arguments and collecting evidence for and against those arguments. However, debates, by their very nature, often involve controversial subjects. Therefore, it would probably be a violation of Youngkin’s prohibition on advancing divisive concepts, for example, if a teacher, even if she did not express an opinion one way or another on the subject, had students debate whether Trump’s claims regarding the 2020 election really amount to a “Big Lie,” or on any other controversial social or political topic.

Representatives of Youngkin, as well as others, including some on this blog, would undoubtedly protest this characterization of his proposals. They would point out that some of the examples I presented would not fit the definition of “inherently divisive concepts” set out in the executive order, budget language, or proposed legislation.

And they would be correct. However, as carefully worded as it is, that definition is based on a false premise  It begins by saying, “’inherently divisive concepts’ means advancing any ideas in violation of Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The Civil Rights Act does not prohibit ideas or concepts; it prohibits actions that discriminate, or have the effect of discrimination, on the basis of race, color, or national origin. All the individual concepts listed in the definition are not addressed in Title IV or Title VI.

Leaving that legalism aside, it is still highly likely that the governor’s proposals would be interpreted by the general public to include the kinds of ideas that I listed. Just as conservatives and those on the far left, in order to serve their own purposes, stretched and distorted critical race theory into meaning something quite different from what its originators had in mind, those people who disagree with what is being taught in schools or have other grievances with schools will seize upon the term, “inherently divisive concepts” and ignore the qualifying definition. Indeed, Governor Youngkin gave them implicit permission and incentive to do just that by referring simply to “inherently divisive concepts,” without any qualifying definition, in his announcement of the establishment of the tip line.

As a result, people dissatisfied with schools or specific teachers will demand, under cover of the governor’s tip line, his executive order, or the legislation, if enacted, that the schools cease the “divisive” actions they perceive. Many school administrators, just wanting to avoid the hassles, could instruct their staff to avoid controversial topics.

Enacting these proposals into law could have serous negative consequences by exacerbating an existing shortage of teachers. Those teachers who are eligible for retirement, but who really like teaching and were planning to continue for a few years, could say, “Screw it.  I don’t need this hassle,” and retire. Juniors and seniors in college planning to teach after graduating may decide to go elsewhere, such as Maryland or Pennsylvania. For example, that senior at William and Mary planning to return to her home county of Accomack to teach biology or history may have second thoughts upon seeing this attack on teachers’ ability to teach how they think best, and go on up Rt. 13 a few miles and get a job teaching in Maryland’s Worcester County. The pay would be better and she would not have to worry about parents complaining about her exposing students to “divisive” concepts.

One needs only to look at what is happening in two states — Florida and Texas –to reasonably foresee how far this proposal could go. The Florida legislature is in the midst of passing legislation that would provide, “An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”  That is pretty close to one of the elements of Youngkin’s definition of “inherently divisive concepts.”  By the way, I feel a lot of discomfort over the closing of Prince Edward County schools by White politicians for five years rather than send White children to school with Black children. I think today’s crop of White kids should be made aware of that happening.

Texas also has a law saying that a teacher must not inculcate the idea that students should feel “responsibility, blame, or guilt” because of their race or sex. This provision led one administrator to suggest that teachers should seek “opposing” perspectives if students read a book on the Holocaust. The superintendent of the district later apologized, but the incident illustrates the extremes to which school officials may feel they have to go. Teachers point out that it would be difficult to teach Toni Morrison or about the Cherokee dying along the Trail of Tears or White gangs lynching Blacks without eliciting strong emotions among the students. What it comes down to is that talking about the racial injustices inflicted by Whites on minorities and the lasting impacts of those injustices may make some Whites uncomfortable and, because of that, those ideas are “divisive” and thus must be avoided.

Some participants on this blog have frequently expressed the fear, or warning, that Virginia is becoming a lot like New Jersey or even [gasp] California. If this proposal by Youngkin becomes law in Virginia, I fear that we will be on the road to becoming like Texas and Florida.


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