Imagine learning about Christopher Columbus but not being able to talk about the experiences of the Indigenous people already living on the land. Or being a high school history teacher and not being allowed to use terms like “systemic racism” to teach about slavery and its longstanding impacts that perpetuate discrimination for Black people today.
In some states across the country, this isn’t just a hypothetical situation. It’s happening.
At least a dozen states, including Montana and North Dakota, have taken state-level action or passed legislation to ban critical race theory, a high-level academic framework mostly used by legal scholars to examine how policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism.
What was once an obscure concept, however, is now a catchall term for any discussion of race or gender or topics that make some people uncomfortable. Lawmakers claim that teachers are teaching about these topics in ways that sow division among students and are contrary to the unity of the nation. They say that bans on honest discussions about race prevent the political indoctrination of students. What these bans really do, however, is rob young people of an opportunity to learn an inclusive and complete history.
Many will interpret a ban on critical race theory to mean a ban on discussing or raising issues of race or gender in the classroom at all. Preventing discussions like this is an affront to free speech, a value and a right that should be held in the highest regard. As a matter of fact, it’s our right. The First Amendment protects the right to share ideas, including the right of listeners to receive information and knowledge. Anything less is classroom censorship, pure and simple.
If you think we won’t see this type of legislation in South Dakota, think again.
Last January, in her State of the State address, Gov. Kristi Noem said she had tasked her administration with creating classroom instructional materials to explain “why the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world.” A few months later, concerned about “teaching our children and grandchildren to hate their own country," Noem signed onto the “1776 Pledge to Save Our Schools,” a document that purports to endorse an “honest, patriotic” education.
Later, Noem signed an executive order prohibiting the Department of Education from applying for any federal history and civics grants because of her concerns the grants are tied to critical race theory. In that same executive order, she directed legislators to cooperate with the executive branch on legislation that will “prohibit any curriculum that requires or encourages students to take positions against one another on the basis of race, sex, or the historical activity of members of a student’s race or sex.”
On top of all that, the Department of Education removed and edited references to the Oceti Ŝakowiŋ Oyate from the state’s proposed social studies content standards. Workgroup members involved in the initial creation of the proposed content standards called it the “present-day erasure of Native Americans.”
Education is a tool of empowerment put to its highest use when teachers and students are given the full scope of their constitutional rights to engage in comprehensive, meaningful, and sometimes difficult conversations. But when state officials start to impose curriculum restrictions like this, that’s threatened.
Teaching students about American history without examining its contradictions and failures leaves students ignorant of their country’s full story. Having the opportunity to learn and talk about the history and cultures of Indigenous communities, people of color, LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit people, and other marginalized communities benefits all students.
When you attempt to censor the truth, you open the door to dangerous false narratives about the past and can create education environments that are inequitable, particularly for students of color. The ability to discuss and debate ideas, even those that some find uncomfortable, is a crucial part of our democracy.
Let’s not censor South Dakota classrooms.
A version of this column also appeared in the Rapid City Journal.