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 on Black people to this day.
In some states across the country, this isn’t just a hypothetical situation.
Over the last year, there has been an increase of state-based efforts to restrict the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts.” This nationwide push is part of a coordinated effort to limit teacher and student rights, free speech, and take away our ability to discuss racial justice issues in classrooms.
It’s happening in South Dakota, too.
The South Dakota Board of Education Standards could adopt new administrative rules this month banning the use of “inherently divisive concepts” in academic content standards. Adopting these rules is part of an executive order Gov. Kristi Noem issued in April. Noem issued the executive after a bill that would’ve censored classroom discussion in South Dakota public schools, legislation that was introduced on her behalf, was shot down by the Senate Education Committee.
Those who want to ban “inherently divisive concepts” claim that teachers are teaching about these topics in ways that sow division among students and are a threat to the unity of the nation. They say that limits on honest discussions about race prevent the political indoctrination of students. What these limits really do, however, is rob young people of an opportunity to learn an inclusive and complete history.
That’s because many will interpret limits or restrictions on “inherently divisive concepts” to mean a ban on discussing or raising issues of race or gender in the classroom at all. Preventing discussions like this or restricting access to books like this is an attack on free speech, a value 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.
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. Teaching students about American history without examining its contradictions and failures leaves students ignorant of their country’s full story. It deprives them of opportunities to develop their critical thinking skills and prepare themselves for real conversations about systemic racism in their life. 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, creating educational environments that are unwelcoming and inequitable, particularly for students of color. For students of color, the ability to talk and learn about the experiences and viewpoints of people of color and America’s legacy of racism is critical to feeling connected in their school and that equality is valued in their community. The ability to discuss and debate ideas, even those that some find uncomfortable, is a crucial part of our democracy and in the fight to create a just and equitable world for our children.
South Dakota’s public schools are not ideological political battlegrounds. Our students deserve better. Let’s not continue to censor South Dakota classrooms.
The Board of Education Standards will hold a public hearing on the proposed rules in Pierre, the date will be announced soon as it was postponed. The deadline to submit public comment to the board on the proposed rules will also be announced again. Written comments may be emailed to Amanda.LaCroix@state.sd.us or submitted through this online form.