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What Does it Mean to Teach "Divisive Concepts"?

Several states have taken or are considering measures to prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts.” In my state, Virginia, new governor Glenn Younkin immediately issued Executive Order Number One (E.O. 1), “Ending the Use of Inherently Divisive Concepts, Including Critical Race Theory, and Restoring Excellence in K–12 Public Education in the Commonwealth.” E.O. 1 doesn’t apply to postsecondary education, so today my own teaching is unaffected—although since E.O. 1 states that “critical race theory” teaches students to engage in behavior prohibited by Virginia’s Constitution, its logic suggests that higher education won’t escape scrutiny for long. Efforts in other states do include higher education, such as Georgia’s Senate Bill 377 (S.B. 377) and Alabama’s House Bill 312 (H.B. 312).

All of these measures define “divisive concepts” in roughly the same way, through a list of propositions such as: “That one race, sex, or religion is inherently superior to another race, sex, or religion” (H.B. 312);  that “the United States of America and the State of Georgia are fundamentally or systemically racist” (S.B. 377); that “meritocracy or traits, such as a hard work ethic, are racist or sexist or were created by a particular race to oppress another race” (E.O. 1); or “that with respect to American values, slavery and  racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality” (H.B. 312).

No instructor at any level should dogmatically indoctrinate students into accepting controversial political claims. However, the college classroom should be a place where such claims can be discussed and debated, and to a perhaps more limited extent the high school classroom should as well. In one sense, teaching an idea means presenting it to students as something they should accept. In a broader sense, though, it means only familiarizing students with the idea so that they understand it. One reason for concern about these measures is that they will inhibit the teaching of disputed views on topics like race, ethnicity, gender, and religion in not only the first sense but also the second.

Ostensibly, at least, these measures do seem to allow so-called divisive concepts to appear on a professor’s syllabus. S.B. 377 says that it shouldn’t be construed to “prohibit the discussion of divisive concepts, as part of a larger course of instruction, in an objective manner and without endorsement.” H.B. 312 has similar language, although it adds that this is permitted only if “the institution expressly makes clear that it does not endorse these divisive concepts.” (They are less permissive for K–12 instructors.)

But there is real reason to worry about how well practice will conform to theory. 

Read entire article at Academe