Higher ed groups oppose bills that limit teaching ‘divisive concepts’

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

  • More than 100 organizations, many of them within the higher education realm, in a statement this week assailed bills arising across the U.S. that aim to restrict the teaching of racism and related topics.
  • The admonishment comes from groups including the American Association of University Professors and American Colleges and Universities. They said the legislation hinders students’ learning ability and infringes on faculty members’ right to teach.
  • More than 20 states have tried to limit instruction on such topics as race and implicit bias, though some of these proposals only pertain to K-12 schools.

Dive Insight:

divisive concepts

The move to block the teaching of racism and related subjects harkens back to an executive order former President Donald Trump issued last fall. It banned federal grant recipients from promoting such topics. Higher ed leaders roundly criticized the ruling, leading to several schools pausing diversity training efforts while determining how it would affect their operations.

In December, a federal judge shot the order, and President Joe Biden’s administration later revoked it.  Yet, the order’s tenets have appeared in many bills from Republican legislators nationwide, some of which have already been signed into law.

Iowa’s, which will take effect on July 1, forbids teaching such ideas as the U.S. or Iowa is systemically racist or sexist. Idaho’s similarly banned discussions that “sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior.”

Such bills often put these concepts under the umbrella of “critical race theory,” though this phrase has inconsistent definitions in the legislation. The new statement opposing the rash of legislation describes the prohibited concepts as “a litany of vague and indefinite buzzwords.” It notes that “informed citizenship necessitates an educated public.”

Bills cannot erase history, the statement continues, but they can curtail instructors’ ability to help students understand facts. And these legislative efforts try to substitute “political mandates” for faculty members’ judgments.

“In higher education, under principles of academic freedom that have been widely endorsed, professors are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject,” the statement reads. “Educators, not politicians, should make decisions about teaching and learning.”

The state laws targeting these ideals have already had consequences. For instance, an Oklahoma community college stopped a longtime course on race and ethnicity scheduled for this summer after the state passed a law banning critical race theory.

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