As many of my superintendent and teacher colleagues can surely relate to, the last school year was the most challenging of my 23-year career. Our profession struggled to recover from the impacts of virtual learning and mental health concerns.
On top of that, teachers and administrators were forced to deal with an onslaught of attacks from politicians falsely claiming that our schools were teaching critical race theory, or CRT, a much-misunderstood academic framework suggesting that systemic racism is part of American society, not just the project of individual bias and prejudice.
As a superintendent, it was difficult to watch teachers trying to manage the unmanageable as false narratives about CRT spread like wildfire. The attacks leveraged misinformation to spread fear for the clear purpose of motivating the far-right base and to pass extreme and out-of-touch laws — without consideration of the costs they would have on our educators, our students and our nation.
The attacks contributed to the exodus of seasoned educators from the profession. In addition, the vitriol is causing many young prospective teachers to go into other professions.
As a result, it is our students, our children, who suffer. These attacks must stop.
What is behind this anger about a concept that is actually not even taught in schools? What is it that so many people are truly afraid of and trying to stop?
It seems to boil down to a single word: shame. In the far-right community, there is a growing and strongly held belief that efforts to talk about racism or equity in schools will make white children “feel guilt” or shame.
Related: OPINION: Why the narrative that critical race theory ‘makes white kids feel guilty’ is a lie
Republican lawmakers in over 40 states have proposed laws that have banned or would ban classroom conversations and staff training on “divisive topics,” based on the idea that our children shouldn’t have to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”
Teaching about racism and intolerance in our history is not about making kids feel bad, guilty or uncomfortable. Teaching this history is about acknowledging the truths of our country and guiding our students to understand and grow from those truths.
It’s about building empathy and understanding each other so we can come together and build a better nation for all. Teaching history should not be about cherry-picking what we do and do not tell our children, based on fears they may become somewhat uncomfortable.
Imagine the British government instructing its schools to only discuss the positive impacts of its colonialism, like the building of railroads, schools and other infrastructure and the development of government and health care systems.
History classes must be a place where we can take on all our past.
Now imagine if they taught students to overlook colonialism’s negative aspects — the loss of culture and identity and land, exploitation, heavy taxation, constant conflict and more — simply because it might cause certain students to feel discomfort.
That would be as ridiculous for them as it is for us not to talk about race and racism in our children’s learning environments.
The repercussions of the false CRT narrative have been real and swift — two school districts in Oklahoma recently received downgraded accreditations for violating the state’s anti-CRT law after providing implicit bias training to their staffs. And a teacher in Pennsylvania quit after being accused of violating state law by “teaching CRT” for telling his students that the Civil War was fought over slavery.
Our calling as adults is to help our children develop a sense of themselves and to pass along our higher values and ideals. As a nation, the U.S. has gone through multiple evolutions, but children must learn both the good and the bad of that history — that some people have had to struggle, and are still struggling.
These stories are important, and they need to be told, so that when U.S. history is taught, it’s the full story of us, not the story of some of us. History classes must be a place where we can take on all our past. Prohibiting teachers from acknowledging that racism existed in our past and continues to exist today only serves to further divide us.
We need elected officials at the local, state and federal levels to stop fighting against truth in our schools and implement policies that support accurate and inclusive learning. By doing so, they can promote healing and empathy and encourage us and our children to forge ahead as a unified people.
Brad Capener is the superintendent of the Jefferson School District in Oregon and the author of “Do Your Students Know Who They Are? Teaching U.S. History to Give Students Identity and Voice.”
This story about teaching history was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.