I’ve been trying to imagine what Gina Peddy could have been thinking when, on 8 October, she informed a group of Southlake, Texas, elementary school teachers that, if their classroom libraries included books about the Holocaust, students should also be steered toward books with “opposing views”.
The executive director for curriculum and instruction for the Carroll Independent school district, Peddy later explained that she was simply helping her staff comply with Texas House Bill 3979. Signed into law on 1 September by Governor Greg Abbott, the ruling prohibits educators from discussing controversial historical, social or political issues. If these subjects do arise, HB 3979 mandates that teachers “explore such issues from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective”.
Peddy’s speech was secretly recorded by one of the training session attendees. On the tape, one can hear the bewildered protests that greeted her directive. When a teacher demanded to know how one is supposed to “oppose” the Holocaust, Peddy replied: “Believe me. That’s come up.”
If only someone had recorded the conversations in which that subject “came up”. Did any of the participants observe that the only “diverse perspective” on the Holocaust is Holocaust denial: the odious contention that Hitler didn’t arrange the murder of 6 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of Roma, homosexuals, Poles and political prisoners; that Auschwitz and Treblinka were fabrications designed to discredit the Nazi’s quest for racial purity? Did anyone suggest that, under the new guidelines, it would now be illegal to teach The Diary of Anne Frank without citing the loathsome broadsides that have questioned the diary’s authenticity, among them Ditlieb Felderer’s 1979 Anne Frank’s Diary, A Hoax, which calls the iconic journal “the first pedophile pornographic work to come out after World War II”.
Traditionally, Holocaust denial has been fueled by the rawest and most egregious sort of antisemitism. There’s no way of knowing if that particular brand of bigotry was a factor in this case, but my hunch is that Peddy was talking about the Holocaust partly as a way of not talking about the other “controversial” topics that are the true focus of HB 3979: racism and LGBTQ+ rights.
One can’t help wondering if the response would have been quite so widespread and intense if Peddy had suggested that books on race relations be countered by other books addressing the toll – the very existence – of systemic racism. In fact, Rickie Farah, a fourth-grade teacher in the Southlake district, was recently reprimanded by the school board trustees for making Tiffany Jewell’s This Book is Anti-Racist available to her students; her case attracted minimal attention beyond the local press.
The question of what specific books and topics can and can’t be taught is only part of what’s so disturbing about HB 3979 and Peddy’s advice to the teachers. What’s troubling is the idea that legislators, rather than educators, should determine and impose limitations on a school curriculum. The problem is the way in which Peddy – and, presumably, others – have interpreted the new law to mean that teachers and their pupils should ignore the evidence of history, that students shouldn’t be encouraged to distinguish between what actually happened and what didn’t, and that a range of hot-button subjects are not merely inappropriate but forbidden to mention in a classroom setting.
If teachers are obliged to tell their classes that there is “another point of view” about whether the Holocaust occurred, must American history lessons now also include books asserting that the United States was never a slave-holding nation or that racism ended with the Emancipation Proclamation? If the discussion surrounding a novel or story leads a class to conclude that LGBTQ+ people are entitled to basic human rights, must the class be asked to seriously consider the opposing view: that those rights should be denied to anyone who differs from the heterosexual norm?
Education is a dialectical process. Lively classroom debates are an essential learning tool, a way of teaching kids to weigh evidence, to process information, to consider options, to make informed decisions. But HB 3979 aims to prohibit teachers from discussing some of the most important and relevant matters that concern us all. It discourages students from trying to find answers to the questions that will help determine what kind of adults they grow up to be, what kind of country and world they will live in.
We are already seeing the consequences of an underfunded, unequal and deteriorating educational system. Students who don’t learn about history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Children who are prohibited from discussing the most critical issues of the day will gravitate into progressively more atomized and irreconcilable factions, unable to participate in the free and open exchange of ideas on which our democracy depends. Kids who don’t learn, early on, how to distinguish truth from fantasy will become adults who are prey to the self-serving and inaccurate claims of demagogic leaders. They will fall victim to every loony conspiracy theory that makes its way on to social media and make decisions that work against their own, and their society’s, best interests.
Persuading students that lies – about history, about social forces, about science, about the world around them – are as valid as demonstrable truths will turn us into a nation of con artists and their hapless marks, a country of liars and of people who have never been taught how to tell when they are being lied to.