Georgia’s “Teach Freedom Act” whitewashes history

I came across a post in Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled Blog this morning that merits attention. Some Republican state senators are sponsoring a bill to force a Tea Party version of American history into Georgia schools. SB 426 is called “The Teach Freedom Act,” and it contains mandates to highlight the early years of U.S. history. Actually, its focus is nearly absolute—there is essentially no interest by its sponsors in anything more recent than the administration of John Quincy Adams, our sixth president.

So much for the Civil War, Reconstruction, World War II, and the civil rights movement—to name just a few other events that merit a Top Ten listing in American history. Given the extensive list of items to cover in SB 426, I doubt teachers would have time to get to the later stages, anyway. Then again, that may be the brilliant part of the plan. 

The bill is amazing, not just for its ideological focus, but because it is also fueled by a glaring ignorance of historical fact on the issue of slavery. In this case, “whitewashing” is not too strong a term. Maureen’s post centers on an article by Dr. James C. Cobb, one of Georgia’s leading historians, who had this to say about the perils of injecting ideology into academics:

In the 43 years that I have taught United States history in both state universities and the public schools, I have done my best to resist the temptation to turn my lectern into a “bully pulpit” for proselytizing my personal political gospel. Not surprisingly, I also get my back up when others, with no particular preparation in the field but a truckload of ideological axes to grind, attempt to prescribe both the content of historical curricula and the lessons that are to be drawn from them.

A textbook example of such an effort to control the textbooks is Georgia Senate Bill 426, introduced by Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, and others and currently under subcommittee review. “The Teach Freedom Act” seeks to “modify requirements for instruction” in U.S. history and other related social studies disciplines. In keeping with the spirit of a similar initiative launched with Tea Party backing in Tennessee, this legislation is premised on the belief that “a positive understanding of American history and government is essential to good citizenship.”

The problem from the get-go here is that the bill seeks a positive understanding rather than an informed one. Hence, it would require teachers to impart “an understanding of the mandate of the British government that required slavery in the colonies and the actions of various Founders who always opposed slavery, as well as early civic and religious movements to end slavery, and the self-correcting constitutional language the Founders included to allow the nation to end the institution of slavery….”

This item is particularly distressing because it suggests first of all that the sponsors of this bill are themselves poorly informed of the history of their own state. If there was a British “mandate” requiring slavery in the colonies, how was it that in 1735 the House of Commons passed a resolution affirming the initial decision of Georgia’s Trustees to ban slavery in the colony? Likewise, the “self-correcting constitutional language” supposedly drafted by the Founders “to allow the nation to end the institution of slavery” actually applied not to slavery itself, but to “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” i.e., the international slave trade, and even then it prevented Congress from taking action against that trade for the next 20 years. 

There’s more, and the article is well worth reading in its entirety. 

SB 426 should serve to remind us that some of our lawmakers legislate best when they legislate least.

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