An open letter to the Indiana legislature regarding pending critical race theory bills

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Indiana Legislature,

The truth is under attack in this country. This has been so in the battlefields of social media for years, but now the war has shifted into our most fundamental and sacred dispensaries of knowledge and discovery, our public schools. Public education has been under attack from far-right legislatures for decades now. Since Donald Trump came touting that he would “make America great again,” it has clear to most critical thinking Americans that what he actually meant was that we should go back in time to when we bought and sold the myth that America was the perfect representation of our own creed which states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL men are created equal.” Sadly, 245 years after those words, so revolutionary and ahead of their time, were written, we still have far too many political leaders who would have us believe that just saying those words actually makes them true.

When many of our current national and state leaders were in school, they learned a whitewashed version of the American story. Now that many of those people are running the country and this state, we can plainly see what their real agenda is. They aren’t even trying to mask it anymore. They are coming after the truth. They are now actively attempting, through nefarious legislation, to forcibly cover up the more unpleasant parts of the American story, claiming that teaching these things causes kids to “hate America.” They claim that teaching about the shortcomings of America is “revisionist history” when the opposite is actually true. Leaving out or sugar coating over the darker aspects of our history is the very definition of revisionist history and, frankly, shamefully dishonest. What we are seeing now is an aggressive effort by the Republican dominated Indiana legislature to deemphasize or eliminate from the curriculum much of the painful struggle, the crucial teachings and amazing accomplishments of important civil rights leaders who worked tirelessly for the marginalized of society. If these self-proclaimed “patriot” lawmakers are successful, they could effectively erase the wonderful heroes and role models for students of color from the history curriculum. This is headed down a dreadful path and it should frighten all Hoosiers who care about critical thinking and truth. 

Texas and Florida seemed to be leading the charge on the front lines of this battle. Florida governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, recently got legislation passed in his state which will allow colleges to survey students and staff about their political beliefs. Governor DeSantis suggested budget cuts could be imminent if universities and colleges are found to be “indoctrinating students.” This is really scary stuff. What could be less American than that? The Republican-led state senate of Texas made recent headlines by passing legislation that, would “end requirements that public schools include writings on women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement in social studies classes.” Among the figures whose works would be dropped: Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King Jr., whose ‘I have a Dream’ speech and ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ would no longer make the curriculum cut.” Just try to imagine telling the story of American history without including such influential historical giants. Talk about revisionist history!

There is only one explanation for why these lawmakers want to do this; they are scared to death that students might become critical thinkers when it comes to their nation and its government. They seem to want their women back in the kitchen and minorities to be kept ignorant of the heroes that gave up so much in their tireless efforts to get America to finally live up to her lofty ideals. In short, they have noticed an increasingly culturally sensitive America full of empowered, engaged, and politically active young minorities and women and it scares them to death because it threatens the very white privilege which they still so steadfastly deny exists. To my way of thinking, this is criminally negligent behavior from elected officials. 

And now we have Indiana joining the fray with proposed legislation that could effectively muzzle teachers of U.S. history here in the Hoosier state. It’s getting to the point where I wouldn’t be shocked at all to have it mandated to me to send permission slips home warning parents that I might be teaching about historical events wherein some white people did some things that weren’t very nice and that if they don’t want their children to hear about white people doing not very nice things then they will be provided an alternate assignment. 

The fact is that a lot of white people did do some “not so nice things” and a lot of other white people did some really great things. The same can be said of women and men of all races, creeds, and sexual identities past, present, and on into perpetuity. It’s my job (or should be) as a history teacher to help my students sort through it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly—so that they have all the perspectives on history that they need to go forth and make this country a better place for all her citizens. And by the way, teaching the story of America honestly and from all perspectives makes the subject one hell of a lot more interesting. 

American history would not make a lick of sense if our constant struggle to include everyone at the table of justice was censored. That struggle—the injustices—the tireless efforts and enormous sacrifices to correct them—the successes and the failures—every step forward and every step back—all of it—makes us who we are, for better and for worse. Right wing legislatures want to keep kids from being exposed to these truths. They want half-truths and outright lies taught in our history classrooms. 

Teaching history the way some of these so called “patriots” want to see it taught would be a slap in the face of all students who are the products of injustice. Those kids need to see that “old times are not forgotten.” The fact that most of the Arkansas 9 are still living, along with Ruby Bridges and countless other inspirational pioneers who helped open the very doors that my minority students walk through every morning when they enter school is a modern truth that is self-evident. That is to say, objects in the rear-view mirror of history are so much closer than they appear. 

The issues that led to our bi-cameral legislature as set up by the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College, the abolitionist movement and Underground Railroad, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the century-long period of Jim Crow and institutionalized segregation, the Civil Rights movement, etc., are the very same issues that continue to drive events today, such as the Black Lives Matter Movement that has so many of our right-wing legislators so frightened. 

A big part of why this current controversy wrapped up in Critical Race Theory continues to thrive is the fact that it has been the gigantic elephant in our national room since the very beginning and, for almost 250 years, we’ve been trying to ignore it. 

Now here we are in 2022, debating legislation in the great state of Indiana that would attempt to force history teachers to continue to ignore the most crucial part of our story. 

This is indeed a sad state of affairs. 

Sincerely,

Shane Phipps

A proud American, a passionate teacher of the American Story, and a defender of the truth. 

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