Freedom to Teach in North Carolina

More than a front in the cancel culture wars, Bill 324 is censorious legislation.

Responding to a piece of legislation essentially banning the the concept of racism from being taught or discussed in the public school curriculum in North Carolina, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic asked, “If you're worried about the North Carolina bill chilling speech that ought to have a place in k through 12 classrooms, what's your best hypothetical about a specific thing that could be problematically targeted, given this text.”

It’s a fair question. The bill would censor public school teachers from talking about legitimate issues—I have a few hypotheticals, but I wanted to outline some of the mechanics of the language in the bill first. As I explained earlier, the legal discourse known as Critical Race Theory (CRT) is largely being used as a bogeyman for other concerns. The actual wording of this anti-CRT bill helps clarify what the real targets are.

The bill reads in part, “Public school units shall not promote the following concepts: … That the belief that the United States is a meritocracy is an inherently racist or sexist belief, or that the United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.”

In the bill, “promoting” is broad enough to include using text books and teaching tools. “Promoting,” we’re told, means “Including concepts described in subsection (c) of this section in curricula, reading lists, seminars, workshops, trainings, or other educational or professional settings in a manner that could reasonably give rise to the appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement.”

It’s difficult to see how one can teach an honest class in American history or social studies under this bill. Consider one example, of many: If you were teaching American history you might want to mention that the Declaration of Independence of 1776 refers to “the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” A well-taught lesson would provide the context that the racism in the Declaration reflected the widely held view among the Founding Fathers that they were building a white male republic, that these views sanctioned policies of political exclusion, ethnic cleansing and genocide carried out for decades after the founding. This is a mainstream view of American history, but goes against the bill.

If you are teaching social studies, you might reasonably question the idea of “meritocracy.” You could note that the word was coined by sociologist Michael Young who described it as a new form of entrenched inequality. You could cite contemporary social scientists who believe meritocracy is a myth. You could further point out that for some analysts this myth of meritocracy entrenches gender and racial inequality. 

Such an exercise would be worth doing if your goal was to stir up debate in the Socratic manner and get students talking about fundamental concepts. But you would be breaking the law in North Carolina as it currently exists.

We live in a moment where censorship and free speech are hot button topics. So it’s all the more striking that these anti-CRT bills, with clear intent to limit a discussion of the basic facts of American history and society, are being made into law all over America with minimum protest from the people who yelp the loudest about cancel culture. 

(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)

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