Louisville FOR Statement Supporting the Teaching of all History—Good and Bad—in Kentucky Public Schools

The Louisville Chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) joins with educators, legislators and community groups across the country who support presenting public-school students with all aspects of our U.S. history — good and bad — and challenging them to find the truth for themselves. 

To this end, we support two bills proposed by State Rep. Attica Scott and others for the 2022 Kentucky General Assembly. 

  • Bill Request (BR) 427 will require middle and high schools to provide instruction on the history of racism, including the transatlantic slave trade, the American civil war, Jim Crow laws, the black codes, desegregation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, redlining, and residential segregation.
  • BR 853 will require the inclusion of African history in world history and civilization courses; and the inclusion of Native American history in U.S. history courses.

At the same time, FOR— together with educators from across the state and country (including at JCPS and the state Department of Education) — strongly opposes two proposed bills (BR 60 and BR 69) that will effectively ban the teaching – or even the discussion — in any public-school classroom of any material touching upon our country’s history of discrimination based on race, sex, social class and religion. 

The first of these bills (BR 60) lists twelve “concepts” that “shall not be included or promoted” in K-12 public schools. The twelfth and final “concept” is an illustrative catch-all, prohibiting the inclusion in any course of instruction material that might be viewed as “promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people.”  Also prohibited is the inclusion or promotion of any material that might cause an individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex” or to feel that they bear some “responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

Under BR 60, complaints alleging violations may be filed with the state Attorney General by any person residing within the district, even if they have no family member enrolled in school. If, upon “investigation,” the Attorney General agrees with the complaint, penalties include substantial fines levied against the school district and disciplinary action against the teacher up to and including loss of teacher certification.

In much the same vein, BR 69 requires school districts to “ensure that no school offers any classroom instruction or discussion, formal or informal, or distributes any printed or digital material” that “promotes” any prohibited “concepts”, extending the ban beyond public schools to colleges and universities as well.

Both proposals are vague on what actions constitute the “inclusion” or “promotion” of a prohibited “concept.”

FOR objects to these proposals, first and foremost, because they will require school districts and teachers to avoid all discussion of difficult and uncomfortable topics arising from U.S. history. If these proposals become law, they will, in effect, mandate the teaching of a false version of history in which the struggles for freedom and equality by African Americans, Native Americans, women, religious minorities and others are erased.  These bills constitute what have come to be called “memory laws” — laws that enshrine state-approved interpretations of historical events – similar to those enacted by authoritarian regimes across the globe.

Given their broad scope and vague wording, the impact that these bills will have on classroom teachers cannot be overstated. Not knowing what they can and cannot teach will have a chilling effect, adding to teachers’ already high stress levels and exacerbating the already extreme teacher shortage in Kentucky.  

If spurring class discussion might be interpreted by a parent (or, under BR 60, even someone who’s not a parent) as “promoting division or resentment” or another prohibited “concept,” how can a teacher know how to “safely teach” the history of slavery, the Civil War, the dismantling of Reconstruction, the imposition of black codes and Jim Crow, redlining and the struggle for voting rights and civil rights? Can a teacher’s certification be threatened for leading a discussion on the denial of equal rights to women, people with disabilities or the LGBQT+ community throughout much of U.S. history? Might teaching the history of the internment of Japanese Americans or the Holocaust result in a teacher losing their certification? Will an objective teaching of the history of the “Westward Expansion” and the appropriation of the North American continent from Native Americans and Mexico result in a problem for a classroom teacher? Will teachers have to present every opposing theory including a denial of the Holocaust? 

The minefield of problems created by these proposals can also be seen by a counterexample. Isn’t it reasonable to expect that an African-American or Native-American student, for example, might file a complaint because they feel “discomfort and anguish” from a lack of presentation of their community’s history and contributions in the school curriculum?  How will the Kentucky Attorney General respond to his new responsibilities policing classroom curriculum – and how will he resolve competing complaints alleging material that promotes division, discomfort, guilt, anguish or other mental distress?  

As Murray State University historian Brian Clady states:

Some people want to sanitize and officialize history. There is no such thing as a perfect society; there is no such thing as a perfect country. History is what it is.

Students of all colors, nationalities, religions, sexual orientations and gender identities need to see themselves in the history they are taught. They have a right to know their ancestors’ roles — good and bad — in the making of the U.S.  To become good citizens and good workers, they must be able to analyze critically all the information available and sort fact from myth.

Exposing students to all history, the good and the bad, and allowing students to evaluate that history are essential to the development of critical thinking skills needed for successful participation in a 21st century economy. Citizens must develop critical thinking skills if our representative democracy is to be sustainable.

The Louisville Fellowship of Reconciliation supports the teaching of all history.