A bill proposes a new way of teaching history. He got the story wrong.


Amid a flurry of nationwide bills to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools, one such proposal in Virginia has stood out.

Hidden in a bill introduced by Wren Williams, a Republican delegate, was a glaring error: among the concepts school boards would be required to ensure students understood was “the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass”.

But as scholars, Mr Williams’ colleagues in the House of Delegates and others on social networks noted, this debate was not between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, but Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, a Democratic senator from Illinois.

“The gross error in this bill is indicative of the need to have academics and teachers, not lawmakers/politicians, shaping what students at all levels learn in the classroom,” Caroline Janney, professor in Civil War history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said in an email.

On Friday, Addison Merryman, a spokesman for Mr Williams, released a statement from the state’s Legislative Services Division, which blamed the error.

The error was inserted at the “editorial level after receiving a historically accurate request from the office of Delegate Wren Williams,” according to the division, which describes itself as a nonpartisan state agency that writes, edits and publishes thousands of bills”. for the General Assembly of each session.

Mr. Merryman did not respond to further questions about whether a historian had been consulted on the legislation or about concerns that the proposal might run counter to the First Amendment. (Parts of this bill, such as a section that tells school boards not to “teach or incorporate into a course or class any divisive concept,” have been criticized as being too broad and likely to undermine the freedom of expression for students and educators.)

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Instead, he referred to statements he and Mr Williams had made on Townhall, a Conservative website. Mr Merryman told town hall that Mr Williams had submitted an “anti-discrimination bill” which correctly referenced the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Lincoln and Douglas met seven times in 1858, when Lincoln, a Republican, challenged Douglas for the Senate. Lincoln lost the election, but the debates between the two brilliant speakers transfixed the country, drew attention to bitter arguments over slavery, and catapulted Lincoln to national fame.

Mr Williams told Town Hall he was ‘frustrated’ by the error.

“I hold a very high standard for my office and my service to my constituents and to the Commonwealth,” he said.

“I hope it was an honest mistake,” he added, “and I don’t blame the Legislative Services for it.”

The confusion recalled President Donald J. Trump’s remarks on the first day of Black History Month in 2017 in which he referred to Douglass in the present tense, leading some critics to conclude that he believed the abolitionist, who died in 1895, was still alive.

“Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who has done an incredible job and is getting more and more recognition, I notice that,” he said.

The error shouldn’t distract the public from the general content of the bill, which would keep conversations about America’s racial history out of classrooms, said Lara Schwartz, a professor of government at the School. of Public Affairs from the American University of Washington.

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“If this so-called divisive concepts bill becomes law, every student in Virginia would be the worst for it, and ignoring our history wouldn’t just be a sad punch – it would become more and more the norm,” she said in an email.

Critical race theory — an advanced academic concept typically introduced until college — is not part of classroom instruction in Virginia. But during the statewide race last year, Mr. Williams, 33, an attorney who worked on Mr. Trump’s failed efforts to overturn the election results in Wisconsin, said that he would ban him from schools if he won.

The bill, the first introduced by Mr. Williams, is pending in committee and must pass both the House of Delegates and the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow majority.

The legislation would prohibit school boards or educators from teaching “any divisive concept,” encouraging students to engage in political activism or “public policy advocacy,” or hiring equity and education consultants. diversity.

The wording of the legislation “prohibits teachers from helping students understand the continuing role of racism in the development of American institutions and culture,” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, which represents more of 11,500 historians. “It produces a chilling effect that makes teachers reluctant to teach accurate American history.”

He said the bill stems from the same model as legislation introduced in more than 30 other states that seeks to ban or limit the teaching of ‘dividing concepts’ related to race and racism in classrooms. .

Professor Schwartz said that “the fact that there is a fundamental factual error in this bill has amused a lot of people”.

She added, “But it’s a distraction from an issue that’s no fun at all: a wave of state legislation that has the effect and intent of impeding the important conversations teachers and students need to have. have in their classrooms.”


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