“The Effort to Use State Power to Restrict What Teachers Can Say and Do in the Classroom Is Unprecedented.”

August 21, 2023

Protest against then Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Washington, DC, Jan. 2017. Photo Ted Eytan. CC BY 2.0.

The Right’s culture war on schools, universities, and history teachers—thinly disguised as a crusade against straw men like “divisive concepts” and “critical race theory”—is showing no sign of letting up. According to a tracking project at the UCLA Law School, between September 2020 and July 2023, “a total of 214 local, state, and federal government entities across the United States have introduced 699 anti-Critical Race Theory bills, resolutions, executive orders, opinion letters, statements, and other measures.” The chilling effect on teachers has been palpable.

Brendan Gillis, a historian of the colonial United States and the British Empire, currently oversees teaching and learning initiatives at the American Historical Association (AHA), the largest membership association of professional historians in the world. In his role at the AHA, Gillis keeps close tabs on the challenges that history teachers across the United States face today. He’s part of the AHA’s “Freedom to Learn” initiative, through which the organization responds to the new legislation and provides resources to affected teachers. This summer, Gillis headed up the AHA’s first-ever standalone professional development workshop for 40 high-school educators. I spoke with him in late July.

Why are you offering this workshop now?

Given how fraught things have become in the education space and seeing that these issues have attracted the interest of some nefarious actors, we think it’s important to create opportunities that are free or affordable for teachers.


That’s too strong a word. I’ll say that some groups working to reshape state education policy are driven by agendas that are beyond just professional. Look, history has always been controversial, and the way we teach it has always had a politics. But since 2020, after Trump’s 1776 Commission and the emerging awareness that “critical race theory” as a buzzword could mobilize political energy on one side of the spectrum, history and civics have become points of leverage in national politics. This means that there’s a lot of money funneling into the space of history education. Of course, there are plenty of good organizations that are focused on equipping teachers with the skills, knowledge, and support they need to do this work. But there are also other groups who claim to be offering professional development when in reality they seek to weigh in on the culture wars. There’s a sense on the right, overlapping with some intellectually conservative figures in pedagogy circles, that this is a moment of crisis—that the left-wing “woke” control of education schools has gone too far, and that we need some kind of dramatic intervention to rebuild education from the ground up.

Brendan Gillis during the interview

Are they getting any traction?

In some places they certainly are. The flagship example is South Dakota, which completely overhauled its state standards for social studies. Normally, these standards are developed by professionals: committees of teachers, historians, and community leaders. Last year, the State Board of Education opted to throw out a revised draft that had been developed and vetted over many months. They brought in a consultant, a retired Hillsdale professor, to totally rewrite the state social studies standards from the ground up. It was a structural overhaul with huge implications for local school districts, who will now have to reassign or retrain teachers. Among other things, the new standards downplay South Dakota history. Yet despite a huge outcry in public hearings, where everyone from teachers’ unions to tribal nations came out against the new standards, they were approved anyway. To train teachers in these new standards, the South Dakota Department of Education has sought out more conservative organizations.

I knew about “divisive concept” laws, but I hadn’t realized standards have also become a target.

The divisive concept laws were in many cases the first front in the campaign to overhaul public education. State standards are next. These documents establish benchmarks against which to evaluate student learning at each grade level. In Virginia, the State Board of Education attempted a radical overhaul of the entire framework for history and social studies. In August 2022, the board rejected a revised draft developed through the usual democratic and inclusive process. The state superintendent of instruction hired a consultant to produce a hastily compiled replacement version, which ended up borrowing extensively from the conservative American Birthright model standards from Civics Alliance. In Colorado, a motion to replace the state’s social studies standards with American Birthright failed by one vote. Something similar happened in Ohio, too, where a proposed House bill would have created a separate, politically appointed committee whose sole responsibility was to pester the state Board of Education to adopt an Ohio variant of American Birthright. The bill would have given final say over how the state’s public schools teach history to the legislature itself.

Has this new landscape, in which the history field has become such a central focus of political debate, created dilemmas for an organization like the AHA? What have the internal debates been like?

This isn’t entirely new ground. Our members have often been on the committees who are involved in writing state standards, which really came into being in the early ‘90s. The AHA has criteria and guidelines for state standards development that have gone through revision several times over the last few years. Still, the new context is forcing us to rethink our role. There have, of course, been lots of conversations about how we should get involved and in what ways. As an organization, we are deeply committed to academic and intellectual freedom. We don’t want to tell states what history they have to teach. We don’t want to force teachers to teach history a certain way.

It’s always been the mission of the AHA as a professional organization to support historical understanding wherever it’s taking place. This means that the AHA, and professional historians generally, have always had a commitment to shaping how history education happens at the local, state, and national level. But because of the shifting politics in the last few years, many of us on staff and in the leadership have felt that we need to get involved in new kinds of ways to make it clear that we, as professional historians, are supportive of the work that K-12 teachers do because they are historians as well.

What we’re seeing with divisive concept legislation, as well as efforts to use state standards to reorient public education, is unprecedented. This is really an effort to use state power to restrict what teachers can say and do in the classroom. As the AHA, we want to make sure that teachers have the training, the knowledge, and the support they need to teach professionally, to share historical knowledge and habits of mind with their students—without interference from people who are trying to restrict their freedoms.

What are the limits to what the AHA thinks it should do or can do, and where does it defer to other organizations who have challenged the new legislation, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)?

Ultimately, the first question we always ask before we even think about intervening or issuing a statement is: Is this about history? The AHA has been known to sign on to statements that other organizations have put out more generally about academic freedom. We are often called on to comment about other efforts to intervene in university governance. But if it’s not something that clearly relates to the discipline of history and the work of historians, we try to stay out of it. We’re not an academic freedom organization. We’re not a civil liberties organization, even though many of our members may feel a certain way on those issues.

Jim Grossman, AHA’s executive director, was an early and vocal critic of divisive concepts legislation. He pointed out that these laws, as written, would make some of the very basic work that we as historians and educators do illegal. For example, the Florida Board of Education, in a document explaining how the “Don’t Say Gay” law applies to K-12 education, said that teachers from kindergarten through sixth grade could not say anything about sexual orientation. But when they revised and expanded this rule after a legal challenge, the way in which they stipulated how high school teachers are supposed to avoid questions of gender and sexuality was incredibly broad. The revised policy said that teachers can only address gender and sexuality in contexts where the state standards mandate that you do so. Florida’s state standards in history rarely state how gender and sexuality intersect with major events and developments. So, we issued a statement that raised a series of questions: Does this mean that when you’re talking about the American Revolution, you can’t mention the marriage between John and Abigail Adams? Is it forbidden to bring up rugged masculinity when you talk about Teddy Roosevelt? The state Board of Education members responded rather dramatically: “Why are historians trying to sexualize children?”, a state Board of Ed member tweeted. Our point, of course, wasn’t that you’re necessarily going out of your way to try to ban people from teaching foundational elements of history, but that the way that the policy is written, if interpreted literally, would forbid teachers from doing this work.

Critics say that even if these anti-divisive concept laws will ultimately be defeated in the courts, they are designed to have a chilling effect on teachers. Are they?

Absolutely. It depends a lot on the context in which someone is teaching. Teachers in Florida are really concerned, especially younger teachers, because they often just don’t know what they can or can’t teach. The controversy surrounding the state’s new African American history standards over the past couple of weeks is a case in point. Many people are left more confused than they were before these standards were put out there. In public statements, some Florida education officials make it clear they are ready to root out teachers who are not toeing the line. This hostile environment has had clear consequences. The Rand Corporation, for example, issued a study that found statistically significant evidence of a chilling effect, especially around histories of gender and race. There was a similar study from a research group at UC Riverside that documented alarm and concern among many teachers about how politics are increasingly intersecting with the work that they do. One of the clear takeaways is that many school districts are dropping difficult topics rather than court controversy. The easiest option is just not to teach anything with any connection at all to current events.

What’s most stunning to me is the general distrust of teachers and professional historians, with politicians and parents across the country dismissing experts out of hand.

Part of the issue is that we’re not having enough conversations that bring people together. Sometimes it seems we’re living in different realities. For example, there’s been a spate of state bills trying to mandate that public universities teach introductory history courses that include a range of founding documents. These are presented as a sort of punitive measure based on an assumption that historians and teachers don’t want to teach American history. But if you’ve ever met a historian or history teacher, you’ll know that we’re generally willing to talk your ear off about these things: We want more time in the classroom to deal with the Revolution, we want to nerd out over the Constitution and the founding documents. So, it seems really absurd to have state bills coming forward insisting that we need to be forced into doing that.

In North Carolina, the state not only mandated what documents be taught but also stipulated they have to be part of a final exam to be graded in a way that we, as educators, know to be ineffective. When university faculty objected to the bill for this reason, Fox News picked up the story and said: “North Carolina faculty no longer want to teach the Constitution.” Conversely, if you ask Democrats, you’ll find many are convinced that Republicans don’t want to teach the history of slavery. But many Republicans believe slavery should be part of any history course. When you look at the polling data, there is actually much more of a consensus when it comes to history than many pundits would like to admit. What we are concerned about, as the AHA, is groups operating outside of that consensus trying to seize this moment as an opportunity to enact radical change.

Are you making progress?

The heartening thing is that there are actually a lot of elected officials who are open to what professional historians have to say. When it comes to K-12 education policy, there’s a lot of distrust of teachers and the way in which they go about their work. But many officials are less dismissive of academics. So, if a professional historian comes in and says: “What you’re trying to force these teachers to do is unteachable,” they’ll listen in a way that they might not if it’s just the teachers themselves. If there’s a lesson that I’m preaching right now, it’s one of solidarity. Teachers in many contexts are feeling a lot of pressure. But many potential allies are keeping too silent. There’s a lot we can do to support each other in just preserving the basic professional integrity of our work in the face of autocratic efforts to interfere with what we do in the classroom.

Sebastiaan Faber, who serves as chair of ALBA’s Board, teaches at Oberlin College.