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The Dunce Party

Tennessee Republicans outlaw “divisive concepts” in the classroom

Tennessee’s spring legislative session featured a barrage of draconian bills—almost all of which passed. In the words of Democratic State Representative Gloria Johnson, “We have a ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill worse than Florida’s” and “a vigilante abortion bill worse than Texas’. A bill that makes your friends and family $10k if they rat you out.” Add to that an attempt to define common-law marriage with a restriction excluding same-sex couples, which briefly made national news because it was initially drafted without a restriction against underage marriage. Both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly have lopsided Republican majorities: twenty-seven to six in the Senate and seventy-three to twenty-six in the House. With a Republican governor in place, there are no obstacles to enacting the GOP’s regressive agenda.

Of course, a crackdown on teaching history is a key part of this agenda. Across the country, bills banning “critical race theory” have been passed as the right leans harder into thought policing. Tennessee passed a law against CRT in public K-12 schools last year, a largely symbolic measure, as critical race theory is not taught in primary school. But this session, lawmakers aimed higher—at higher ed. A bill passed by the legislature in March and signed into law by Republican Governor Bill Lee in April creates new restrictions on how public colleges and universities can promote diversity and teach about race and racism.

What is significant about the new legislation is its commitment to vagueness. The bill sanctions “divisive concepts” while also claiming to promote “diversity of thought” on college campuses and it attempts to do so by, paradoxically, suggesting that discussing oppressive power structures in class might promote the idea that “one race or sex is inherently superior or inferior to another race or sex.” In other words, the new law suggests that discussing racism is an act of racism.

The law also mandates that universities in the Tennessee system limit their diversity offices and employee training. The legal code now includes hogwash like this: “A public institution of higher education shall not: (1) Conduct any mandatory training of students or employees if the training includes one (1) or more divisive concepts.” Under this logic, the already limited mandatory employee trainings for Title IX and sexual harassment in the workplace might face intense scrutiny. Further, the attempt to rid out “divisive concepts” does not make it clear whether students can reject classroom instruction, including on exams and written papers, and still receive a passing grade. According to the legislation, “A student or employee of a public institution of higher education shall not be required to endorse a specific ideology or political viewpoint to be eligible for hiring, tenure, promotion, or graduation.” Does this suggest that students who reject a historical viewpoint—which is inherently political, as all history is—will also be encouraged to reject historical facts?

The legal code now includes hogwash like this: “A public institution of higher education shall not: (1) Conduct any mandatory training of students or employees if the training includes one (1) or more divisive concepts.”

This isn’t some abstract, nugatory law for me. I teach a southern studies-themed course at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. On the first day of the semester, I make it clear that we will discuss issues of race, sex, sexuality, and class, and that we will use these topics to launch research projects about southern culture and history. If students are uncomfortable discussing these topics, they are free to take any of the other almost 150 sections of the course with themes ranging from “Myths and Monsters” to “Inquiry into Food.” Students often shuffle through classes to find the right fit, and they are not required to stick to a specific section that might cover a “divisive” concept.

Yet just as students have the freedom to choose courses, I’m trained to make choices about what to include. Now, in the coming academic year, Tennessee law is meant to intimidate us from the discussion of power dynamics by labeling it “race or sex scapegoating.” The law defines this term as “assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex, because of their race or sex, and includes any claim that, consciously or subconsciously, and by virtue of a person’s race or sex, members of a race are inherently racist or inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inclined to oppress others.” While that kind of language pretends to a high-minded neutrality, it could be interpreted to restrict conversations about white supremacy on campus. And in its typical vagueness, the language does not specify if it applies to teaching history, literature, or any course in the humanities that might dissect, analyze, and explore the faults, behaviors, and experiences of people. Some of whom might be racist.

A few days before the Tennessee House voted, I brought up the proposed legislation in my class to gauge student feedback. We read the House bill and students voiced their opinions on it in relation to our class. I asked them one question: How will we teach southern studies under this proposed law?

One student brought up southern food. Isn’t food an example of what we could discuss in a classroom without “divisive concepts”? But southern food, beyond being a cultural artifact, is deeply ingrained in the South’s legacies of race, class, gender, colonization, and politics. Okra—a southern delicacy usually served fried—was and is an African crop that is believed to have made its way to the U.S. South through the transatlantic slave trade. The dish is still served in southern kitchens, and it’s there because of colonization, slavery, and Black women’s forced labor in white kitchens. Southern food is not a safe topic; it is as potentially divisive and power-structure-loaded as any other chapter of southern history. None of the South’s history is safe.

This debate between outlawing the ugly truth of history in classrooms or facing it is not a new debate in Tennessee or the South. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, as Karen L. Cox points out in Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, was a southern women’s group that rose to prominence in the early twentieth century and sought to memorialize and vindicate the South’s Confederate past. Well known for their contribution to erecting Confederate monuments, they also put up portraits of Confederate “heroes” across southern public schools alongside Confederate flags. Perhaps most significantly, the United Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored textbooks and prepared “Lost Cause” curriculum rooted in apologia and propaganda for public schools across the South. In 1909, a president of the UDC, Mrs. I.W. Faison, said at a convention:

We must see that the correct history is taught [to] our children and train them, not in hatred towards the North who differed from us, but in knowledge of true history of the South in the war between the States and the causes that led up to the war, so that they will be able to state facts and prove that they are right in the principles for which their fathers fought and died; and continue to preserve and defend their cause, until the whole civilized world will come to know that our cause was just and right. . . . There is an expression often used by our people as the ‘Lost Cause.’ Let us forget such, for it is not the truth. . . . No, our cause was not lost because it was not wrong.

From my vantage point as a southern studies teacher, the Daughters of the Confederacy were wildly successful with this expressed aim to “correct” southern history. Generations of southerners—myself included—were taught in primary school history classrooms about the “War of Northern Aggression” and paternalistic indentured servitude (never named slavery). And these generations of white, propagandized southern youth grew up to become lawmakers or taught future lawmakers. Thus, today, the South is still memorializing and vindicating its mythic past.

Lillian Smith, a southern writer usually venerated in the same circles as Faulkner, gives a different but compelling musing on truth in her 1959 novel One Hour:

[Truth] is what actually happens. Not what you want to happen. Not what you’re afraid will happen. We make up stories when we want things to happen or are afraid they may happen. And sometimes we do it for fun—or to scare people or make them do our way or to hurt them. And sometimes we do it because it’s a pretty story and we tell it just as we fly a kite or send balloons floating.

The South is still drawn to our pretty stories. White southerners are often comfortable talking about southern hospitality or agricultural economies or language or folkways but, like many places across the country, the South is turning to silence and fear instead of diving headfirst into a long-overdue historical reckoning.

In February of this year, the Velocity Convergence, a conservative action group focused on “viewpoint diversity in our public institutions,” jointly published a report called “Critical Social Justice in Tennessee Higher Education: An Overview.” This group is just one of many in the coordinated effort to culture war our way into Gilead: laws against CRT and “divisive concepts” have been promoted by Citizens for Renewing America, the America First Policy Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, as Education Week reported last year.  Some of the legislative language is borrowed from a 2020 executive order by then-President Trump, which detailed what kind of diversity training and “divisive concepts” should be considered off-limits in federal agencies. 

The Velocity Convergence’s report itself uses misguided if not outright incorrect information throughout. From the introduction, which states that Tennessee’s universities and colleges are somehow committing themselves to leftist activism, to the data on diversity education requirements, the factually murky report is hardly fit for legislative influence. A letter to Tennessee legislators from Randy Boyd and Donde Plowman, president and chancellor for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, addressed some of these inaccuracies: namely, that the report suggests students at UTK must take nine-credit classes in diversity-related education as part of the general education curriculum. Their letter points out that “in terms of curriculum, the report egregiously omits the dozens and sometimes hundreds of choices students can make. For example, while there is a nine-hour requirement for courses that fall into the Engaged Inquiries category, the report fails to mention the broad range of over one hundred courses that fulfill that requirement, including: Beef Management, Farm Business Management, Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, Foundations for Deaf Education, and Elementary Literacy K-12 to name just a few.” Yet the report is still being looked at as credible, confirming the Tennessee right’s fear that their public university and college students are forced to take courses such as “Transgender Marxism 101” and “Rebelling Against Your Parents: How to Interracially Marry an Atheist Before Graduation,” neither of which are currently on offer at any Tennessee college or university.

The Velocity Convergence is just one group among many in the coordinated effort to culture war our way into Gilead.

On I-40 West, Cameron Sexton, the Republican Speaker of the House who sponsored the House version of the new anti-diversity law, has erected a campaign billboard that reads “People Before Politics.” This billboard is located just after the hellfire and brimstone church billboards and the twenty-foot Confederate flag on I-40, but before the site of the former monument of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest on I-65, less than an hour and a half away. Yet his anti-diversity in education, anti-critical-exploration in the humanities legislation is hardly a matter of “people before politics”—it serves no Tennessean who seeks to be educated. It’s in the tradition of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who sought “truth” at the hand of silence at best and more often propaganda. On the Senate side, the legislation was proposed by Republican Senator Mike Bell, whose current bill sponsoring list reads like a school board agenda, though he is a “small business owner and farmer,” not an educator or historian. Sexton and Bell are just two of many Tennessee lawmakers who provoked Representative Gloria Johnson to claim that Tennessee government is beginning to look like “some crazy theocracy with middle schoolers at the helm.”

Early in the course I’ve been teaching, my students watch the film Mudbound, directed by Dee Rees and based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of historical fiction. The film depicts a lynching, violent racism, gender inequality, and the limitations on freedom and movement that Black families had across the South well into the twentieth century. Students always have a visceral response to the film, and they are given content warnings for moments of intense violence and are welcome to skip them if they wish. To say that this film, which unquestionably depicts divisive topics that we discuss at length in the classroom, is not appropriate for adult students is direct evidence of Tennessee legislators’ lack of understanding of teaching and what today’s students are capable of. But it reflects something worse: a deep fear that students might see connections between the past and the present. I have worked with students who simply did not know that the institution of slavery did not exist in America in the 1920s. I have taught students who, like my own middle-school self, were taught about the “War of Northern Aggression” in public school. Our southern commitment to telling “pretty stories” is serving no one, least of all our students.

I often make the point in the classroom that students never have to agree with me politically—they just need to find reputable, scholarly sources to back up the claims they make in research papers. I also tell them about how deeply I love the South and how I will never live outside it, mostly because of my dogged, perhaps ill-fated commitment that it can be better. I expose my students to “divisive concepts” not to indoctrinate them, which is fundamentally not possible in my role, but to reveal for them truths about their place and its history that they might never have been exposed to. I offer the South’s historical truths to the best of my ability because it is what I’m trained to do. I believe in what the South can be and the future generations it is currently raising. If I didn’t love this place, I wouldn’t bother to tell its truth, and I certainly wouldn’t bother naming those in power who threaten its future. Moonlight and magnolias make pretty stories, but reckoning with what happened in our past serves us better.