Echoes of the infamous 1925 Scopes Trial rang through the halls of the Missouri Legislature Wednesday as lawmakers debated a bill to outlaw teaching about racial justice and social equity in the state’s classrooms. Instead of outlawing the teaching of evolution as the state of Tennessee had, prompting the prosecution of high school science teacher John Thomas Scopes, the proposed Missouri law would outlaw the teaching of actual history beyond a version solely from the view of white people.
At the core of the controversy is The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which explores the history of the United States from the perspective of the Black American experience. Published in 2019, marking what is believed to be the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the colonies, the project has been widely celebrated. Many schools and universities, including in Missouri, have added the project to their curricula. But some have criticized the work for focusing too much on race.
Supporters of the Missouri Legislature’s proposed law are responding to the inevitable changes that come from broadening perspectives on history in the same way as Tennessee legislators responded to advances in science a century ago that changed the way the origins of humanity are taught in schools. Outlawing knowledge and history is not what strong, healthy democracies do. These are acts of insecure, factually ignorant people and threaten to further damage the state’s reputation at a time it is seeking to attract educated talent and investment for budding biotech and geospatial industries.
Parents Defending Education, a national organization opposing diversity and equity initiatives in schools, says efforts like the 1619 Project are not only “at war with basic American values,” but also “with our kids’ happiness and ability to succeed in life.” The group filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Webster Groves school district last month following statements by the district’s superintendent calling out systemic racism in education and criminal justice that has harmed people of some races while clearly benefiting people of other races.
The reckoning of the nation’s painful history of racism and racist violence is long overdue. Pushback from those comfortable with the way things have always been is not unexpected, but adding different voices and perspectives to the discussion of Americans’ shared history is a good thing. It’s what makes the American experience special. In acknowledging the nation’s past failings, educators and historians do not diminish America, they help ensure it will be stronger in the future.
Missouri lawmakers shouldn’t attempt to suppress education and historical honesty, no matter how painful. The next generation of Americans deserves to learn a more complete perspective of the American experience — warts and all — so that they continue the pursuit of a more perfect union. That’s such a basic American value, it’s in the first sentence of the Constitution.