Limits on history: Texas restricts public school social studies topics

Texas restricts public school social studies topics

By Zoya Haq, Arts and Life Editor

The Texas State Legislature has officially limited the scope of history education in all Texas classrooms, effective Sept. 1.

After a groundbreaking special session — characterized by a quorum break by Texas Democrats fighting new voter requirements — the legislature reconvened in late August to vote on certain agenda items.

Among these was HB 3979, a bill dictating that teachers cannot discuss current events in the classroom, cannot teach that slavery constituted the “true” founding of the United States and must teach that slavery simply represented a “hard work ethic” and was not created as an oppressive mechanism.

The billl’s author, Rep. Steven Toth (R-The Woodlands), said the bill was necessary during a time of racial tensions in the country. He added that “we don’t need to burden our kids with guilt for racial crimes they had nothing

to do with.”

Satoria Ray, an eighth-grade honors Social Studies teacher in Dallas ISD, said, in simple terms, this bill prevents educators from teaching an authentic narrative of U.S. history.

“There was a suggestion that we might need to be careful calling enslaved people ‘slaves’, that maybe we should just call them ‘workers’ so that we don’t blur the lines of what we can and cannot teach,” Ray said. “That moment is what made it really clear for me that what is being attacked is truth-telling in history classes, which is a very dangerous precedent to set. Workers get paid. Enslaved people don’t.”

Zena Amran, who teaches 10th-grade World History at H. Grady Spruce High School in Dallas ISD, said bills like HB 3979 promote a nationalistic worldview and shut down pathways for criticism of America.

“What these bills are doing is trying to ignore America’s problems,” Amran said. “They’re saying ‘We’re a good country! We’re freedom fighters! We’re a democracy! We don’t do any wrong!’ But how are we ever going to fix anything if people don’t know why things like systemic racism happened?”

Amran also said authentic history classes give students context for the world’s current issues.

“We can’t tackle a problem if we don’t know why that problem is occurring,” Amran said.

In the media, the words ‘critical race theory’ often accompany discussions around HB 3979 and its effects. According to Britannica, critical race theory is “a framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically distinct feature of subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed category used to exploit and oppress people of color.”

Critical race theory is often taught at the university level. And according to Ray, it is not the same as what Texas is trying to ban in classrooms.

“I’ve never taught critical race theory to eighth-graders. I didn’t even learn that when I was in undergrad,” Ray said. “A lot of people — not only the general public, but lawmakers — don’t understand what critical race theory is. Or, they understand very well and they’ve just taken this term and are misusing it.”

HB 3979 is just one of many bills aiming to restructure Texas social studies curriculum. It originated in the Texas House in March 2021, moved to the Senate after a partisan 79-65 vote and passed in the Senate in June. Its “critical race theory” companions, Senate Bill 3 and Senate Bill 2202, are both currently pending in the House.

Junior Elle Chavis, an intern for Texas State Rep. Victoria Neave, followed the progression of HB 3979 and its companions in the Texas Legislature from April until June.

“I think that the lasting repercussions will be a lot longer and wider than people realize, because it’s a whole generation that’s not getting a proper education,” Chavis said. “We’re giving them a disadvantage. When they go off into the world, they’re going to be less educated and less informed.”

Chavis said receiving a Hockaday history education is, now more than ever, a privilege.

“Hockaday doesn’t have the government mandating what they do, so it gives them a little more freedom to teach the lesser-known parts of history,” Chavis said. “In public schools, they have to fulfill so many requirements that they often end up teaching the bare necessities and the bare minimum. This will only worsen that.”

As school districts across the state are preparing for a school year with brand new social studies requirements,

teachers are looking for silver linings in HB 3979.

“A lot of the bill is really rooted in this idea of ‘indoctrination,’claiming that educators have the power to indoctrinate children and shift the tide of what they believe in one history course,” Ray said. “However, if students are coming to the conclusions themselves, then that’s not indoctrination, that’s just a child being able to critically think. Students are brilliant. Students know right from wrong, more so than adults.”

Ray and other teachers are working to adapt their classrooms to better fit this student-oriented learning plan.

“We are working to create a curriculum where we as teachers are simply there as guides, which prevents us from getting in trouble for teaching ‘critical race theory,’” says Ray. “But it also works on creating critical thinking in students, which is a lifelong skill.”