A year ago, in this very space, we opined against legislation — put forth by Keene’s own Sen. Jay Kahn — to mandate the teaching of genocide studies in New Hampshire public schools.
Not that we’re against such teaching; quite the opposite. If it’s true that, as the old saying goes, “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it,” then learning about genocide — be it the Holocaust; 20th-century ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, the Balkans, the Congo or Cambodia; or current situations involving the Uighur and Rohingya populations — should be a part of any rounded education.
Our editorial, rather, took issue with politicians stepping in to force teachers what to teach. Curriculum issues should be left to educators in all but the direst circumstances. Our point was clearly lost on many of those who took us to task for, in their minds, undervaluing the importance of the topic. And though lawmakers set aside the bill, it was eventually resurrected, stuffed into a Senate omnibus package that somehow survived the governor’s barrage of late-session vetoes.
What a difference a year makes. Following November’s Republican sweep of both chambers of the Legislature, and on the heels of a presidential administration that empowered hatred, racism, misogyny and prejudice, comes a new piece of legislation, also aiming to tell teachers how to do their jobs.
This one, House Bill 544, would ban teachers from discussing topics such as systemic racism and sexual/gender discrimination — you know, the kind of things that might drive a discussion on current events, history or politics. It would be at the very center, for example, of any lesson on last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. And perhaps that’s exactly the point.
HB 544 isn’t being pitched as a way to prohibit teaching about prejudice. In fact, its legislative analysis doesn’t even mention schools at all. It reads: “This bill defines and prohibits the dissemination of certain divisive concepts related to sex and race in state contracts, grants, and training programs.”
The gist of the bill is this:
“I. Requirements for the state of New Hampshire:
“(a) The state of New Hampshire shall not teach, instruct, or train any employee, contractor, staff member, student, or any other individual or group, to adopt or believe any of the divisive concepts defined in RSA 10-C:1, II.
“(b) No employee, contractor, staff member, or student of the state of New Hampshire shall face any penalty or discrimination on account of his or her refusal to support, believe, endorse, embrace, confess, act upon, or otherwise assent to the divisive concepts ....”
On its surface, that’s bad enough. But one of the fun aspects of lawmaking is that legislators get to define their own terms in each bill. HB 544, for example, defines the state to include all local school districts and public colleges, among others.
It also goes on to obfuscate by defining, as “divisive concepts,” pretty much any behavior that might run afoul of the state’s anti-discrimination law, RSA 354. Surely everyone would be against such things. But remember, this bill doesn’t prohibit those actions; it prohibits teaching about them. Even in the state’s colleges. That ought to eviscerate any women’s studies or Black history courses.
All in all, this is one of the most heinous attempts at legislating thought we’ve seen in decades. Labeling discrimination as a “divisive” concept for the purpose of removing all discussion of it — and potentially protecting those who might actually discriminate in the process — is beyond cynical. We hope HB 544 dies a quick and certain death. It’s not even worthy of the time it will take a committee to examine it, much less the effort to hold a public hearing.
Again, though, those prospects are less clear because of the flip in control of the House and Senate last November. Thus it is that many of the supporters of last year’s Senate Bill 727, sticking lawmakers’ noses into what teachers ought to say in a classroom, will now find themselves fighting HB 544, which aims to do the same.
And if it does pass, we have to wonder how teachers throughout the state will go about teaching their mandated lessons on genocide without broaching such “divisive concepts” as racism or hate.