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From slavery to socialism, new legislation restricts what teachers can discuss

Across the U.S., educators are being censored for broaching controversial topics. Since January 2021, researcher Jeffrey Sachs says that 35 different states have introduced 137 bills limiting what schools can teach with regard to race, American history, politics, sexual orientation and gender identity.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In states across the country, laws have been passed or introduced restricting what teachers can discuss in the classroom and what subjects and ideas should be banned from curricula. These restrictions mostly apply to subject matter pertaining to race, sexual orientation, gender identity and political ideologies and philosophies. Many of these restrictions cover K-12 schools, as well as colleges and universities.

Since January 2021, 137 bills restricting what can be taught have been introduced or pre-filed in 35 different states. Over 87 of those bills are from this year. Restrictive laws have been passed in 10 states. My guest, Jeffrey Sachs, has been tracking these new laws and bills for PEN America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech. He teaches political science at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. His areas of specialization include free speech issues and authoritarianism.

Jeffrey Sachs, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with some of the ideas and concepts that are being banned from the classroom in some states or that proposed bills would ban. I think the main one is probably what many Republicans describe as critical race theory. So how is that defined in some of these bills?

JEFFREY SACHS: In many of the bills, it's not defined at all. The term is just deployed in the text and then left hanging without any definition attached to it, which is the kind of ambiguity that the most paranoid teacher or outraged parent can fill with whatever meaning they want.

In other bills, they do offer a definition. For instance, they'll single out ideas like, quote, "an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex." In other cases, the bills will prohibit teachers from discussing systemic racism or suggesting that racism is anything other than the consequence of individual prejudice.

GROSS: So if a bill said the teachers shouldn't say anything that would lead people to discriminate solely on the basis of, you know, gender or race, that might sound like, oh, that's really good protection for LGBTQ people or people of color. But is that what's intended?

SACHS: I don't think so, no. The way the bills are written, many of the ideas that they would prohibit teachers from broaching or even endorsing in the classroom - the ideas are often ones that we rightly are opposed to propagating in society. But the concern, and I think it's a very well-grounded one, is that these ideas can be used in ways to silence and shut off conversations that we do need to have, sorts of debates that are important for the production of knowledgeable and ethical citizens.

So for instance, a bill that says that a teacher cannot introduce into the classroom the idea that one should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment on the basis of their race, well, that looks like a totally reasonable prohibition in one sense, perhaps. But then when you think about it, you can see how it could be used to prohibit teachers from discussing the idea of affirmative action, which is a policy that, according to some, causes people to receive adverse treatment based on their race. The way that these bills are written, the ambiguity is so great and the climate is so politicized that it's very easy to see how they can be misused.

GROSS: Well, there's proposed legislation in South Carolina, the Freedom of (ph) Ideological Coercion and Indoctrination Act, that says a teacher can't cause an individual to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of his or her race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, heritage, culture, religion or political belief. So does that also mean that, for instance, if you're teaching about racism and slavery, Jim Crow in America, that that might make white people feel guilty and that therefore you have to be really careful in how you approach it?

SACHS: Absolutely. The way the bill is written, a teacher would have to try to anticipate how a certain lesson would make their students feel. And you could easily imagine a teacher thinking to themselves, if I discuss the Jim Crow era or if I discuss the persecution of LGBTQ people honestly and factually, it might make some of my students feel discomfort, guilt or anguish or any other kind of distress. A teacher can't anticipate really how a student is going to respond to a lesson. And the result, then, is that a teacher will default to just avoiding the lesson altogether.

GROSS: What are some of the questions this raises about how teachers are supposed to approach the subject of slavery in America, mandated - legally mandated segregation, the Holocaust?

SACHS: It becomes a minefield for teachers trying to figure out how to broach these topics. For instance, the provision of the South Carolina bill that you just described, it prohibits teachers from discussing any topic that creates discomfort, guilt or anguish or any other form of political distress on the basis of political belief. In the bill that you just mentioned, the South Carolina bill, it would prohibit teachers from, among other things, suggesting that an individual's moral character, value or status is determined in some way by their political belief. That means that a teacher would have to be very, very careful about how they discuss something like, let's say, fascism or racism or anti-Semitism. These are political beliefs. And it means that teachers are going to have to second-guess whether they can describe that political belief in as forthright and honest way as we wish for fear of falling afoul of this bill.

GROSS: How many states so far have bills or laws restricting discussion on race?

SACHS: Well, 35 states have now introduced a bill that would restrict and regulate the way that teachers or university faculty discuss issues of race or sex. And of those, 12 have become law in 10 different states. We're at a position right now where since the start of the new legislative session on January 1, in many states, we're seeing bills being introduced three or four each day. It's really staggering how quickly they're coming out. And I think on top of that, the bills that we're seeing have more severe and draconian punishments. And they're increasingly applying to public universities and colleges.

GROSS: There's also laws or bills that limit your discussion in classroom on political philosophy. What do those have to say?

SACHS: Well, that's very interesting. So some of the bills - I would say many now include a provision that says something to the effect of, teachers cannot be compelled to discuss a controversial contemporary issue, but if they do, they must do so even-handedly and without any kind of favoritism. However, many of those same bills also would require teachers to denounce in the strongest possible terms ideas like Marxism or socialism.

For instance, a bill in Indiana that is currently under consideration would require, among other things, that in the runup to any general election in the state, students must be taught, quote, "socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism or similar political systems are incompatible with and in conflict with the principles of freedom upon which the United States was founded." And it goes on to say, as such, socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism or similar political systems are detrimental to the people of the United States. The issue there, among many others, is that's a bill requiring students to be exposed to this litany of claims about different ideologies, and it also requires that in doing so, teachers cannot show favoritism or bias in any one direction. In other words, it's a bill that can't possibly actually work. Teachers are being pulled in two different directions, and the consequence is going to be a kind of self-censorship.

GROSS: Does this also risk equating Bernie Sanders, who identifies as a, you know, a democratic socialist, with something that's totally incompatible with the principles of freedom upon which the U.S. was founded?

SACHS: I think so. I would imagine that, you know, for the Americans who identify as socialist, including the Vermont senator, it puts teachers in a really difficult position where they're essentially saying that someone like Bernie Sanders is a threat to the United States.

Another Indiana bill prohibits teachers from including in their class any, quote, "anti-American ideologies." Now, that term is never defined. And again, it's not that teachers can't endorse or promote anti-American ideologies. They're just simply forbidden from even discussing them.

GROSS: So with states that have these laws or if the bills become law, does that mean that when a teacher teaches, like, the history of slavery in America, they have to be totally neutral about the subject of slavery, or when they teach the civil rights movement and quote Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders that they have to be totally neutral about the achievements of the civil rights movement and what the civil rights leaders and marchers were up against?

SACHS: It differs depending on the legislation. So some of the bills or laws have a special carve-out where they outline the sorts of speech that are prohibited, but then it explains that these prohibitions would not apply to historical events that involve, quote, "historically marginalized groups." So the way that they're written in some cases, it would seem to allow a teacher to discuss slavery or the Jim Crow era as frankly as they wish.

But there are two important caveats to that. The first is that these bills typically do not permit teachers to discuss contemporary events as openly or freely as they might wish. So they could not, for instance, discuss contemporary racism or present-day sexism the way they might be able to discuss the racism or sexism of a hundred years ago.

And the other thing to note, the other caveat is that many of the bills don't include even that kind of exception. Many of the bills, like, for instance, South Carolina's, require impartiality in any context in any conversation, which means, essentially, again, that when discussing the Holocaust or redlining or the Jim Crow-era South, that sort of obligation to maintain neutrality and to avoid the suggestion that any one political ideology is worse or better than another, that prohibition would be in place.

GROSS: So in Tennessee, there's a law that allows teachers to teach slavery and how Native Americans were treated, but you can't discuss that in the context of current events. So you can't, for instance, talk about the George Floyd protests or Black Lives Matter and connect that to the civil rights movement or, you know, to anything else in history that might explain what's happening now.

SACHS: That's right. The Tennessee law is a great example of this, the dilemma I'm describing. It does include a carve-out saying that the list of prohibited ideas may be discussed in the context of an historical discussion of past discrimination. But for present-day events, like Black Lives Matter, it would be - the prohibitions would be in place. It would mean that a teacher could not discuss a present-day idea in Tennessee, like Black Lives Matter, if that idea, quote, "promotes division between or resentment of a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class or class of people," which essentially means that a teacher has to avoid any current event that might possibly cause one student or a parent to feel feelings of resentment towards another.

GROSS: It seems like it would require a lot of second-guessing if you're a teacher to figure out what you can say and what you can't say and who might report you.

SACHS: Absolutely. And that's really the fear here. It's going to cause teachers, of course, to clam up immediately because many of these bills have very serious punishments. It also means that the county attorneys and administrators in school districts are going to place enormous pressure on teachers to steer clear of any kind of controversial topic because nobody wants to be the school district in Fox News headlines or that gets blasted across Twitter. Everybody would prefer to just fly under the radar. And the result is going to be, I fear, widespread self-censorship.

GROSS: We'll get to some of the punishments and surveillance a little bit later. Right now, we need to take a break, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Sachs, an analyst for PEN America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "DERVISH")

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Sachs. We're talking about laws or bills in the U.S. in states across the country restricting what teachers can discuss in the classroom and what subjects and ideas should be banned from curricula. Sachs is an analyst for PEN America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech, and he's been tracking these new laws and bills.

So many of these laws and bills that we're talking about, these restrictive laws, would regulate what you can say or what you can't say about sexual orientation and gender, anything related to LGBTQ issues. What are some of the things that are banned or are proposed to be banned?

SACHS: There is a bill currently under consideration in Oklahoma that would prohibit K-12 teachers from including in their classroom instruction any idea that is an opposition to a student's closely held religious belief. That's a bill that I think it's very easy to imagine could be used to knock down and exclude from conversation anything from the theory of evolution to the idea that LGBTQ people deserve to have the same set of rights and privileges as any other American. There are other bills out there that would prohibit teachers from describing the concept of gender fluidity or the idea that some people have sexual orientations that, quote-unquote, "are nontraditional." And we see this even more so in the context of book bans that are sweeping the country right now in school districts and states all over the place that are attempting to exclude from public school libraries and the classroom anything that affirms or even just recognizes or describes gay marriage or gay relationships.

GROSS: So what are the practical limits that this actually imposes on teachers, these restrictions pertaining to LGBTQ-related issues?

SACHS: Well, it differs bill to bill. But again, many do include language prohibiting teachers from discussing concepts like gender fluidity. It prohibits them from discussing, quote, "non-traditional gender identities" and in many cases, forbid teachers from discussing controversial events that would presumably include, in many cases, ones like gay marriage or LGBTQ rights. We see as well many bills requiring teachers to report to parents if their children are asking questions about their gender identity, and in many cases as well, for instance, in a Florida bill that prohibit teachers from, quote, "encouraging" any conversation about sex and sexuality.

So it really puts teachers in an impossible situation. In a contemporary high school or middle school, even earlier in elementary school, these sorts of topics arise. And in particular, it would put LGBTQ teachers in a really difficult situation where they're forced essentially to disguise their identity or the status of their relationships in order to fend off running afoul of these bills.

GROSS: You know, I was thinking, in China this past September, broadcasters were told that they have to, quote, "resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal aesthetics." Do you see connections between some of these bills in America and the kind of restrictions on education or broadcasting in authoritarian countries?

SACHS: I do. And, in fact, there's a kind of a very overused and unattractive term that kind of gets used to describe all these ideas. It often gets kind of dismissively described as woke ideas. And more broadly, I think we would just describe these ideas that we're talking about as socially liberal ideas. And unfortunately, what we're seeing is in countries like Russia, China, in Turkey, in Hungary, we are seeing these regimes targeting educational institutions and other sites of cultural production like museums or the media and attempt to drive these ideas out, to signal that to be a real Russian or to be a true Hungarian, one must be straight. One must be socially conservative. These efforts underway in these regimes that are either authoritarian or unfortunately trending in that direction all signal the, I think, the kind of political energy that leaders believe they can get by attacking these ideas.

GROSS: So, you know, the right attacks the left for, quote, "cancel culture," but the right is preventing teachers from teaching things that are part of American history and American literature. But I want to ask you if you see any chilling effects coming from the left.

SACHS: Well, I think we do - less so in the context of legislation. The legislative efforts that are trying to regulate speech in higher ed or in K-12 are coming overwhelmingly from the right. But that's not to say that the left is not guilty of its own kinds of censorship. Very often we'll see those take place at the level of institutional policies. So, for instance, we might find in a college campus policies in place that look good on paper, that, for instance, are designed to discourage abusive or bullying or intimidating speech, but that very often get used on campuses to silence conservative speech, speech that is protected under the First Amendment and that as a society we would want to welcome into the conversation.

We do see at that kind of institutional level on, I think, in particular college campuses, indications that the left is more than capable of flexing its censorious muscles. The difference with what the right is doing, though, is it's happening at the level of legislation, with very serious penalties potentially in play. And I think there, the scope of what's going on is much greater.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us. My guest is Jeffrey Sachs. He's an analyst for Pen America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech. And he's been tracking new laws and bills restricting what teachers can discuss in the classroom and what subjects and ideas should be banned from curricula. We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about new laws that have been passed or bills that have been introduced restricting what teachers can discuss in the classroom and what subjects and ideas should be banned from curricula. These restrictions mostly apply to subject matter pertaining to race, sexual orientation, gender identity and political ideologies and philosophies. My guest is Jeffrey Sachs, who's been tracking these new laws and bills for Pen America, which is a writers' organization dedicated to free speech. He teaches political science at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.

Jeffrey, are there any restrictions that we haven't covered yet in these new bills and laws?

SACHS: Well, there's a law currently on the books in North Dakota that was passed last November after just five days of consideration that has me up at night. This is a law that attempts to prohibit critical race theory in K-12 schools. And I just want to reemphasize here, this is not a law that prohibits people from endorsing or promoting critical race theory. It's a law that forbids them from even including critical race theory in the classroom. And the way that that law defines critical race theory is what has me so concerned. This is a law that prohibits K-12 public schools from including in the classroom quote, "critical race theory, which is defined as the theory that racism is not merely the product of learned individual bias or prejudice, but that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality."

In other words, the bill is saying that - or the, sorry, the law now is saying that whenever a teacher talks about racism, they may only describe it as a product of an individual's own biases or prejudices. They cannot describe it, even when the facts command them to, as something more endemic or embedded within American society. It's a way essentially of preventing teachers, I think, from being honest about a lot of the uglier sides of American history and contemporary society.

GROSS: How do you talk about American slavery or mandated segregation without saying that was part of the system? It was - this was like legally-mandated stuff. Would you say it was a bunch of individuals who were racist and happened to own slaves or a bunch of individuals who passed laws? I mean, how do you - these were created legally in the American system.

SACHS: Exactly. This is exactly the concern that's shared by the North Dakota ACLU, which is investigating this law now and is terrified that whenever you discuss slavery, you're a teacher, you're right, would have to essentially say the slaveholders were racist. The system that they were in, the laws that supported them, the economy that made that business profitable, that is - you'd have to separate those institutional features and describe slavery purely as a product of individual bias, which does violence to the topic. It fails to educate students and I think might discourage students from thinking critically about contemporary institutions and identifying whether or not they also might be guilty of systemic racism.

GROSS: There's another restriction regarding abortion that has been flying totally under the radar. Tell us about that.

SACHS: That's right. This is a law that passed in North Dakota last spring. And it prohibits public colleges and universities in the state from applying for an essential grant, a state grant that they've always been eligible for, unless those universities and colleges break all ties or partnerships with any organization that promotes or facilitates an abortion. So this is a bill now essentially that imposes a kind of viewpoint discrimination on the sorts of research and partnerships that universities engage in. And it was actually, the bill was actually designed with a specific researcher in mind, a sociologist at North Dakota State University who as part of her research on sex education was partnering with the local chapter of Planned Parenthood.

This bill, which is now a law, was intentionally and explicitly created in order to torpedo her career. And it worked. She left North Dakota State University, where she was for many years, and is now teaching at a different university in Montana, because this law made it functionally impossible for her to do any sort of partnership or research with Planned Parenthood.

GROSS: So we have these new bills and laws restricting what teachers can teach, what they can say. How are these laws supposed to be enforced? There's something called curricular transparency or school transparency. What is that?

SACHS: This is a more recent idea that's popping up in bills introduced so far this year. And essentially what it does is it would require schools to place on in publicly searchable websites all syllabi, all course curricula. In many cases, the actual content, the actual books or assignments that would be used in class. And it requires them to post them in advance of any kind of instruction. The idea then being, presumably, that parents, members of the community or even an activist a thousand miles away could identify the sorts of materials being shared with students to see whether or not they are in conformity with these laws.

So school transparency is essentially this Big Brother-type regime that, you know, sounds good on paper. Again, who - nobody is against transparency. But it's very easy to see how school transparency or curricular transparency could be abused in order to intimidate and punish instructors.

GROSS: Some of the laws and bills have something called the private right of action. What is that?

SACHS: Well, that's a provision that permits an individual to file a civil lawsuit against a teacher or a school district, seeking damages. So in these instances, it means that instead of going to an administrator or the state Board of Education to complain about a teacher who engages in one of these forbidden ideas, an individual can go to the court, a civil court and can seek to recoup damages. In some cases, it's only a parent or emancipated student that would be able to file one of these lawsuits. But in other bills, like, for instance, one in consideration in Kentucky, it's anybody in the country. In another in Pennsylvania, it's anybody in the state of Pennsylvania, even someone with no relationship to the student or the school. And the amount of money at stake here can be very high. In some cases, it's 1,000 or $5,000, and in other instances, it's $10,000 per student in the classroom. So when you start to think about how that money adds up, it's really going to terrify a lot of teachers.

GROSS: So is this feature law in any states or is it just in the proposal stage?

SACHS: It's now law in New Hampshire. New Hampshire passed a - they tacked on one of these bills into a must-pass budget and passed it last year. It includes a private right of action that allows parents to file a civil suit against a school district that employs a teacher who discussed one of these forbidden ideas.

GROSS: So there are hotlines being set up in some places to help people report on teachers who are violating these restrictions. Can you tell us about the hotlines and also bounties that are being offered?

SACHS: That's right. So one of his first acts after taking office in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, the new governor there, established a hotline to allow parents or members of the community to report, quote, "critical race theory" in the classroom. That is not his innovation. Unfortunately, we have seen that in other places, as well. For instance, in New Hampshire, after the state adopted its anti-critical race theory bill and signed it into law, the state established a website that allows parents or any other member of the community to fill out a form and report a teacher or school for including one of these forbidden concepts.

For instance, there is a national organization called Moms for Liberty, a conservative activist group focused on education. And their New Hampshire chapter is now offering a $500 bounty to anybody who can bring a credible claim against a school, the idea being then that people will be financially incentivized to root around school districts and find any sort of teacher or administrator who talks about one of these ideas in the wrong way and potentially with terrible implications for the school.

The governor of New Hampshire himself has denounced this tactic. He says there was never meant to be a kind of financial incentive at work here. But it's the very predictable consequence of passing a bill that includes this sort of private right of action.

GROSS: What are some of the other punishments for teachers in these laws or bills?

SACHS: Well, there are about three other sorts of punishments on top of the private right of action that we see in almost all of the bills now. The first is professional discipline. So a teacher can be sanctioned, suspended or even fired for violating one of these rules about what they can say in the classroom. Another very common punishment is a state withholding funds that had been earmarked for a school or university or clawing back funds that had already been distributed. And then lastly - the threat of revoking state accreditation to an educational institution.

And these last two, actually, are especially dangerous because this is how states are trying to regulate what goes on in private colleges and universities or private K-12. These - you know, the - a state can't easily regulate what goes on in a private university. They can't, for instance, fire a teacher or a professor for talking about one of these ideas. But what they can do is they can threaten to withhold state funding or block access to crucial state grants. And that is what we're seeing, increasingly.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about new laws and bills restricting what teachers can discuss in the classroom. My guest is Jeffrey Sachs, who's been tracking these new laws and bills for PEN America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "STAY THE NIGHT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my conversation with Jeffrey Sachs about laws or bills restricting what teachers can discuss in the classroom and what subjects and ideas should be banned from curricula. He's been tracking these new laws and bills for PEN America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech. He teaches political science at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.

One of the questions you have to ask yourself, hearing about all these new laws and bills, is, like, why now? Why is all this happening now?

SACHS: Right.

GROSS: And there's a really interesting set of backstories. So where would you like to start with the backstory? Should we start in June 2020, when Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced the Saving American History Act?

SACHS: Sure. So the bill that Tom Cotton introduced in the U.S. Senate would withhold federal funding from any educational institution that makes use of The New York Times' "1619 Project." This was the journalistic endeavor that seeks to identify and trace the history and legacy of slavery in the United States. And the - well, that bill has not advanced since its initial introduction. The banning of "The 1619 Project" has. It's taken off now in school districts and in state legislatures across the country. So many of these bills that we're describing explicitly prohibit teachers from using "The 1619 Project" or prohibit them from deploying or using in the classroom certain ideas associated with it, like the idea that the United States was racist at its founding or that slavery is anything other than a violation or deviation from American values.

GROSS: So this bill, the Tom Cotton bill that never progressed, was called the Saving American History Act. So that was in June of 2020. In September 2020, Trump introduced an executive order called on Combating Race and Sex Stereotypes (ph). What was that about?

SACHS: Well, the origins here, again, go back to that summer of 2020. There's a researcher named Christopher Rufo, who was then with the Discovery Institute in Seattle. This is a conservative educational institute centered around the promotion of intelligent design. And Christopher Rufo wrote a series of articles for an online website called City Journal. And in his City Journal articles, he detailed what he described as indoctrination in K-12 schools or in employee training programs in businesses or state agencies, programs that he said were training people to become critical race theorists.

Those articles caught the attention of Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, and Rufo appeared on his program in early September of 2020. The very next day, he received a phone call from Mark Meadows, then chief of staff for the Trump administration. Apparently, Trump had watched the program that evening. He'd seen what Rufo had to say. And within a matter of days, Rufo was in conversation with the Trump administration on some sort of legislative or executive response. The product of that conversation was Trump's executive order in late September, where he prohibited any state agency from discussing certain ideas as part of employee training or any state contractor that wishes to do business with the federal government.

GROSS: So it also prohibited the U.S. military from offering training or courses in divisive concepts. So I assume that means diversity?

SACHS: It does. So the way that the executive order is written, it did apply to U.S. military academies, which was the first sign that these sorts of prohibitions would be targeting educational institutions. And they attempt to prohibit any sort of discussion of, quote, "divisive concepts" - among them, concepts like, for instance, that an individual's moral character is necessarily determined by his race or sex - his or her race or sex or that individuals should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex. So, you know, to kind of help understand what's going on here, the list of concepts and ideas that we're now seeing prohibited in state legislatures across the country, that list has its origins in that conversation that Chris Rufo had with Mark Meadows.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Sachs, and we're talking about laws and bills restricting what teachers can discuss in the classroom. He's been tracking this for PEN America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS AND BLACKOUT'S "UNTIL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my conversation with Jeffrey Sachs, who has been tracking new laws and bills designed to restrict what teachers are allowed to teach and say in the classroom and what subjects and ideas should be banned from curricula. This is a movement coming from the right. And Jeffrey Sachs has been tracking these new laws and bills for PEN America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech.

You know, I'm thinking about how frightening it is to do ordinary jobs now. You know, a lot of, like, doctors and nurses are being, like, threatened by anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. A lot of election officials are being really seriously threatened by people on the far right. And now teachers, librarians are at risk.

SACHS: Absolutely. I think it must be a very terrifying time to be an educator at any level - in higher ed or in K-12 or kindergarten. It's a scary time. You know, you have the - unfortunately, the kinds of daily stressors that we've all become used to because of COVID. And now on top of that, these educators are trying to negotiate outraged parents and media pundits who think nothing of blasting, you know, the name of the fourth-grade home ec teacher across the news on a national broadcast because they said the "wrong thing," quote - you know, so to speak, about some particular issue. I think it must be very hard. And when you listen to what educators are saying, they're burnt out. And many of them, I think, will head for the exits.

GROSS: Do you know if a lot of teachers have already been punished as a result of these new restrictive laws?

SACHS: Well, because most have not yet passed and those that have passed, in many cases, only became active on January 1, it's too soon to say how they'll be implemented or who might be punished. We can say that teachers and professors are already self-censoring in anticipation of these bills and laws.

And there we can point to a case like Florida. In Florida, professors at Florida State University are having their syllabi rewritten by administrators and their course descriptions changed by nervous provosts because they're fearful of angering state legislators there, who are currently crafting one of these bills. In Oklahoma - in Oklahoma State Community College, suspended a course. And when it was reintroduced, it was made voluntary, as opposed to a mandatory one, because it discussed histories of racism in the United States. And then in public schools across the country, for instance, in Texas, in Tennessee, teachers are coming forward to say that they are changing how they handle certain topics - to describe the Holocaust from opposing points of view - in order to avoid running afoul of these bills. So we're already seeing self-censorship, changes in teaching pedagogy, alterations of course content. And I suspect we'll only see a lot more of that.

GROSS: How do you teach the Holocaust from opposing points of view?

SACHS: (Laughter) Terry, that is an excellent question. You really have to wonder what was going on in that room when that conversation took place. But as a recording that was shared with NBC News reveals, a school administrator told her teachers, her staff, essentially, that when they discuss the Holocaust, they need to present it with opposing points of view. Now, I think it's important to note the Texas law that the teacher was referring - the administrator was referring to probably does not require both-sides'ing (ph) the Holocaust. But that is exactly the concern here. These laws are so ambiguous. And the punishments are so draconian that this is what you'll see. People will end up adopting ludicrous positions out of an abundance of caution. We only know about this example I'm describing in Texas with the Holocaust because one teacher had the foresight to record the conversation.

GROSS: What are you looking out for in the near future?

SACHS: I think the next wave of bills that we're already starting to see focused much more on school transparency and curricular transparency. So I mentioned earlier that many of these bills require schools to create websites where all material is posted in advance. Some go much, much further than that. Some of the school transparency bills install - would install cameras in the classroom so that parents can either view on - as a recording or via a livestream, what's going on in their child's class.

Other bills that are currently being considered would allow any member of the public to sit in and observe a classroom, and scrutinize teachers for signs that they are teaching critical race theory or any other forbidden concept. And you have to really imagine what that bill would look like. In this climate today of, you know, mistrust in education, you have to imagine what it would mean for a school to essentially throw open its doors to anybody who wants to come in and sit in on a sixth-grade civics class. So these school transparency bills that are now coming out, they're sometimes also described as, quote, "parental bills of rights." These bills sound fine in the abstract because transparency is good. And parental rights should be respected. But the devil is in the details. And many of those details are alarming.

GROSS: So if you're video livestreamed and anyone can watch it, that opens up the opportunity for anybody to take what a teacher says out of context, post it on social media and push it to go viral - take it to Fox News or to, you know, whatever outlet you want.

SACHS: Absolutely. And we're already seeing indications of that in a different context, in Florida, where Governor DeSantis passed a law last year permitting students to audio and video record their professors in the classroom. And those recordings are finding their way into public circulation, where they can be weaponized against instructors. Take something out of context, and it's easy to make anybody look bad. There is not a lot of trust right now out there. And, you know, the internet moves very quickly. And it's very easy to see how these new sorts of technologies being used right now in educational settings could do damage.

GROSS: Jeffrey Sachs, thank you so much for talking with us.

SACHS: My pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Jeffrey Sachs is an analyst for PEN America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech. He teaches political science at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed the film "The Shape Of Water" and the new film "Nightmare Alley" - or our interview about why heartbreak can make you physically ill - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN PISANO'S "LIMEHOUSE BLUES")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN PISANO'S "LIMEHOUSE BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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