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Howard Professors Weigh In On National Debate About Classroom Curriculums

Picture of classroom in Frederick Douglas Hall. Photo Courtesy of Sariah Adams.

Howard University professors spoke to The Hilltop about recent education restriction laws that have been introduced in states around the country. The reactions to these laws have educators skeptical about the future of classroom curriculums.

New laws that restrict what teachers are allowed to teach have become more frequent since 2021. These laws largely target discussions surrounding race, gender, Critical Race Theory and American history and aim at prohibiting what PEN America describes as “divisive” practices in classroom and workplace settings.

According to a report written by PEN America, an organization that supports freedom of expression, the rise of these education bills in recent years has come at an alarming rate. In the report, PEN has mapped the frequency at which the bills are being proposed and includes information on bills that are in effect and those that have been struck down across the U.S. 

As these laws are still being introduced, concerns about what the future of education and the teaching profession will look like across states have become a topic of discussion for many educators, including Howard professors.  

“We know that these laws for education are not separate from laws restricting civil rights, especially the right to vote,” Ana-Lucia Araujo, a history professor at Howard University since 2008, said. “These are also matters that have to do with the fact that the demographics are changing in the country…these are all mechanisms that the legislatures try in order to… shape the minds of the youth – people who will be voting and to contain this movement. And this of course will have impact in terms of what people read, in terms of what people bring to the classroom.” 

“ [They] can’t stop the learning process,” Gregory Carr, a professor in Howard’s Afro-American studies department for 22 years, said. “Now, what [they] can do, however, is create an environment of intimidation… of apprehension, increasing stressors on teachers or librarians that will dampen conversation…what we are seeing certainly isn’t new. Anti-intellectual, anti-thinking, anti-education strain in American history…it isn’t new.”

The laws come after states’ efforts to redefine the curriculum in the wake of 2020. 

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“We have a really critical teacher shortage and so I think the climate around education, Critical Race Theory, laws that are being passed, book bans, and the challenges that are taking place is a heavy load on teachers,” University Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Helen Bond said. 

Bond is a professor in Howard’s School of Education and is currently working on research examining the correlation between the prolific restrictive education laws that are being passed and the numerous book bans across the country.

 “The data set that we’re using and we’re drawing from is the American Library Association(ALA) and the Office of Intellectual Freedom,” Bond said. “ According to the American Library Association’s Unite Against Banned Books project…it tracked 729 attempts to ban or restrict books in either library schools and universities, resulting in the removal or actual restriction of about 1597 individual book titles…There are 713 bands coming from 16 districts in Texas. In Pennsylvania alone, there are 456 bans of books in nine districts, Florida 204, Oklahoma 43, Georgia 13, Missouri 15.” 

In addition, teachers are concerned that restrictive education laws make their professions from demanding to nearly impossible as they try to understand how to create a welcoming and inclusive environment while remaining within the state’s guidelines.  Some go as far as resigning, in the case of a teacher in Oklahoma, due to concerns that these bills open up problems for not following the laws, often cited as being vague and unclear about what is and is not allowed in states like Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and South Dakota.   

“Teaching is a difficult job, particularly K-12, and at no [effort]  in American Society is teaching respected,” Carr said.

Concerns about education laws are not only held by current educators, but also by those aspiring to pursue a career in education. 

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“I think as future educators, especially as Black future educators, we know the importance of race in school and not offering a watered down version of history,” Erin Taylor said. 

Erin Taylor, 19, is an honors elementary education major from Atlanta, Georgia. She reflected on how her classroom discussions do not maintain much optimism for the future of curriculums in public schools around the country.

“What this movement has been doing is diluting curriculum and taking certain topics out of what’s supposed to be taught, and so that creates a real moral conflict as teachers because on one hand,” Taylor said, “We don’t want to shy away from school districts where topics are being banned because those students do need to learn those things, we understand that those are important topics. But at the same time if we do go into those school districts and we tell those kids, ‘we’re not allowed to talk about this or we choose to… find some sort of way to get around those…curriculums that have been taken out and then our careers are jeopardized because of that.”

Despite the challenges that exist as an educator, Carr and Araujo reflect on their time as educators and give the reasons as to why they choose to continue to teach. 

“More of us need to go into teaching to be there, to be the kind of educators, if we can, for the next generations that we had,” Carr said.  “And I came to work at an HBCU…because I wanted to be in that conversation with you all. I stayed because intellectual warfare is the most important fight we have. You know we sing, we dance, we go into business. We do like that. But what are you thinking about why you’re doing all those things?” 

“I think that it’s a need to understand what happened in the past and to understand where we are now and how we can…produce change in the future,” Araujo said. “The studying of history allows us to see that we are not alone, that we have people who came before us, that they were here in this building 100 years ago and they were worried about topics that are the same, that we are worried about now.” 

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Copy edited by Nhandi Long-Shipman

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