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Friday, December 2, 2022

Smith: Education matters

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The Indiana House of Representatives recently passed House Bill 1134. The bill, which is known as “Education Matters,” is now headed to the Indiana Senate, which previously dropped a similar bill after its sponsor indicated that teachers should be neutral on fascism, Marxism and Nazism. While it’s not clear whether (or in what form) the bill would pass the Senate, the Republican supermajorities in both chambers mean that Democrats can do little to stop it.

At issue is what both bills’ backers refer to as “divisive concepts” that relate to educating Indiana’s children. If passed and signed into law, “Education Matters” would ban teachers from advocating that “any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation” is racist, sexist, inferior, superior, racist, oppressive or that any student should feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, responsibility or any other form of psychological distress” due to those same attributes.

Further, the bill says that no school employee may adopt or enforce language, “That an individual, by virtue of individual’s sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or political affiliation.” In other words, the bill is intended to fight the non-existent scourge of so-called white guilt that is sweeping across … people’s minds.

Governments in China and other authoritarian nations must be smiling with approval at such heavy-handed intervention by the state.

I have a few questions. First, since when does education involve ensuring that students don’t feel “discomfort”? A mind should be stretched, which absolutely involves discomfort. Without such discomfort, there likely is no growth (i.e., learning).

Second, since when have our state legislators cared about whether students were comfortable in the classroom — whether that involved school equipment (e.g., desks and chairs) or discussing various topics? I endured myriad uncomfortable situations due to desegregation when I was a child. I will testify that I’m a stronger person as a result.

Third, what does “discomfort” mean? Are there degrees of discomfort? Will a psychological evaluation be involved? In any case, as the aphorism goes, “To comfort the afflicted, sometimes you must afflict the comfortable.” Fourth, do our Republican legislators care that these types of actions serve only to strengthen the caricature of Hoosiers as intellectually backward?

Fifth, and most importantly, do they care that, if this bill becomes law, it will exacerbate Indiana’s teacher shortage? Most of these questions are not rhetorical.

But wait, there’s more! The bill also says that no school corporation or entity can require employees to be in training, orientations or therapies that could include diversity or other topics that seek to reduce racial or other biases. (You don’t want people having their stereotypical views challenged, do you?)

Of course, we cannot ignore the penalties of violating these provisions. Teachers could be sued and also would be subject to losing their licenses if parents (or even fellow employees) believed that they were violating the law. Further, in some instances, parents and school employees would be able to sue schools, school districts or state agencies for the same. And, of course, the cavalcade of “patriots” won’t be satisfied with pedestrian legal processes. They will harass, threaten and even physically intimidate people who are dedicated to teaching our children.

Of course, there is a silver lining here. There is a more powerful law that is always a factor to consider — a law that isn’t subject to legislative chicanery or political vicissitudes: the law of unintended consequences. If this bill becomes law, I’m willing to bet that the parents and others who opposed it will then use it to their advantage. If they were so inclined, they could bury schools — or school systems — in lawsuits. Such an ambiguous, poorly conceived and poorly written law is ripe for such expensive challenges.

My earlier metaphor notwithstanding, when life gives you lemons … sometimes you make hard cider.

Yes, education matters. This bill is a matter of concern. As a matter of fact, it is imperative that people of goodwill continue to make their voices heard, despite the fact that so few of the legislators who support this bill are willing to talk with them. Etymologically speaking, the word “educate” literally means to “lead out.” It is time for the people of Indiana to lead our legislators out of the dark.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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