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Virginia teaching bill gets history wrong

State legislative service takes blame for error on Lincoln’s debate opponent by The New York Times | January 17, 2022 at 3:31 a.m.

Amid a flurry of bills nationwide that seek to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools, a mistake in one such proposal in Virginia stood out.

Tucked inside a bill introduced by Wren Williams, a Republican delegate, was the error: Among the concepts that school boards would be required to ensure students understood was "the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass."

But scholars, Williams' colleagues in the House of Delegates and others on social media noted that the debate was between not Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, but Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, a Democratic senator from Illinois.

"The gross mistake in this bill is indicative of the need to have scholars and teachers, not legislators/politicians, shaping what students at every level learn in the classroom," Caroline Janney, a professor of Civil War history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said in an email.

[DOCUMENT: Read the bill to require teaching of "first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass" » arkansasonline.com/117hb781/]


On Friday, Addison Merryman, a spokesman for Williams, released a statement from the state's Division of Legislative Services, which took the blame for the error.

The mistake was inserted at the "drafting level following receipt of a historically accurate request from the office of Delegate Wren Williams," according to the division, which described itself as a nonpartisan state agency that writes, edits and releases "thousands of legislative drafts" for the General Assembly each session.

Critics have argued that parts of that bill, including a section that tells school boards not to "teach or incorporate into any course or class any divisive concept," are overly broad and likely to infringe on the free speech of students and educators. Merryman did not respond to additional questions about whether a historian had been consulted on the legislation or about concerns that the proposal could run afoul of the First Amendment.

Instead, he referred to statements that he and Williams had made on Townhall, a conservative website. Merryman told Townhall that Williams had submitted an "anti-discrimination bill" that correctly referred to the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Williams told Townhall that he was "frustrated" by the error.

"I have a very high standard for my office, and my service to my constituents and the Commonwealth," he said.

"I trust this was an honest mistake," he added, "and I don't hold it against Legislative Services."

The error should not distract the public from the general contents of the bill, which would keep conversations about the United States' racial history out of classrooms, said Lara Schwartz, a professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington.

"If this so-called divisive concepts bill became law, all of Virginia's students would be the worse for it, and ignorance of our history would not just be a sad punchline -- it would become more the norm," she said in an email.

Critical race theory -- an academic concept generally not introduced until college -- is not part of classroom teaching in Virginia. But during the statewide race last year, Williams, 33, a lawyer who worked on former President Donald Trump's failed efforts to overturn the election results in Wisconsin, said he would ban it in schools if he won.

He won the Republican nomination last June, unseating Charles Poindexter, and then won 77% of the vote in the November general election, beating Bridgette Craighead, a Democrat.

The bill, the first one introduced by Williams, is pending in committee and must be passed by both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority.

The legislation would prohibit school boards and educators from teaching "any divisive concept," encouraging students to participate in political activism or "public policy advocacy," or hiring equity and diversity consultants.

The legislation's wording "prohibits teachers from helping students understand the continuing role of racism in the development of American institutions and culture," said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, which represents more than 11,500 historians. "It provides a chilling effect that makes teachers wary of teaching accurate American history."

Print Headline: Virginia teaching bill gets history wrong

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