Academic freedom is at the heart of a successful Idaho education system

Bills like HB 377 seek to control how educators discuss the nation’s history and impose educational gag orders on open and honest discussions of that history, writes guest columnist Ron James.

October 7, 2022 4:15 am
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Bills like HB 377 seek to control how educators discuss the nation’s history and impose educational gag orders on open and honest discussions of that history, writes guest columnist Ron James. (Getty Images)

Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a cherished classic of American literature, beloved by millions and one of the most frequently assigned titles in high schools throughout the U.S.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has resonated with audiences all over the world for its appeal to conscience and its sensitive, truthful portrayal of life in a small, Depression-era Southern town. I taught “To Kill a Mockingbird” for nine years in my English classes. It’s a book that teaches important lessons about conscience (“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”), and empathy (“Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”)

In April 2021, during the Idaho Legislature’s anti-critical race theory frenzy that resulted in House Bill 377, Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, claimed critical race theory has been “creeping through our schools forever.” She then cited “To Kill a Mockingbird” as evidence of how critical race theory is indoctrinating Idaho’s children.

“‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ [The substitute teacher] said the message is made clear: white people are bad, black people are innocent victims, and the students were encouraged to believe that there was an endless era of black victimization. That’s being taught down here,” Scott said.

House Bill 377 is an effort by the Idaho Legislature to restrict the teaching of critical race theory and limit discussions of social justice issues in the classroom. HB 377 was introduced following House Republicans’ punishment of Idaho colleges, universities and libraries with budget cuts for providing diversity programs, teaching about social justice and making banned books available. K-12 teacher salaries were also threatened with retribution as well if any evidence of critical race theory being taught was uncovered.

HB 377 weaponizes the Legislature’s ability to use fiscal policy to control what is being taught in Idaho schools. As an educator, I am appalled at HB 377 and its stifling effects on academic freedom.

Anti-critical race theory rhetoric has completely misrepresented what critical race theory actually is. Blackfoot Rep. Julianne Young claimed that critical race theory “pits” oppressor against oppressed and “teaches kids to hate each other and to hate their country.” Weaponized critical race theory is a strategy for the Republican Party. Statements such as these seek to control how educators discuss the nation’s history and impose educational gag orders on open and honest discussions of history.

Critical race theory is an academic concept and framework for legal analysis developed by legal scholars during late 1970s and early 1980s. Critical race theory views race as a social construct (race has no biological basis), and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. America didn’t suddenly stop being racist because of Brown v. Board of Education or because Martin Luther King Jr. gave a powerful speech or because Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Recently, a group of Twin Falls residents deeply concerned about the heated rhetoric over the perceived influence of critical race theory and the anti-critical race theory frenzy politicizing public education formed an ad hoc organization called the Magic Valley Knowledge Seekers. MVKS was organized to sponsor an educational presentation titled “ Defining and Understanding Critical Race Theory” by former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice and Republican state Attorney General Jim Jones. The MVKS’s purpose for bringing Judge Jones to Twin Falls was to provide the public with a balanced and objective overview of what critical race theory is and is not.

In order to protect the state-funded college and school districts from being penalized for violating HB 377 sanctions, the Twin Falls Presbyterian Church agreed, as a public service, to provide the venue for Judge Jones’s presentation.

Academic freedom, the basic right of a teacher or professor to teach without undue government intervention, is at the heart of a successful educational system. Critical thinking has never been more important than it is today, and it teaches students to be analytical and objective.  The Magic Valley Knowledge Seekers are motivated by the conviction that a deeper understanding of critical race theory starts with providing the public with an inquiry based on dependable and reliable information.


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Ron James
Ron James

Ron James is an archaeologist, adjunct instructor of East Asian history at Idaho State University, member of the Twin Falls County Historic Preservation Commission and retired English and social studies teacher. He lives in Twin Falls.