What we risk by narrowly restricting our kids’ view of history and culture

Students in Idaho need to be made aware of our faults as well as our virtues, writes guest columnist Jim Jones.

October 13, 2022 4:10 am
Empty school classroom

Critical race theory is one of the favorite whipping boys of some Idaho legislators, writes guest columnist Jim Jones.

I’ve previously written about extremists in the Idaho Legislature who want to ban certain books and academic theories from our schools.

Their claims are generally false or, at best, over-hyped. Critical race theory is one of their favorite whipping boys. Let’s talk about that, because some legislators want to ban both the classroom discussion of the issue and books they claim to contain it.

I recently spoke to a gathering in Twin Falls about critical race theory – what it is and what it is not.

I told the group it is a graduate school study that explores how our country’s racial history is manifested in our current laws and social practices. Nobody has been able to show that it exists in our public schools but some of our legislators have done everything possible to gain political points by falsely claiming it does.

The day after my talk, an opinion piece by Ron James, a member of the Twin Falls group that sponsored the event, appeared in the Idaho Capital Sun. Ron pointed out how the critical race theory hysteria has chilled academic freedom in Idaho, even though it is not being taught. He referenced false claims made on the floor of our House of Representatives last year in favor of an anti-critical race theory bill. One legislator argued that the acclaimed novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was a prime example of critical race theory because “students were encouraged to believe that there was an endless era of Black victimization.”

As we know, the novel portrays a courageous lawyer standing up for a wrongly accused Black man in a segregation-era southern town. Frankly, the defendant was lucky to get a trial, because in that era many falsely-accused Black people often ended up simply getting lynched. We have since improved as a country, but vestiges of victimization still linger. Teaching or reading about those vestiges does not constitute critical race theory, it is plain historic and cultural fact.

Sometime in the late 1970s, a student at South Fremont High School in St. Anthony got his hands on a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which had apparently not been banned. The book inspired him to become a lawyer, just like Atticus Finch, the courageous lawyer in the novel. It changed the course of his life. That young reader, Greg Moeller, now sits on the Idaho Supreme Court.

It is important that the young people of this state and nation be exposed to a wide range of books, even though some may contain words or concepts that make some people uncomfortable. Restricting the historical or cultural view of our children limits their ambitions and horizons.  This nation has a proud history and our kids should be taught about it in an honest manner. On the other hand, the country has engaged in some reprehensible conduct – slavery, Jim Crow laws, rank discrimination against Asians, massacres of Native Americans. That history should also be honestly taught.

Our children need to be made aware of our faults as well as our virtues. Honesty in history is not for the purpose of making anyone feel personally guilty, but to recognize the wrongs that have been committed so as to prevent their repetition. Sugarcoating our past is self-deception that keeps us from taking corrective action.

Parents, not schools or libraries, have the primary role of teaching values to their children. Teachers and librarians can play a supportive role by making sure that materials exposed to children are age appropriate, but they should not be the gatekeepers, nor should they be made scapegoats for parental failure.

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Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Jim Jones served as Idaho attorney general for eight years (1983-1991) and as a justice of the Idaho Supreme Court for 12 years (2005-2017). His weekly columns are collected at