Social Studies Educators Concerned as National Conference Takes Place in Censored Tennessee

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Around 3,500 educators specializing in social studies are gathering in Nashville this weekend for their annual national conference. However, the choice of location has been met with some criticism due to the state’s multiple laws that restrict classroom discussions and censor certain topics related to race and gender.

Wesley Hedgepeth, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, acknowledged that some members were concerned about the potential hostility they may face in Tennessee. Hedgepeth, a social studies teacher from Virginia, added that despite these concerns, attendance is expected to surpass last year’s convention in Philadelphia, which was the group’s first in-person gathering since the pandemic. The previous conference in 2019 drew approximately 4,000 participants in Austin, Texas.

Hedgepeth addressed the issues surrounding Tennessee’s divisive-concepts law and perceived government censorship, as well as the suppression of certain identities. He assured that efforts have been made to ensure an inclusive and welcoming environment for all attendees in Nashville.

Gov. Bill Lee, flanked by GOP legislative leaders, speaks during a press conference at the close of the 2021 session of the Tennessee General Assembly. (Courtesy of State of Tennessee)

Under the leadership of Republican Governor Bill Lee and a Republican-controlled legislature, Tennessee was amongst the first states to impose legal restrictions on discussions of racism and white privilege in the classroom. This included granting a state commission the authority to ban certain library books statewide and implementing restrictions on the rights of transgender students. One particular law allows school and university employees to opt out of implicit-bias training.

Additionally, the predominantly white and older House of Representatives in Tennessee removed two young Black Democratic members for protesting the legislature’s failure to pursue significant gun reforms following a shooting at a Nashville school which claimed the lives of three children and three adults.

Related: The ‘Tennessee 3′ made history. Will their story be taught?

Many social studies teachers from other parts of the country expressed reluctance to attend the conference in Tennessee due to these laws. However, the National Council for the Social Studies released a statement titled “Why Nashville?” which highlighted the city’s significance in U.S. history. It mentioned that Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, and it was the birthplace of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Movement.

According to the organization’s statement, their commitment is to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all social studies educators to come and learn in Nashville.

The last time the national conference was held in Tennessee was in 1993. However, since then, the state’s cultural climate has been embroiled in culture wars. The 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent anti-racism protests sparked a national racial reckoning, leading to conservative pushback.

Related: How the age-appropriate debate is altering curriculum

Earlier this year, when the two young Black Democratic members were expelled from the legislature, the National Council for the Social Studies condemned the Tennessee House of Representatives in a four-page statement. The council criticized the ouster, stating that it was an attack on democratic and republican norms, and it sent a message to students that the rights to free speech, peaceful protest, and holding elected officials accountable were limited to those with specific views. (Both lawmakers were later reelected by their local constituents.)

A man with glasses and an Afro style haircut stands with his hand in the air holding a piece of paper.

Rep. Justin Pearson raises his newly signed oath of office after being reinstated to the Tennessee General Assembly on April 13, 2023, days after the Republican-controlled legislature ousted him and another Democratic lawmaker over the way they protested the state’s lax gun laws. (Marta W. Aldrich / )

The vague nature of Tennessee’s censorship laws has created a chilling effect in classrooms and school libraries. For example, the authors of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about George Floyd were instructed not to discuss systemic racism during their visit to Whitehaven High School in Memphis this fall.

Laura Simmons, an eighth-grade U.S. history teacher, described the current climate as walking on eggshells. Social studies teachers strive to provide students with information that encompasses various perspectives and narratives. However, many teachers are cautious and feel they need to gauge the climate of their schools, parents, and administration before addressing certain topics.

Definition of social studies

Social studies involves studying individuals, communities, systems, and their interactions over time and place to prepare students for civic life on local, national, and global levels. (Revised and adopted by NCSS, Nov. 8, 2023)

As the president of the Tennessee Council for the Social Studies and co-chair of this year’s national conference, Laura Simmons has played a key role in its planning. The conference attracts attendees from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and nine other countries, with about 10% representing colleges and universities.

The 2023 conference revolves around the theme “Social Studies: Working in Harmony for a Better Tomorrow.” It will explore sub-themes such as inclusivity, amplifying local narratives, and fostering partnerships that transcend physical and political boundaries.

Prominent speakers include Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author known for “Caste” and “The Warmth of Other Suns,” and Alvin Bender, a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance journalist. Jelani Memory, author of the bestselling book “A Kids Book About Racism,” will address addressing challenging subjects with young learners.

Simmons emphasized that the conference will not shy away from addressing controversial issues. The goal is to equip educators with the tools necessary to support their students effectively.

Ultimately, the conference’s focus is on the future of social studies, which research has shown to be marginalized in the U.S. education system from kindergarten through college. According to Hedgepeth, the lack of social studies education has consequences, especially in the current divisive climate, where it affects how people relate to one another, consume media, and discern truth from falsehood.

Hedgepeth summarized the significance of social studies education by stating, “If you don’t teach social studies, you don’t acquire those crucial skills. It’s as simple as that.”

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