by former Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni
In the opening days of his new administration, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has issued a number of executive orders, the first two of which directly concern Virginia’s public education system – an area I know something about, having served both as a public school teacher and as Virginia’s Secretary of Education for the past four years. I’m very proud of the Northam administration’s record on public education, but don’t take my word for it: Virginia has been recognized nationally, with CNBC writing, “Virginia’s strongest category is Education, where it finishes a close second to perennial leader Massachusetts.“ This ranking was the result of a great deal of dedication and hard work by many committed professional educators, who should be thanked profusely for their work, particularly in the midst of a historic pandemic.
Regarding Youngkin’s executive order about not teaching “inherently divisive concepts,” the reality is that history is full of “divisive concepts,” including some very bad people and ideas. Perhaps we don’t agree on what “bad” and “good” is anymore — this may be the crux of the problem. As a former history teacher, I can tell you firsthand that we teach history so that young people can understand how we got to where we are. Youngkin’s attempt to ban “Critical Race Theory” is really an attempt to ban the truth about what happened in our history, beginning with the arrival of the first ships to Virginia’s shores. Some of these conversations can be uncomfortable, but they need to be had because even if slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-miscegenation laws no longer exist, we still have various forms of discrimination and systemic racism in our country. Students should understand what anti-Semitism looks like, what Islamophobia looks like, what homophobia looks like, and so forth. History is not just learning about the oppression of minority groups, it is also about teaching about their many contributions and accomplishments to our society. We have progressed as a society because of the struggles endured and sacrifices made by those who came before us.
To be blunt: the Youngkin administration is using some of the same language heard during “Massive Resistance” (to desegregation of schools in the 1950s). In the area of education, in fact, one can argue that the Youngkin administration is leading a new “Massive Resistance” in Virginia, including an unwillingness to engage in teaching the full truth about our history. Let’s quickly review the facts of what happened the past four years in Virginia’s education policy related to history curriculum and cultural competency.
First, numerous experts (teachers, historians, etc.) spent many months looking through the history curriculum and providing feedback so that it could be made more inclusive and accurate. For example, our past curricula have left out the contributions of many groups like African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBTQ Americans, and also minority religious groups like Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.
In stark contrast to the previous Administration (and yes, I’m admittedly a bit biased here), the new Youngkin administration does not include any individuals with classroom teaching or DEI (Diversity Equity Inclusion) experience. Instead, the new administration is taking a highly politicized approach, in which they are aiming to undo much of the good work accomplished in the past four years to deliver a quick “Win” for their team. Youngkin’s administration is stoking the fires of racial discontent in his attacks on public education, eerily reminiscent of the 1950s. It is dangerous. It is divisive. It is un-American.