In Indiana, State Senator Scott Baldwin (R) has introduced sweeping legislation that Baldwin says is designed to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related concepts in K-12 education. During a committee hearing on the bill earlier this month, Baldwin told a high school English teacher that he should be "impartial" when discussing Nazism. It is a case study about how the frantic efforts to ban CRT can quickly lead to absurd outcomes.
Among the provisions in Baldwin's 36-page bill is a requirement that teachers "remain impartial in teaching curricular materials or conducting educational activities." At the hearing, Indiana history teacher Matt Bockenfeld said he was concerned about that language. Bockenfeld told Baldwin that he could not be "neutral" on the rise of Nazism before World War II.
For example, it’s the second semester of U.S. history, so we're learning about the rise of fascism and the rise of Nazism right now. And I'm just not neutral on the political ideology of fascism. We condemn it, and we condemn it in full, and I tell my students the purpose, in a democracy, of understanding the traits of fascism is so that we can recognize it and we can combat it.
…We don't stand up and say who we voted for or anything like that. But we're not neutral on Nazism. We take a stand in the classroom against it, and it matters that we do.
Baldwin objected to Bockenfeld's approach and said specifically that he did not believe Bockenfeld should be permitted to express his views on Nazism or any other "ism" in the classroom:
Baldwin said he doesn’t discredit Marxism, Nazism, fascism or “any of those isms out there.”
“I have no problem with the education system providing instruction on the existence of those isms,” he said. “I believe that we've gone too far when we take a position on those isms ... We need to be impartial.”
Baldwin said that even though he is with Bockenfeld “on those particular isms,” teachers should “just provide the facts.”
“I’m not sure it’s right for us to determine how that child should think and that’s where I’m trying to provide the guardrails,” Baldwin said.
Later, when Baldwin was contacted about his remarks by the Indianapolis Star, he partially backtracked. Baldwin said he "failed to adequately articulate" and said he personally believes that "Nazism, Marxism and fascism are a stain on our world history and should be regarded as such." Baldwin did not say, however, that he would make any specific change to his proposed legislation, which already has six co-sponsors.
Bockenfeld told the Indianapolis Star that he was "shocked" by Baldwin's comment and he will "oppose Nazism until they fire me."
The controversy over Baldwin's bill illustrates the primary issue with the dozens of anti-CRT bills being introduced across the country: CRT is not taught in K-12 schools. If CRT was taught at the K-12 level these bills could be one sentence ("CRT is not permitted in K-12 schools.") instead of 36 pages. But since CRT is not taught in K-12 schools, legislators are trying to impose broad restrictions on teachers in an effort to root out CRT's "influence."
In Baldwin's case, he is attempting to prohibit teachers from expressing any opinion or value. But, as Bockenfeld illustrates, this kind of antiseptic approach to teaching is untenable.
Nevertheless, Baldwin's bill is scheduled for a vote by the Indiana Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. A companion bill is under consideration by the Indiana House.
Putting teachers under the microscope
Baldwin's bill would subject teachers to formal complaints and schools to civil lawsuits if a teacher expressed a prohibited opinion in class. But the bill would also require "educators to separately post all classroom curricula online for parents — including lesson plans, worksheets, presentations and other materials." Teachers could then be subject to formal complaints about the content of that material.
Baldwin openly acknowledges that dealing with frequent formal complaints about their course materials would become part of a teacher's job. "I trust that teachers can handle the vast majority of misunderstandings or complaints if they are just afforded the opportunity to be included in the discussion before it escalates," Baldwin said in a press release.
Requiring teachers to post all classroom materials online will likely please the constellation of right-wing advocacy groups that are stoking fears about CRT. Those groups have relied on public information requests to weaponize snippets of instructional material. Placing all such material online is a huge administrative burden for teachers, but would make the jobs of right-wing activists much easier.
Baldwin's ties to right-wing extremism
In October, the Indianapolis Star reported that Baldwin appeared on a "membership list for the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government militia group with connections to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection." The list was published by a whistleblower group. Baldwin "denied he was a member of the group" but, after initially claiming he had no connection to the Oath Keepers, admitted "he made a $30 donation to the group during his unsuccessful campaign for Hamilton County Sheriff in April 2010." According to Baldwin, the Oath Keepers have "changed significantly since I spoke to one of their representatives."
As a state senator Baldwin sponsored a resolution on gun rights that used language similar to that used by the Oath Keepers.
Opposing views about the Holocaust
Baldwin's comments are not an isolated incident. In Texas, a school administrator "advised teachers that if they have books about the Holocaust in their classrooms, they should also include reading materials that have 'opposing' perspectives of the genocide that killed millions of Jews."
The administrator was attempting to interpret a Texas anti-CRT bill that became law. That bill discouraged teachers from discussing "a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs." If controversial issues are discussed, teachers are required to "explore such issues from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective."
The Texas school district apologized for the guidance after an outcry from teachers and the public.