Amid a flurry of national bills seeking to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools, one such proposal stood out in Virginia.
Hidden in a bill introduced by Wren Williams, a Republican delegate, was a glaring flaw: One of the concepts school boards would need to make sure students understood was “the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.” .
But as scholars, Mr Williams’ colleagues in the House of Representatives and others on social media noted that the debate was not between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, but between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, a Democratic senator from Illinois.
“The gross flaw in this bill is an indication of the need for scholars and educators, not lawmakers/politicians, to shape what students at every level learn in the classroom,” Caroline Janney, a professor of Civil War history at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, said in an email.
On Friday, Addison Merryman, a spokesperson for Mr. Williams, released a statement from the state division of legislative services, which took the blame for the error.
The error was inserted at the “draft level upon receipt of a historically accurate request from the office of Deputy Wren Williams,” according to the department, which described itself as an impartial state agency that drafts, edits and releases “thousands of legislative drafts.” before the General Assembly each session.
Mr Merryman did not respond to additional questions about whether a historian had been consulted about the legislation or about concerns that the proposal could violate the First Amendment. (Parts of that bill, such as a section telling school boards not to “teach or incorporate a divisive concept into any course or classroom,” have been criticized as overly broad and likely to infringe upon students’ and educators’ free speech. )
Instead, he referred to statements he and Mr Williams had made on Townhall, a conservative website. Mr Merryman told Townhall that Mr Williams had introduced an “anti-discrimination bill” that correctly referenced the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Lincoln and Douglas met seven times in 1858, when Lincoln, a Republican, challenged Douglas for the Senate. Lincoln lost the election, but the debates between the two brilliant orators grounded the country, drew attention to the bitter arguments over slavery and catapulted Lincoln to national fame.
Mr Williams told Townhall he was “frustrated” by the mistake.
“I have a very high standard of my office and my service to my constituents and the Commonwealth,” he said.
“I trust that this was an honest mistake,” he added, “and I am not speaking to the Legislative Services.”
The confusion recalled President Donald J. Trump’s comments on the first day of Black History Month in 2017, in which he mentioned Douglass in the present tense, leading some critics to conclude that he believed the abolitionist, who died in 1895, was was still alive.
“Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who has done a great job and is getting more recognition I can see,” he said.
The mistake shouldn’t distract the public from the bill’s overall content, which would keep conversations about the racial history of the United States out of the classroom, said Lara Schwartz, a professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University. in Washington.
“If this so-called divisive draft law became law, it would make all Virginia students worse off, and ignorance about our history wouldn’t just be a sad punchline — it would become more the norm,” she said in an email.
Critical race theory—an advanced academic concept generally not introduced until college—is not part of classroom teaching in Virginia. But at the statewide race last year, Mr. Williams, 33, an attorney who worked on Mr Trump’s failed attempts to reverse the Wisconsin election results, said he would ban it in schools if he won.
The bill, the first tabled by Mr. Williams, is pending before the committee and must be passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, where Democrats have a slim majority.
Understand the Critical Race Theory Debate
The legislation would prohibit school boards or educators from teaching “any concept of division,” encouraging students to engage in political activism or “public policy advocacy,” or hiring equality and diversity consultants.
The wording of the legislation “prohibits teachers from helping students understand the ongoing role of racism in the development of American institutions and culture,” said James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, which represents more than 11,500 historians. “It creates a chilling effect that makes teachers wary of teaching accurate American history.”
He said the bill came from the same model as legislation passed in more than 30 other states that seeks to prohibit or restrict the teaching of “divisional concepts” related to race and racism in classrooms.
Professor Schwartz said that “the fact that there is a fundamental factual error in this bill has amused many people.”
She added, “But it’s a distraction from a problem that’s not funny at all: a wave of state legislation that has the effect and intent of hindering the important conversations teachers and students need to have in their classrooms.”