A battle of opposing views comes to a head at MDE hearing

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Retired university educator Ivory Phillips addresses an audience attending the Mississippi Department of Education public comment hearing about proposed revisions to the state’s academic standards for social studies, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, at the Mississippi Agricultural Museum in Jackson. || With the morning sun bleeding through the blinds, Sen. Michael McLendon, R-Hernando, addresses an audience attending the Mississippi Department of Education public comment hearing about proposed revisions to the state’s academic standards for social studies, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, at the Mississippi Agricultural Museum in Jackson. (Photos courtesy of The Associated Press/Rogelio V. Solis)

On Friday, January 28, 2022, the Mississippi Department of Education held a public hearing at the MS Agriculture & Forestry Museum. The hearing was designed to secure citizen comments on its proposed revisions to the social studies standards for the state’s public schools and was attended by several hundred individuals, representing themselves and/or organizations. Approximately 20% of the attendees, occupying seats mostly in the front of the center aisle, were apparently right-wing political advocates.

The hearing began at 9 a.m., with each speaker being allotted three minutes of time and having the option to provide additional written comments. It is noted that the Mississippi Federation of Teachers, the Jackson Federation of Teachers, the Mississippi Association of Educators, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People , the AFL-CIO, Black Lives Matter, Mississippi Human Services Agency, and others had representatives there. There were also four people from the state legislature among the speakers, including the author of one of the bills that would ban the teaching of subject matter deemed to be critical race theory.

Most of the Black and progressive white speakers expressed a concern that individuals and events that dealt significantly with slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, and other forms of racial oppression as well as those which dealt with poverty, the labor movement, and other forms of civil and human rights were being removed. This they felt would be unfair to the younger generation and make a mockery of the concepts of history and education. Such comments came from the likes of Marian Allen, Dr. Corinne Anderson, Rims Barber, Sollie Norwood, Donald Bethley, Robert Schaffer, Geraldine Bender, and Ruby Funches. They spoke deliberately and sometimes passionately against changes that would alter such teachings in the state’s public schools.

On the other hand, there was a contingent of roughly twenty white speakers who generally did not speak on any particular standards from the MS Department of Education’s 300-page document. Instead, they focused on what they considered critical race theory. They generally spoke a great deal about the absence of Christian principles and ideas among the standards; about the absence of the teachings of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Several speakers suggested that too much was being taught about the evil things that happened in the past, making their children feel bad or inferior because they are white. They placed a lot of emphasis on the right of the parents to decide what is and is not taught. Several of the right-wing, conservative speakers even railed against the idea of democracy, suggesting that democracy is mob rule. Such comments came from the likes of Alana Campo, Nan Delancy, Virginia Henry, Michael McClendon, Jennifer Miller, Vince Thornton, and Gerald Witt. 

The right-wing contingent of speakers were considered as such because they sat together, passionately cheered for one another, had circulated a document of common “speaking points” before the meeting, and shared the same anti-democratic ideas. They appeared intent on coercing MDE to change the standards in even more drastic ways.

As the hearing came to an end, the department staff made three points very clearly that (1) many of the items in the 300-page standards document were not being omitted, but moved to the content section; (2) the public hearings were now over, not being held elsewhere; and (3) that the verbal and written comments would be passed on to the state board and placed on its website, as the board would deliberate and vote on them later this winter.

Even as the hearing was being planned, however, several questions were raised. (1) Why were the standards being revised at this time, especially since the current standards were less than three years old? (2) What directions or mandates preceded the revisions and from whom did they come? (3) Why is the focus only on social studies? The fact that the effort followed comments from State House Speaker Philip Gunn and Governor Tate Reeves regarding critical race theory, and were soon followed by several legislative bills designed to outlaw conservative ideas of critical race theory, also raised concerns. 

These phenomena helped propel the hearings into the spotlight. The felt need to react to them, in turn, helped propel several young leaders into the spotlight. Therefore, it is hats off to State Senator Derrick Simmons, who organized a walk-out of the Black senators when that body voted to pass a bill to ban what they considered as critical race theory. The walk-out was much more than symbolic and points to bigger things that can happen in the future. This week, State Senator Angela Turner Ford, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, issued a statement opposing any interference with the teaching of history and civil rights in the public schools. Simmons and Turner Ford have engaged in similar efforts in the past and are young leaders who bear watching, grooming, and following. 

Secondly, in light of the same bill infringing upon the academic freedom of college and university faculty, Jackson State University Faculty Senate President Dawn Bishop McLin led the faculty senate in passing a resolution opposing the legislative action. In ways similar to Simmons, McLin has led several actions of the faculty senate that have been progressive for JSU and the other state universities. Thirdly, hats are off to Mississippi Association of Educators President Erica Jones. It was as a result of the efforts of that group that the hearings were held by MDE. She also held a news conference on the site as the public hearing was being held last Friday. 

 Obviously, these are not the only emerging young leaders who deserve accolades. There will be others noted in the future. These three are being singled-out because of their relationship to the issue of social studies revisions and the intrusion of right-wing politics into the schools, colleges, and universities.

The issues of revising the social studies standards and curricula in the public schools and the teaching of the full genuine history of the country and state will be with us for a time to come. They are a part of the national cultural war instigated by right-wing Republicans. As the war rages, it would be well to recall a book by the late Professor James Loewen. Because of past academic repression, he reflected the sentiments of many of his generation, writing,“Lies My Teacher Told Me.” Mississippians can now avoid its children having to write years from now, “Truths My Teacher Never Told Me.”   

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A battle of opposing views comes to a head at MDE hearing

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
February 5, 2022