Ohio Senate bill: A culture war battle over American history

Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith

How will future historians remember the Great American History War of the 2020s? This question is not as facetious as it sounds. Across the nation, history—or rather, history education—is under fire. From kindergarten to college, classrooms have become cultural battlegrounds. In Florida, the proposed expansion of the 2022 Parental Rights in Education Act (the “Don’t Say Gay Act”) would outlaw K-12 discussion of sexuality and gender identity. Elsewhere in states such as Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Iowa, “divisive concepts” laws are banning the purported teaching of critical race theory at K-12, and—increasingly—higher education. With proposed legislation in the Ohio Senate, the Buckeye State is poised to jump on this bandwagon.

In his classic work On Liberty (1859), English philosopher John Stuart Mill championed the role of free inquiry in a democracy. Mill’s observations still ring true: “Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think. Not that it is solely, or chiefly, to form great thinkers, that freedom of thinking is required.”

In Mill’s reckoning, free thought was the sustenance of “average human beings,” vital to an educated citizenry.

On the face of it, Ohio Senate Bill 83 (“Enhance Ohio Higher Education Act”) shares much with Mill’s thinking. The bill affirms “intellectual diversity,” “free speech protection for students, staff, and faculty,” and “free, open, and rigorous intellectual inquiry to seek the truth.” These stated goals are admirable, but the bill’s practical implications are less clear.

Introduced by Ohio Senator Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), SB83 covers a sweeping array of issues. If enacted, public employees would be denied the right to strike, student evaluation of professorial “bias” would become mandatory, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives would be axed. The bill would even outlaw academic ties with the People’s Republic of China. Collectively, these proposed measures amount to the biggest shake-up of Ohio higher ed in modern times.

From a scholarly angle, the most striking feature of SB83 is its preoccupation with American history. To its credit, the bill demands any student graduating from a state institution earn at least three credit hours in American history or politics. This in itself is a good thing. Whether such requirements are best prescribed by politicians in Columbus or by Ohio universities themselves is another question.

Strikingly, SB83 furnishes a list of six key sources that must be taught under this requirement: the entire US Constitution; the Declaration of Independence; the Federalist Papers (selection of five essays); the Emancipation Proclamation; the Gettysburg Address; and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Comparable requirements are not demanded elsewhere by this bill, whether in the chemistry lab or the business school. History is where the future is being fought over in Ohio.

SB83 shows how far our politicians have strayed from simple governance into the no-man’s -land of the culture wars. While fixating on history, it betrays ignorance of historical instruction. While all six of its required sources are taught the length and breadth of Ohio, the proposed examination on the entire list would leave little time for any other topic. Perhaps that is the point. Still, ironies abound. The author of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was widely considered “divisive” in his day. Ditto Abraham Lincoln. And if we’re being inclusive, the omission of the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787—which prohibited slavery in Ohio and enshrined the rights of public education—reveals dire neglect of our state’s rich history.

Matthew Smith is the author of “The Spires Still Point to Heaven: Cincinnati’s Religious Landscape, 1788-1873.”