Opinion: Political agendas attack our academic freedom in Ohio – Cincinnati.com

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“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past” is a famous line from George Orwell’s 1984, a novel about an all-powerful government where ideas are controlled by the thought police. It remains a warning that once the government begins to manufacture a view of history and society, it is no longer history or the truth, but simply political propaganda.
Through recent bills at the Ohio legislature extreme politicians are trying to impose a view of the past without controversy and where the majority population bears no responsibility for events and actions in the past. This approach is not history.
Before launching this attack on education, legislators should have consulted faculty experts. That they did not do so is irresponsible and further evidence that this is a politically-motivated campaign, not an attempt to solve real problems.
Senate Bill 40 from the previous General Assembly, the so-called FORUM Act, began the process of depicting faculty crushing freedom of speech and thought. Groundless assertions were couched in phrases about “a free exchange of ideas” – as though that was not already happening. It banned free speech zones, nearly 10 years after the federal court in Cincinnati already did so. It banned universities from blocking extremist speakers, apparently creating a platform for neo-Nazi Richard Spencer who Ohio State University blocked from campus in 2017 – the last time any Ohio public university had done such a thing. In the end, Republican majorities forced approval of the bill.
Then came Senate Bill 135 this year, which initially proposed to duplicate much of the same flawed implications of radical faculty imposing wild beliefs on students, and initially even included attempts to control classroom speech. To the credit of the sponsor, some of the threats to faculty’s academic freedom were removed in the Senate-passed version, and there are new bureaucratic requirements meant to ensure that members of the campus community essentially can say whatever they want without repercussions, an open “marketplace of ideas.”
Now comes House Bill 327 and House Bill 322 – which represents a further attack on academic freedom and the expertise at Ohio’s colleges. Instead of extolling freedom of speech in the classroom, it takes a very different approach demonstrating the flawed and confused political roots of all this extremist legislation.
HB 327 would ban what it deems “divisive concepts.” Rather than an open “marketplace of ideas,” HB 327 seeks instead to muzzle faculty, making it impossible to teach many classes. While critical race theory (CRT) is not mentioned in the bill, it clearly is targeting this bogeyman manufactured by right-wing forces.
CRT is one of many interpretations of the past. It gives primacy to the role of race. CRT is widely discussed but not accepted by all academics. The past is complicated with many forces at work. What experts agree on is that racism is an important factor in U.S. and world history. The fact-based evidence of that is overwhelming.
HB 327 also now contains language that faculty can’t be “biased.” Bias is now an opinion that differs from the experts in Ohio’s majority party. Is that truth? Is that history? Are facts biased? Are they self-appointed experts? The primary goal here seems to be that no white person’s feelings get hurt.
So, should we accept the interpretation of Westward Expansion that it is “Manifest Destiny,” where settlers ordained by God occupied empty lands? Or should we teach the reality of war and conquest? Do we teach that “agricultural workers” were brought to the plantations, like right-wing-controlled Texas textbooks have done? Or do we teach the cruelty and exploitation of slavery? Will faculty now be required to stand aside and let Holocaust deniers spread their lies for fear of being divisive? Where does this manipulation of history stop?
American history and society is a complicated and messy area. There is much to be proud about the United States but to focus on those aspects without including the dark sides does a disservice to ourselves and future generations. “We learn nothing because we remember nothing,” Gore Vidal once wrote. Let’s prove him wrong. Understandings of the world should never be simply a political agenda imposed by those who happen to be in power.
John T. McNay is chair of the American Association of University Professors Government Relations Committee and a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati-Blue Ash.

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