I testified at two committees of the New Hampshire legislature on bills to change or repeal our new "divisive concepts" law -- Senate Judiciary and House Education. I said essentially the same things at both hearings. Here it is, video and my written statement (they are the same).
Mr. Chairman and Honored Representatives: Thank you for your service and for this opportunity to address you. I am Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett. I live and work in Nashua, and I am the father of three children who are students and grads of our Nashua public schools. I myself have been a high school teacher of American history and literature, and I currently serve on our state’s Commission for Holocaust and Genocide Education. I come to speak to you in strong support of HB 1576.
This country saved the life of my family and my wife’s family, from the tyranny of the czar and the genocide of Hitler. I am a proud American and a religious person who says a blessing over freedom whenever I vote – and on voting days and occasions like today, I wear those commitments together on my body, above my head. I feel that my own group’s history obligates me in gratitude to be a civic leader in this country, and I carry responsibilities as a member of both a religious minority and the white majority.
Earlier in my career I had the opportunity to create from scratch a course for juniors about America in place of the usual AP history and literature out of that sense of obligation. I was working at a private Jewish high school, and together with a colleague, we set out to give our students interdisciplinary tools to look at American history and culture, and to look at themselves as critical citizens -- connected critics, to use the terminology of the political philosopher Michael Walzer. Perhaps this was natural for us as Jews, a group of whom so many have lived the “American Dream” and a group so often the targets of violence and discrimination even in this country. But what we did in that school was to prototype a concept with application far beyond our specific group and private school setting.
I am proud that the alums of that course have become those connected and critical citizens – doing work in everything from our national defense and intelligence, to representing the underrepresented before our Supreme Court. Facing all of our story as a nation, in an honest and questioning spirit, only fueled their engagement and their intense dedication to our country, their resilience to keep working on problems especially in times of crisis from 9/11 through now.
How will we motivate our public school students to locate themselves as creators of a more perfect union? How is it possible to draw lessons about the dynamics between one’s ideals and group pressure, if you don’t learn about three-fifths compromise and sit in shame and embarrassment, as well as understanding of political strategy? How is it possible for our students to learn about the inner challenges of actual leadership, what it’s like to sit where you sit where we hope they will one day -- unless they can probe Thomas Jefferson in both his idealism and his cowardice? Why bother reading Thoreau if we don’t allow students to take seriously his indictments of the nation and even of his own friends? How can we study Twain without asking whether he was lampooning the racism of his time or swept up in it?
Sometimes as teachers we have to make sure that a perspective that was or is in our history, that is so opposite of what a patriot teachr like me would ever want to entertain or say out loud, is made vivid and alive in class so students know what’s at stake – slaveholder, or Stalinist -- so it can be addressed in the safe and trusting container of our classrooms.
If the creators of divisive concepts laws such at the existing one are concerned about America lapsing into an unpatriotic socialism – well it is the hallmark of socialist dictatorships to write laws that hide their implications behind innocent sounding words, in order to sow doubt about whether you or someone else is breaking the law, and to create a situation where an official or another citizen can take legal action against you or just threaten to do so. Which is exactly what is happening in New Hampshire and elsewhere with such laws.
Members of my Jewish community have lived under such laws in our lifetimes in other lands, and that’s why they came here. I have had conversations with people running for school board or attending meetings – they are at my kid’s school, in my American neighborhood -- and there is never any actual incident of a teacher declaring that someone is “inherently racist” or that America is. There is only “I have heard of a few times”; “no, I can’t tell you the name of a school” and “I’m just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen here.” That is what the current law is, and it sure doesn’t sound like the American Constitution to me.
If that is not how you intended the current law, then consider my remarks to be teacher comments on an essay whose thesis was confusing and needs a rewrite. If you are serious about education for a proud and patriotic American citizenship, not just for diversity but for a difficult unity -- and I hope that you are, then show you are serious, by getting engaged with the fine work of our social studies leaders and our civic education thinkers. Pump more substantive standards into our system and invest in the resources and training for our educators around critical citizenship and a true patriotism. And in the meantime, get these words out of our current laws and pass HB 1576. Thank you for your time and I am happy to respond to any questions.