This year, at least 26 bills or legally binding public opinions in states across the U.S. have again sought to redefine what is acceptable, fact-based, and ideologically neutral content to teach about the country’s past and present in schools.
Directly or indirectly, these legislative efforts are tied to the fiery outcry over “critical race theory,” a conceptual framework for analyzing the impact of race throughout history, first developed in the 1970s by academics including legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw.
Today, critical race theory has been interpreted in myriad ways by mostly conservative activists and has reignited perennial debates over how school curricula covers race and inequality in American society and history.
These laws, nine of which have been passed, have clear impacts on how teachers are able to do their jobs, but it’s far murkier what effect they’ll have on students. Due to a rise in online social interaction during COVID-19, and an increasingly politicized social media climate in general, it has never been easier for teenagers to construct their own political identities through platforms like TikTok, far outside the reach of state-level curriculum restrictions.
“Political socialization, a lot of that happens online,” says Ioana Literat, professor of communication, media and learning technologies design at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “We like to think that it happens in school in civics class, or the social studies classroom… and some of it does, but increasingly more of that happens online because that’s where [students’] friends are.”
According to Literat, the 2016 election brought about a clear shift for young people. She noted that conversations among teenagers on social media organically became more political, even in forums designed for shared interests, like coding or fan fiction.
But that trend didn’t end with the Trump presidency. Literat observed that teenagers continue to engage with questions of society and equality on social media. And because so much of political orientation is derived from social circles, the fact that the pandemic pushed most people to spend more time with friends online likely accelerated the trend.
Emily Glankler, an AP history teacher in Texas, witnessed that firsthand. While working for an AP prep company, she started producing YouTube videos and posting on Instagram to help her students study. Eventually, they told her she should get a TikTok.
During the pandemic, she began producing short explainers on the app covering content from the AP U.S. and AP World History exams. When she noticed her posts were getting engagement from a wider audience, she decided to start a new series, called “U.S. History Summer School” that covered topics students and adults alike had forgotten or never learned. The videos explain events from the War of 1812 to the origins of Juneteenth, but a good portion cover themes like Black and Indigenous history—content which some teachers are concerned could be threatened by state curricular restrictions. The response was striking. Within a week, she says, she had 100,000 new followers on the platform.
“Enough people I guess really wanted that, which was really validating because that’s kind of a whole thing I’m trying to do,” she says.
Political controversy stemming from school curriculum is not a new phenomenon. During World War II, for example, conservative activists rallied against the textbooks of progressive historian Harold Rugg for lacking patriotic fervor. But the movement against critical race theory is different because it’s already not part of almost any public school curriculum. A recent member survey from the American Association of Educators showed that only 4.1 percent of over 1,100 respondents reported being mandated or required to teach it.
But that doesn’t mean this legislation wouldn’t have an effect. “If you look at the language of some of these bills, they’re really pretty broad,” says Diana Hess, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s school of education. “There’s a lot of things that are in the language that would make it really hard to teach civic education.”
Though Glankler currently teaches for a private school and feels encouraged to cover content that might be less supported in a public school, she knows that not all teachers are in the same position. In fact, that knowledge fuels her work.
“I recognize that especially in Texas right now and other states, there are a lot of teachers like me who don’t have that security and are afraid to talk about systemic racism,” she says. “And I’m sort of like, well I can kind of take the bullet then… I can teach some of those things and kids will find it on my channel.”
But while teachers in many states face big questions about newly politicized curricular content, on TikTok, that same information is gaining thousands of views.
Ilene Valencia, a nurse originally from Texas, started posting to her page after watching a documentary dispelling popular misconceptions about Christopher Columbus (he never set foot on what is now considered the continental United States, for example). To help other users revise their understanding of U.S. history, she started reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s “An Indeginous Peoples’ History of the United States” and posting summaries of each chapter to TikTok.
Before starting the series, she says, she had about 300 followers. Now that number is over 13,000. To her, the app has become a different kind of classroom. “I call it the University of TikTok because there’s so much information on there,” she says.
Of course, there are dangers to social media as an outlet for educational content, particularly on TikTok. The app’s “For You” page regularly exposes users to videos from profiles they don’t follow and likely know little about. And though online conspiracy theories are more closely associated with Baby Boomers, no generation is immune to misinformation.
“One of the main questions in media literacy is who is the author of these texts,” says Stephanie Flores-Koulish, professor of curriculum and instruction for social justice at Loyola University Maryland. Online anonymity can prevent teens or users of any age from verifying what they’re seeing and hearing in their feeds.
“That’s one of the hardest questions to ask with regard to content creators on social media because it’s hard to connect them back to where they’re getting the information,” she says.
And of course, the place where young people can go to hone their research skills and verify the information they encounter online should be the classroom, she notes. Hess also underlined how rare it is for people on social media to encounter the diversity of perspectives on controversial subjects that they would likely engage with in an unrestricted classroom.
“In order to really get a broad range of multiple and competing views online, you’ve got to be very purposely doing that,” she says.
Ironically, the recent curriculum bans themselves might actually be driving attention to TikTok pages like Glankler’s and Valencia’s. Before critical race theory entered the news cycle, Glankler doubts many of her students had heard of the concept. Now, they’re a lot more curious.
“We all know that the best way to get a teenager to do something is to tell them that they can’t do it,” she says.