The truth about the history education wars of 2022
Last year, former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon similarly called on right-wing Americans to take over the schools. declared. However, Bannon did not mention God or religion. Instead, he warned against important race theories and the 1619 Project.
This is the most significant change in the school wars of the last 20 years. Conservatives have attacked public education for as long as it has existed. But, as the saying goes, they were blaming the school for eroding God and country. Now they have taken God out of the equation and focused their anger on the way schools teach about American history and identity. We are spearheading a campaign to ban teaching anything that is perceived to threaten concepts.
It would be healthy for our democracy if schools could use this moment to reflect on our different views of America. But the current Republican campaign is aimed at quelling that debate rather than stoking it. Witness the avalanche of state actions banning instruction on “divisive topics,” especially race and gender. These laws, unfortunately, no longer have a shared one, and thus seek to impose a singular US narrative.
And it’s also new. Earlier conflicts over history in schools were usually concerned with who was part of the story rather than the larger arc or purpose of the story. Our textbooks portrayed America as a land of freedom and progress, but denigrated or simply excluded women and racial minorities. Therefore, these groups fought with all their might to win a role in the epic national narrative.
However, most of them also resisted asking this narrative question to avoid undermining their own contribution to it.
For example, in the 1920s, immigrant groups allied with Protestant patriotic groups to thwart critical interpretations of the American Revolution. At the university, a new generation of historians argued that the revolution was not just a moral play between the evil Redcoats and the freedom-loving colonists. But many Americans refused it, and the same country based on freedom and equality continued to enslave millions of black people.
But if students encountered that complication, I worried that Polish immigrants would think less of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish aristocrat who supported the American cause. Ethnic Germans feared that their own Revolutionary War heroes Baron DeKalb and Molly Pitcher (born German said Maria Ludwig) would not look so heroic. People rallied to defend Crispus Attucks, the first to die in the revolution. And Jewish Americans wanted to protect the reputation of Chaim Salomon, the Philadelphia merchant who helped raise the money.
The history curriculum sparked controversy during the civil rights era, when black protesters fought to remove racist slavery advocacy from textbooks, and in the 1990s a proposed set of national history standards was proposed by William It caused the hackles of conservative celebrities like Bennett and Lynn Cheney. “Is there a grander story as powerful, coherent, democratic and moving as the struggles of groups struggling with discrimination?” asked the leaders of the standards effort. Indeed, the teacher who helped draft the standards added that Thomas Jefferson himself would have been proud of the project.
When tensions over history rose, in short, we involved new actors in old stories. . Either humans evolved from apes, or they didn’t. Either Jesus was the Messiah or he wasn’t. Most schools held prayers and Protestant Bible readings, sparking angry opposition from Catholics and non-Christians. Hosted a class on ‘Freed Time’.
Much of that activity came to an end in the early 1960s when the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayers and Bible readings. tried to “bootleg” religion (a soccer metaphor, of course) to try to keep them.
But they were fighting a losing battle. After 2000, church affiliation and attendance declined sharply. Meanwhile, Orthodox believers increasingly abandoned public schools to attend Christian schools or teach their children at home. Scattered communities still fight over religion, such as the Washington State School District, where a soccer coach said he can’t pray on the field after a game. ) But overall, the religious wars at our school have cooled down considerably.
But our battle over history is now more intense than ever. Over the past two decades, historians and activists have asked new questions about America’s greater purpose and meaning. Instead of simply bringing in new actors to the same triumphant story, they asked if the story was triumphant and for whom. not only. Instead, it’s a question of whether we should like Jefferson, who enslaved humans and fathered a child by one of them.
Such challenges sparked predictable protests from Republicans, especially after Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Obama falsely claimed to have been born in another country, and the Tea Party movement and other conservatives rallied to defend “American exceptionalism” in schools. In practice, that often meant clearing textbooks of material on slavery, the displacement of Native Americans, and anything else that seemed to put the country in a negative light.
All of these tensions exploded during the presidency of Donald Trump. The white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, plus Trump’s own racist rhetoric, sparked even more debate about the country’s past. caused it. The 1619 Project was not a simple call to include minority voices in America’s story of freedom and progress. Instead, as the name suggests, its story was rooted in slavery and oppression. Trump responded with his own flag-waving Commission of 1776, which was dissolved as soon as President Biden took office.
But the battle over history continues not just in local debates at school board meetings, but, as Bannon urged, in the state capitol. Every new law restricting education about race and gender in schools has been sponsored by Republicans.
And there’s another story about religion and the state that liberals used to talk about. But the opposite happened. We split into opposing political camps and became quasi-religions in their own right.
The real question is whether either team would agree to have their faith criticized at school. How many Americans would be okay with presenting a student with documents from the 1619 Project and her 1776 Committee and letting the student decide which story they prefer?American history accepts both sides. much muddy than It combines the lofty ideals that the Right wants to emphasize with the oppressive realities that the Left insists on including. A good history education includes both perspectives. And above all, students need to understand them. This does not mean that Holocaust denial and other blatantly false allegations must be given “equal time.” But we need to recognize that equally rational people use the same facts to look at our shared past differently.
We cannot celebrate America for respecting individual freedom of thought and tell every individual what to think. To heal a divided nation, we need to enable our future citizens to speak for themselves.
This essay, the first in a Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, provides a historical context for the debate over free expression in education today.