Time Magazine recently reported on what it called America’s “history wars.” The article began by reporting on the results of a survey fielded by the National Institute for the Humanities, and revealed–I know you’ll be shocked–that while 84% of Republicans believe that history classes should “celebrate our nation’s past,” 70% of Democrats think history should question it.
The article took pains to say that the divisions over teaching history weren’t all partisan.
White respondents are more than twice as likely as people of color to feel that the histories of racial and ethnic minorities garner too much attention. Those with a college degree see men dominating the thoughts of historians at nearly twice the rate that non-degreed respondents do. Age is likewise a factor, with people in the 18-29 bracket calling for more attention to LGBTQ history by a 19-point margin, relative to those in the 50-64 age range. The “history wars” are thus polarizing beyond the party affiliations within which they are typically framed.
Of course, as political scientists might point out, people of color, people with college degrees and younger Americans are more likely to be Democrats these days, so the stark differences do map onto party affiliation.
Republicans are doing what they can to add the teaching of history to their arsenal of culture war issues. Thirty-six Republicans joined with Mitch McConnell in sending a scathing letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, accusing him of endorsing a “politicized and divisive agenda” in the teaching of American history.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson explained the genesis of that accusation.
On April 19, the Department of Education called for public comments on two priorities for the American History and Civics Education programs. Those programs work to improve the “quality of American history, civics, and government education by educating students about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights; and… the quality of the teaching of American history, civics, and government in elementary schools and secondary schools, including the teaching of traditional American history.”
The department is proposing two priorities to reach low-income students and underserved populations. The Republicans object to the one that encourages “projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning.”
This assault comes on the heels of the GOP’s hysterical objections to the New York Times 1619 project. The Times describes the Project as an ongoing initiative that began in August 2019, a date chosen because it was the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. The project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
It is certainly possible that historians might quibble over this or that element of the Times curriculum, or that different scholars might bring different perspectives to aspects of America’s history. Those scholarly disputes, however, are not what is animating the GOP assault.
The current battle over the teaching of history is a battle between two utterly unreconcilable world-views: a semi-religious hagiography/mythology grounded in White supremacy, on the one hand, and an insistence that the study of history be an accurate accounting of where we’ve been–both good and bad– on the other.
As the Time Magazine article noted, and as many students can verify, history classes–especially in high schools (where they are often taught by coaches whose interests are more focused on playing fields) are too often taught as dry collections of dates and facts, rather than as a form of inquiry, an unfolding story in which event A led to reaction B and consideration of how that reaction shaped still other events and attitudes. Accurate history–including good faith scholarly debates over the importance, description or impact of past episodes– can illuminate how America came to be the country it is, and help us navigate the future.
National myths have their place, but that place isn’t history class.