History, Deliberation, and Civic Culture

tags: historians, American Historical Association, civics

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. Portions of this essay are adapted with permission from his article “Trump Is Afraid of Honest History” (New York Daily News online, October 1, 2020).


"Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the true sense of those words.” This is how the President of the United States characterized “critical race theory” when he capped September’s “White House Conference on American History” with a tirade against “decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” The explicit pathway and destination of the conference and his speech were straightforward. “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country.” The proposed mechanism for redemption? A “national commission to promote patriotic education.” 

The president’s diatribe would hardly have surprised anyone paying attention to the preceding presentations—admittedly, not a way I’d advise aspiring students of history to spend their time. The content of the “conference” itself was largely an attack on the oft-alleged left-wing takeover of history education in the nation’s schools. The motley crew gathered in the Rotunda of the National Archives included a handful of historians, along with others whose expertise in this area was apparent from neither their biographies nor their commentary. Other than the historian who calmly plugged his recent book, the speakers competed with one another for a kind of prize that scholarly societies don’t award: who could launch the wildest attack on the teaching of American history. Their task was made easier by a penchant for caricature and an aptitude for hyperbole, notable in references to the dangers of “deconstructionist cherry-picking histories” or “absurdly simplistic explanations like class struggle and systemic racism.” 

The AHA issued a statement within a week of this spectacle, deploring “the use of history and history education . . . to divide the American people, rather than use our discipline to heal the divisions that are central to our heritage.” (This statement is printed in full on page 6 of this issue.) Good history exposes divisions, searches for their origins, and traces their evolution, impact, and implications. Historical exploration in the classroom and beyond can indeed engender and exacerbate conflict, as people learn who has done what to whom, and how persistent modes of subordination have perpetuated inequality. But such exposure is essential for any true movement toward national unity. Wounds kept hidden will not heal. We hire civil engineers to find cracks in our infrastructure and investigate their causes, not to hide both causes and cracks. Yes, we must (as the president decrees) teach the “truth about our country.” Unity and common purpose require sound infrastructure; neither will stand on a cotton-candy web of celebratory myth.

Whether we look to critical race theory—which obsessively occupied the president’s Twitter feed before his stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center abruptly diverted his attention—or to another conceptual framework that allows us to dig into our common past and locate cracks in the concrete, equating a mode of inquiry with a heinous crime should induce not only a private shudder but a public disavowal. No reasonable definition of patriotism can accommodate this despicable metaphor.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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