Historians Can't Leave the Teaching of History to Politicians

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tags: racism, culture war, teaching history, history wars, 1619 Project

By training and academic specialization I’m a historian of Russia. Certainly not an expert on U.S. history. So many with more expertise may wish to comment and tell me I’m wrong on what I’m about to say. So be it. 

As historians we know that present conditions often dictate what we think significant about the past. Today one could argue that dealing with climate change is our nation’s (and our planet’s) most important task, but that is a tremendously complex project, and history has not furnished us a great deal of guidance. It has, however, told us much about another pressing topic--U.S. race relations.

The theme presents many facets. A recent government report on domestic terrorism declared, “Among that wide range of animating ideologies, racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (principally those who promote the superiority of the white race) and militia violent extremists are assessed as presenting the most persistent and lethal threats.”

Short of violent extremism, one of our central present concerns is political polarization, and the culture war between the Right and the Left often reflects a racial divide, for example regarding the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory (see below). As columnist Thomas Edsall wrote, “roughly speaking, Trump and the Republican Party have fought to enhance the status of white Christians and white people without college degrees.”

White supremacy and the idea that all minorities should adapt and adopt the conventions of white Christian America is deeply ingrained among many Trump supporters. References to history and pluralistic and inclusive narratives have been unable to dislodge such convictions. As conservative columnist Ross Douthat has stressed, many of them prefer a history that denies or minimizes racial injustices whether towards African Americans, Native Americans, or immigrants.

What’s most important then about our history is that we NOT whitewash it. In introducing her These Truths: A History of the United States (2018), Jill Lepore had it right when she wrote that we should present a history that seeks truth and pays due respect to both our triumphs and failings. One example she provides of how history should not be written is former Republican Congressional leader Newt Gingrich’s To Renew America (1995). Although he possesses a Ph.D. in history and once taught college history, Gingrich wrote, according to Lepore, “a fantasy, useful to his politics, but useless as history . . . . [a] reassuring bedtime story.”  Despite (or because of?) its simplifications,  “that fairy tale spoke to the earnest yearnings and political despair of Americans who joined the Tea Party, and who rallied behind Donald Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’.”

 In a 2018 NPR interview Jim Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, related the inspiration for his book. At his first teaching job, at a Black college in Mississippi, he asked his students, “what is Reconstruction? What comes to your mind from that period?" All but one of his 17 students said, “Well, Reconstruction was the period right after the Civil War when blacks took over the government of the Southern states. But they were too soon out of slavery and so they screwed up and white folks had to take control again.” Loewen was appalled that such statements contained “at least three direct lies.”

The truth about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the century and a half of racist happenings that followed the Civil War have not permeated the minds of the American public. This is perhaps our nation’s most serious failing with respect to teaching history. Lost-Cause pseudo history--which praised prewar Southern slaveholding society, depicted the Civil War as a battle for states’ rights, and depicted Reconstruction as a scheme foisted on the South by Northerners--has been partly responsible. So too has minimizing the whole history of Black oppression and inequality from Ku Klux Klan terrorism and Jim Crow Laws--that for more than a half-century segregated a majority of African Americans in various places from playgrounds to public transport--through the backlash against the 1960s Civil Rights activities, to the recent police killings of Blacks like George Floyd.  In addition, too many reformers following Reconstruction abandoned the cause of racial equality “for the sake of forging a reunion between the states and the federal government and between the North and the South . . . an abandonment of justice.”

Literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. recently wrote in his Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow that the “ideology of white supremacy . . . . still roams freely in our country today,” is “inscribed in our nation’s cultural psyche,” and at times erupts “spontaneously.” Other historians, such as Heather Cox Richardson in her How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, also write of the continuance of white-supremacist thinking and the successful effort to convince many whites that “extending the right of self-determination to people of color, women, and poor Americans would destroy it for white men.”

Richardson indicates how “the same vision of the world that had inspired the Confederates,” spread westward and continues to affect politics today. Other contemporary writers zero in more on continuing racism in the South. Two women raised there, for example, have recently written of that regional failing.

In her Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil (2019), historian Susan Neiman writes of how the South has failed to grapple with the responsibility for its racial crimes. She also mentions that “America's failure to face its past is evident not only in the vicious outbursts of white supremacy that Donald Trump encouraged, but in subtler ways as well.”

Earlier this month in a New York Times piece, “The South Must Teach Its Children the Truth,” Margaret Renkl recalls how as a southern child she was taught history that told her little about the true condition of slaves and their descendants and which often contained “outright falsehoods.” She still knows many people who believe a “history” that “is so patently false it’s breathtaking.” Her essay also favorably mentions Clint Smith’s June 2021 Atlantic essay, “Why Confederate Lies Live On,” which was adapted from his How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (2021).

But such efforts to acknowledge our racial sins of commission and omission have ignited fires of protest that have broken out throughout our land.

Two years ago The New York Times magazine launched a series of essays under the title the “1619 Project”--the date a marker for the arrival of the first Black slaves on the U.S. mainland in Virginia. The project’s purpose was to indicate how central to U.S. history were slavery and its aftermath--“250 years of brutal slavery, then a century of de facto apartheid rule.”

That characterization comes from a 2019 Washington Post article entitled “The 1619 Project and the far-right fear of history,” which also mentioned Newt Gingrich’s blasting the Times for printing “propaganda,” President Trump referring to the project as a “Racism Witch Hunt,” and a comment on the Federalist website complaining that that the project’s aim was to “delegitimize America and further divide and demoralize its citizenry."

More recently, eight states (Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas) have passed legislation that bans the teaching that the USA is inherently racist, biased, or discriminatory. Tennessee, for example, now forbids any discussion of race that might cause a student “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress.” In addition, state and local officials including school boards at those levels criticized or denounced teaching ideas associated with Critical Race Theory (CRT), a decades-old complex set of ideas often simplified and misunderstood by individuals like former President Trump. In 2020 he warned federal agencies against CRT. He called it “divisive,” and then issued an executive order forbidding any training that suggested the USA was fundamentally racist. According to a recent Brookings Institution essay which provides more detail, “nearly 20 additional states have introduced or plan to introduce similar legislation” to that of the eight states mentioned above.

Many of us who teach or have taught at the university level find it incredible that some outside body--like a state legislature or school board--could tell us that certain topics cannot be treated in our history classes. It would be like Soviet authorities forbidding Soviet history teachers to mention Trotsky’s role in bringing the 1917 communist revolution about. Or U.S. state officials telling medical schools they could not mention the efficacy of vaccines.

Jill Lepore is correct that our history is full of both the good and the bad--“acts of courage and . . . sins and error”--and history teachers at all levels should be free to provide details. Historians’ job is to teach what actually happened, not some pseudo patriotism. In defense of our discipline and because our society badly needs to face up to its past racism, historians at all levels need to cry out, to protest, against the whitewashing of inconvenient truths.