Lies We Teach to Kids about the Reconstruction EraRoundup
tags: slavery, racism, Civil War, Reconstruction, teaching history
"Ursula Wolfe-Rocca has taught high school social studies since 2000. She is on the editorial board of Rethinking Schools and is a project writer and organizer at the Zinn Education Project."
According to the state of Georgia’s Standards of Excellence for teaching the Reconstruction era to eighth-graders, students ought to “compare and contrast the goals and outcomes of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Ku Klux Klan.” That side-by-side framing of the federal agency tasked with supporting formerly enslaved people in the years after the Civil War with a group of White supremacist terrorists has two problems: It is not only an unsettling echo of the “both sides” language mobilized by then-President Donald Trump following the 2017 deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, but is also an example of how state standards fail to help educate young people about one of the most important eras in U.S. history.
In the first-ever comprehensive review of state standards on the Reconstruction era, “Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction,” the Zinn Education Project found that most states tell a top-down story of government action that ignores the role of formerly enslaved people organizing for freedom. State standards include Black people more often as objects than subjects.
Equally troubling, several states’ standards reveal the fingerprints of the Dunning School, an early-20th-century historical interpretation of Reconstruction named after the Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning, who deemed the era one of “scandalous misrule” by “carpetbaggers and Negroes.”
The narrative of Reconstruction perpetuated by many state social studies standards is part of a longer and larger struggle over the past, the latest episode of which can be seen in a rash of new restrictions on what teachers can tell young people about our nation’s history. According to Education Week:
More than 17.7 million public school students enrolled in almost 900 districts across the country have had their learning restricted by local action and the recent slate of laws and policies aimed to ban teaching concepts related to race, racism, and gender, and often deemed “critical race theory.”
These memory laws affirm Faulkner’s famous adage: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The interpretation of the past always shines through the prism of struggles in the present, shaping what we can imagine and how we act today.
For much of the 20th century, the Dunning School was the dominant narrative of Reconstruction — expressed not just in academic dissertations and books, but also in popular culture such as “Birth of a Nation” (1916) and “Gone with the Wind” (1936). It posited the era as a “failure” and, in the words of historian Eric Foner, “helped provide moral and historical cover for the Jim Crow system.”
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