The Context of the New History Wars is Our Missing Sense of a Shared PastRoundup
tags: textbooks, teaching history, critical race theory
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which will be released in September by University of Chicago Press in a revised 20th-anniversary edition.
In 1996, Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed urged his conservative legions to take over America’s public schools. “I would rather have a thousand school board members than a single president,” declared Reed, whose organization sought to bring America “back to God” via school prayer, Bible reading and bans on evolution instruction.
Last year, former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon likewise called on right-wing Americans to capture the schools. “The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through school boards,” Bannon proclaimed. But Bannon made no mention of God or religion; instead, he warned about critical race theory and the 1619 Project.
That’s the most significant change in our school wars over the past two decades: They’ve become secular. Conservatives have attacked public education for as long as it has existed. But they used to lambaste schools for eroding God and country, as the saying went. Now, they’re leaving God out of the equation, focusing their ire on the ways that schools teach about American history and identity. They have spearheaded campaigns to prohibit teaching critical race theory, lessons about gender norms and anything else that seems to threaten traditional conceptions of the nation.
That would be a healthy thing for our democracy, if schools used this moment to deliberate over our different views of America. But the present-day GOP campaign is aimed at squelching that debate, not provoking it. Witness the avalanche of state measures barring instruction about “divisive topics,” especially race and gender. These laws seek to impose a singular narrative of the United States, because — unfortunately — we don’t have a shared one anymore.
And that’s new, too. Previous conflicts over history in schools typically concerned who was part of the story, not its larger arc and purpose. Our textbooks described America as a land of freedom and progress, but they denigrated — or, simply, excluded — women and racial minorities. So these groups fought tooth and nail to win a role in the grand national narrative.
But most of them also resisted any questioning of this story, lest that diminish their own contributions to it.
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