How Has Historians’ Understanding of American History Evolved and What Does that Mean for Today’s Public School History Classes?

If we hadn’t noticed it before, surely in recent weeks filled with angry protests at school board meetings about so-called “Critical Race Theory” we have become aware of a considerable disparity between the ideals declared in our nation’s founding documents and the realities recounted by major historians. There seems to be widespread disagreement among parents about what students ought to be learning at school about the unsavory parts of American history. Does this mean that parents can define our history according to what they may themselves have been taught and then insist that public schools teach each parent’s version?

In an extraordinary article yesterday, the editor of the NY Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein explores changes over the decades in the way historians have told the story of our nation. Silverstein examines “the premise that history is a fixed thing; that somehow, long ago, the nation’s historians identified the relevant set of facts about our past, and it is the job of subsequent generations to simply protect and disseminate them. This conception denies history its own history—the dynamic, contested and frankly pretty thrilling process by which an understanding of the past is formed and reformed. The study of this is known as historiography, and a knowledge of American historiography, in particular the way our historical profession evolved to take fuller account of the role of slavery and racism in our past, is critical to understanding the debates of the past two years.”

Silverstein summarizes some of this historiography, beginning with George Bancroft whose 10 volumes from the mid-1800s “synthesize American history into a grand and glorious epic.” Then came the Progressive historians including Charles Beard, “who tried to show that the founders were motivated not exclusively by idealism and virtue but also by their pocketbooks.”  What followed during the Cold War was history written by the Consensus historians who who “played down class conflict” and sought to emphasize “a keen sense of national purpose” and “to disavow the whiff of Marxism in the progressive narrative.”

The 1960s brought a shift that has helped shape the way historians interpret our history today: “A group of scholars identified variously as Neo Progressive historians, New Left historians, or social historians challenged the old paradigm, turning their focus to the lives of common people in colonial society and U.S. history more broadly. Earlier generations primarily studied elites, who left a copious archive of written material. Because the subjects of the new history—laborers, seamen, enslaved people, women, Indigenous people—produced relatively little writing of their own, many of these scholars turned instead to large data sets like tax lists, real estate inventories and other public records to illuminate the lives of what were sometimes called the ‘inarticulate masses’…. An explosion of new research resulted, transforming the field of American history. One of the most significant developments was an increased attention to Black history and the role of slavery. For more than a century, a profession dominated by white men had mostly consigned these subjects to the sidelines.”

Gaining academic attention at the same time was a hundred years of history by African American historians—George Washington Williams, Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. DuBois, John Hope Franklin, C. Vann Woodward, Benjamin Quarles, Deborah Gray White, Annette Gordon-Reed, Nathan Irvin Huggins and others—whose work had been too little read or recognized.

What has emerged since the original publishing in 2019 of The 1619 Project, followed by the Trump era rebuttal in the form of the 1776 Commission, is this year’s maelstrom with parents protesting public schools’ teaching anything that seeks to divide. Today’s battle reflects the historiographical divides Silverstein summarizes—between those who would have schools teach America’s exceptional story as the embodiment of liberty and justice for all and others who believe children should learn about the realities that historical studies have been documenting for the past half century.

A member of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board, Thomas Suddes challenges those who today insist that we teach our children that the United States has always been the perfect exemplar of our founding ideals of freedom and justice: “Those ‘authentic founding principles’ may not exactly resonate with African American Ohioans: Forty-one or so of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence had owned slaves. About 25 of the 55 delegates who wrote the U.S. Constitution were slave owners. And the Constitution counted slaves as three fifths of a person…. Moreover, of the nation’s first 12 presidents, the only two never to own slaves were John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams… And—oh yes—the Ohio Constitution of 1802 forbade Black Ohioans to vote.”

Jake Silverstein believes that honest exploration of American history by public school students and their teachers does not, as many parents fear, mean we should all be ashamed.  Neither does our history, including all of its injustices, mean that our nation has utterly failed to fulfill the promise of the ideals and moral principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  These documents set a high standard toward which our society has struggled:

“Devotion to the traditional origin story of the United States, and the hostile reaction that has greeted nearly every attempt to revise it, have prevented generations of Americans from learning how to accept this fundamental contradiction at our core — the painful twinning of slavery and democracy that began as far back as the summer of 1619. But as we have seen, in a democratic nation, history does not stand still. As our country has moved forward from its imperfect beginnings, haltingly expanding its audacious promise to enfranchise more and more of us, our history has transformed behind us, rearranging itself as the advance of our founding principles enables us to see more of our American ancestors as having had a legitimate, recoverable perspective on the events of their own day.”

The history of the expansion of the right to public schooling—justified by the promise of equality in the founding documents and the state constitutions—provides an excellent example of how the ideals and principles declared in our founding documents established a level of moral obligation which our society has over generations worked to realize.  Since the mid- nineteenth century the history of U.S. public education has been the story of this struggle:

  • to expand the definition of the right to public education to include students who were previously discounted and excluded—to girls and women—to African Americans during and after the Civil war, freed slaves who had been intentionally excluded from literacy—to American Indians—to immigrants—to the disabled;
  • to ensure that African Americans would not be segregated into inferior and separate schools;
  • to ensure that African American students  would not be pushed into manual training classes and excluded from the academic track and to expand the possibility for women, African Americans, and immigrants of pursuing all kinds of professions that once excluded them;
  • to ensure that American Indians, once shunted into boarding schools for forced assimilation into the dominant culture, have won the right to attend public schools in their communities, schools which incorporate heritage languages and indigenous culture;
  • to protect the right to a safe and respectful education for LGBTQ students;
  • to protect the right of disabled students, formerly locked in institutions, to attend public schools in the most inclusive settings possible and not to be excluded into sheltered classes.
  • to protect the rights of immigrant students, in some states at least, to bilingual education;  and
  • to protect undocumented students’ right right to a K-12 public education.

The fight for justice in our nation’s public schools is the history of citizens trying to win for every one of our children the very equality promised in the founding documents. Of course, none of this is guaranteed, which means that the struggle to make equality mean something real for all students is a work in progress and a battle that is too frequently interrupted.

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