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.

The Presidential Candidates and the Press: Missing What’s Important

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss noticed something in the Democratic presidential candidates’ debates so far: “Now it’s getting ridiculous: four debates among Democratic presidential candidates, and no questions—or serious discussion about K-12 education.”  She notes that Michael Bennet alone made a plea to “fix our school system,” but beyond that imprecise declaration, explains Strauss: “Some candidates made passing references to universal preschool, and moderators did raise college affordability and student debt.  But when it comes to K-12 public education, which many believe is the most important civic institution in the country, nada.”  Strauss blames the moderators, and I encourage you to read her pointed speculation about what they might have been thinking when they ignored our public schools.

The school superintendent turned member of the Vermont State Board of Education and managing director of the National Education Policy Center, Bill Mathis also asks some tough questions of the press and policy makers, this time about the widespread and relatively unquestioned assumption that standardized test scores are a good measure for the quality of public schools.  While Mathis writes that parents, educators and students all seem to agree that other things matter at school more than test scores, he criticizes: “pundits and politicians who find it far easier to blame the schools than to confront our real problem… Poverty has a far greater influence on test scores than any other factor, including the schools. Poverty causes absenteeism, impaired attention, diminished social skills, lowered motivation and ambition, and increased depression… The state tests will not cure poverty but curing poverty will improve test scores.”

Lifelong professor of education and among our society’s finest writers about education, Mike Rose has also been worrying about the lack of a substantive conversation about what is happening in our public schools.  Rose has noticed the absence of the voice of professional educators in the traditional “high-and middlebrow media”—publications that “still have strong influence with government, think tanks, philanthropies, high-profile opinion makers, and other decision-making and gatekeeping entities.”

Rose worries about who is doing the framing of the national conversation about our public schools: “When we survey other monumental spheres of human endeavor—medicine, the law, the physical or life sciences, religion—we find cultural space for the practitioners of these pursuits to not only engage in specialized research in their disciplines, but also to reflect for the rest of us on tending to the ill, or on the place of the law or religion in our lives, or on the breathtaking complexity of human physiology or quantum mechanics.  We rarely see this treatment of education.”  Rose thinks the absence of the voices the professional educators has constricted our vision, “For a generation, education has been justified primarily for its economic benefit, both for individuals and for the nation, and our major policy debates have involved curriculum standards, testing and assessment, the recruitment and credentialing of teachers, administration and funding, and the like.  This economic managerial focus has elevated a technocratic discourse of schooling and moved out of the frame discussion of the intellectual, social, civic, and moral dimensions of education.  If the dominant language we hear about education is stripped of a broad range of human concerns, then we are susceptible to speaking and thinking about school in narrow ways.”

Rose quotes education philosopher, John Dewey: “The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks or of six who finds out what he can make by putting five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer, even though everybody else in the world knows it.”  Rose continues: “I want to hear from people who have spent a professional lifetime in the presence of such discovery—or discoveries of similar magnitude in the lives of adolescents or adults. What can they tell us about fostering discovery, reading the blend of cognition and emotion in it, judging when and how to intervene, what to do when discovery falters? What are the beliefs and values that shape their commitment to this work and what is it about the subject they teach—what core ideas or ways of knowing or exemplars—move them to want to teach it?  How do they experience the weight of history on their work, the history of the communities in which they teach, the history of the students before them—and how do they engage that history to enhance the growth of those students?”

David Brooks, the NY Times columnist also worries about the absence of what is important in our public conversation. Believing that Donald Trump’s presidency has degraded our politics and the way we talk about important policy issues, Brooks examines our current political dialogue more broadly: “If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal.  If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s.  If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.  But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.”

Brooks continues: “Part of the problem is that the two leading Democratic idea generators are both materialistic wonks. Elizabeth Warren is a social scientist from Harvard Law School who has a plan for everything—except the central subject of this election, which is cultural and moral.  Bernie Sanders… is incapable of adjusting his economics-dominated mind set… The bigger problem is simply the culture of the Democratic Party. ”

Brooks lists five values this election ought to be about:

  • “Unity: We’re one people.”
  • “Honesty: We can’t have deliberative democracy without respect for the truth.”
  • “Pluralism: Human difference makes life richer and more interesting.  We treasure members of all races and faiths for what they bring to the mosaic.”
  • “Sympathy: We want to be around people with good hearts, who feel for those who are suffering, who are faithful friends, whose daily lives are marked by kindness.”
  • “Opportunity: We want all children to have an open field and a fair chance in the great race of life.”

I believe that Mike Rose’s concern is about finding space where educators can share broadly the way these same values can be encouraged and enhanced in their classrooms. And Bill Mathis would list these values as the central parts of a fine education that will never show up in standardized test scores.

If our politicians and the press really began to talk substantively about Brooks’ fifth value—opportunity, the educational conversation would have to get beyond Pre-K, free college tuition and college debt relief. Debate moderators would need to begin asking questions like the ones Valerie Strauss suggests: “Is it too difficult to compose questions that get at the heart of major matters confronting public schools?… How about: ‘America funds its public education system largely through property taxes, and federal efforts to close the gap between high-income and low-income neighborhoods have not bridged the gap.  Should there be a fundamental change in the way public schools are funded?’  Or: ‘If the Supreme Court rules, as it may do, that it is constitutional for states to use public funds for religious education, would you take any action as president to override that decision?  Do you believe it is constitutional for public funds to be used for religious education?’ Or: ‘Do you agree with any education move that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made?’  Or: ‘What is the most damaging step Betsy DeVos has taken, and how would you change it?’  Or: ‘Do you agree with Betsy DeVos on expanding charter schools, and if not, where is the disagreement?’  Or: ‘Can you name the three biggest problems facing K-12 education today, and how you would fix them?’ Or ‘What is the role of the federal government in education policy?'”

An inquiry that pays attention to Brooks’ five values would lead the press and our politicians to explore some of the deeper issues in our schools.  What can teachers tell us about the effect of the enormous class sizes we heard about as teachers struck last year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Los Angeles and Oakland? What is the role of school nurses and what can teachers tell us about why their presence is so important? What sort of support for students is really needed at school in terms of social workers and counselors?  How much should we pay teachers and how do teachers’ salaries help stabilize a school’s faculty in a way that supports children and families? What can school principals tell us about how a library with a professional school librarian enriches a school or why theater programs and bands and orchestras are so important in high schools?  I haven’t seen serious consideration of the needs of children and their schools mentioned in the plan of any of the candidates.

David Brooks is right: “We need an uprising of decency.” And public education—a human endeavor as well as a matter of public policy—needs to be part of our serious political conversation—including the voices of the professionals who nurture and educate 50 million of our young people.

And, of course, there is that serious public policy question about school privatization that our Democratic presidential candidates keep trying to hedge. Most of them sort of support and at the same time sort of oppose charter schools—when they are for-profit.  And almost none of the candidates seems to realize that it is the management companies, not the nonprofit schools themselves, which are stealing away millions of our tax dollars.  This issue is, at its heart, also a matter of what I would add to Brooks’ list as the sixth important value we ought to be talking about: JUSTICE.  I hope that a presidential candidate will emerge who understands and can explain to the American people why justice cannot be other than systemic.  Any policy that takes from the many to serve a few—or that incorporates competition with winners and losers—cannot answer our society’s needs.  Public schools are the institution designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of ALL of our children.

American Dream Features the Individual; Justice Is the Community’s Solution

In a fascinating academic study, The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, sociologist Heather Beth Johnson and a group of researchers conduct interviews to try to discover how we “acknowledge structured inequality as we teach our children that individual achievement determines life chances.”

She is exploring our society’s cultural narrative of the American Dream, the idea that we live in a meritocracy where all can succeed if we work hard—where if we are strategic and patient, we can all win—where we rise or fall pretty much on our own.  The book is filled with transcripts of the interviews the researchers conduct.  Here is a typical sample:

  • Interviewer: “Do you think there are some ethnicities, races, groups in this country that are more disadvantaged than others?
  • Responder: “Yeah.”
  • Interviewer: “So you think there are certain groups… as a whole that have a harder time making it today?”
  • Responder: “Sure.  Definitely.”
  • Interviewer: “Okay, now, what about the American Dream? The idea that with hard work and desire, individual potential is unconstrained… everyone gets an equal chance to get ahead based on their own achievement?”
  • Responder: “That’s a very good definition.”
  • Interviewer: “Do you believe that the American Dream is true for all people and that everybody does have an equal chance?”
  • Responder: “Yes.  Everybody has an equal chance, no matter who he or she is.”

Again and again those who are interviewed acknowledge structural inequality—that some people face far greater barriers than others—but they also explain that with hard work, we all have an equal chance.

In a brand new, expanded and revised edition of his 2009 education philosophy, Why School?, UCLA professor and well known education writer Mike Rose adds a chapter to address the latest pop psychology attempt to explain the American Dream in a way that makes it possible for the poorest children to succeed at school despite the challenges segregation and poverty present.  Rose has just shared this chapter, Being Careful about Character, on his website as a delicious morsel to tempt us to get the book and read more.

Introducing the new chapter on his website, Rose writes about books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: “I certainly don’t dispute the importance of qualities like perseverance and flexibility and, as is the case with so many teachers, do my best to foster them, but I am also worried that we, once again, are seeking a miracle cure for the entrenched social problems of poverty and inequality. What follows is a kind of extended cautionary tale.”

The chapter follows, and I urge you to read it and then get the new version of the book.  Rose concludes the chapter on character-strengthening this way: “But we have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty.  My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself… We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else  We should use our science to figure out why that is so—and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.”

The narrative of the American Dream is a story of the triumph of individuals who are able through grit and character to overcome whatever their individual circumstances may be.  Another way to look at all this is through the ethical lens of the world’s major religions.  Not one of them defines justice individually.  Justice is about the responsibility—the obligation—of a society to create conditions where all can contribute.  I like the definition of justice presented by the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the retired pastor of Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., in a relatively old book, first published in 1988, Christian Perspectives on Politics:

“Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be  participant in the common life of society… If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” (pp. 216-217)