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.

Trump Fans Racism As He Rages Against Public High School History and Government Teachers

Last Thursday, President Donald Trump spoke at an event celebrating the anniversary of the signing of of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787.  Trump tried to turn the Constitution Day event held at the National Archives into a celebration of whitewashed American exceptionalism and an attack on how educators in our public schools teach history and government.

The Washington Post‘s Moriah Balingit and Laura Meckler cover the speech: “Trump, speaking before original copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence… characterized demonstrations against racial injustice as ‘left-wing rioting and mayhem’ that ‘are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools’… As he campaigns for reelection, Trump has repeatedly cast education that examines the nation’s failures as a betrayal, seeking to rally his base and tap into hostility toward protesters who have taken to the streets to denounce racial injustice and police brutality. His argument casts any criticism of the United States, even of slavery, as unpatriotic… Trump’s gambit seeks to turn local schools—already beset by a global pandemic and many other problems—into another front in the culture war he champions, positioning history teachers as opponents of American greatness along with kneeling football players, police misconduct protesters and racial-sensitivity trainers.”

Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa reports that on Thursday, Trump specifically attacked something called the 1619 Project, a curriculum developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the NY Times and the Pulitzer Center: “Earlier this month, he threatened to pull federal funding from schools that use the 1619 Project as a basis for classroom curriculum—however, Trump lacks the legal authority to do this. The Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits the federal government from endorsing or sanctioning schools for using a particular curriculum. On Thursday, the president also used his speech to announce that he would create the ‘1776 Commission’ that would be used to ‘promote patriotic education.’  He also announced that the National Endowment for the Humanities had awarded a grant to fund the creation of ‘a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.'”

In her blog, the education historian Diane Ravitch wonders: “Do you think he knows that federal law prohibits any federal official from interfering with curriculum or instruction in the schools?… Federal law 20 USC 1232a prohibits ‘any department, agency officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system…'”

The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, John Jackson challenges Trump’s push to censor the full implications of slavery from public school history classes: “Trump… doubles down on the notion, embraced by too many, that slavery is now over, no legacy or current injustices exist, end of conversation…  In fact it is a grave threat to our democracy to ignore—and fail to correct—the systemic racism that undergirds our nation’s public policies and practices. The violence against Blacks by the police may lead the headlines today, but the full story cannot be understood without taking a 400-year view of the legacy of slavery. The violence of law enforcement today cannot be separated from the violence that enforced slavery, laws prohibiting Blacks from learning to read and write, segregation, inequitable schools that deny educational opportunities to children, as well as redlining and real estate covenants that deny housing opportunities to families. Only by understanding the full breadth of our nation’s history can we see the common threads linking the myriad crises of today.”

When the NY Times Magazine published the 1619 Project a year ago in August, Education Week‘s Madeline Will described the kind of critical thinking the group of authors hoped the materials would inspire among high school students of American history and government: “The one full lesson plan in the curriculum is based on Hannah-Jones; essay, ‘The Idea of America.’ It asks students to consider the values stated in the Declaration of Independence and how they work—and fail—in American society today.  Then, students would read the essay and consider their own prior knowledge of slavery and the contributions of black Americans to U.S. society… There’s a list of questions for students to discuss in class, including: What did you learn about major figures in U.S. history, like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, and why do you think this information wasn’t included in other historical resources?  Other activities to engage students include creating a new timeline of U.S. history, starting with the year 1619 (the year the first slaves were sold by pirates to American colonists), and creating an infographic that visualizes racial inequity in the United States and its links to slavery.”

I urge you to read Hannah-Jones essay, The Idea of America, for a fascinating exploration of the origins of slavery, its history, the role of Reconstruction and its replacement by Jim Crow. Hannah-Jones challenges assumptions at the core of our national mythology, but her essay’s purpose is constructive and patriotic: “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’  But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country.  Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves—black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights. Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.”

Not only is it fascinating to explore Hannah-Jones’ article that drives the 1619 Project, but it is essential to consider why, as we move closer to the November election and as his desperation grows, President Trump is so belligerently fanning the flames of racism.  We can turn to Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, academics who just published a new book, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality , on today’s political climate. In the deliberate tone one might expect from two professors in a Political Science 101 class, Hacker and Pierson explicate why Trump is alleging, without any reference to the facts, that America’s public schools are undermining white America:

“We see a political system in which a once-moderate party now tightly orbits the most reactionary elements of America’s emergent plutocracy. And we see a political system in which, despite that party’s embrace of unpopular economic policies, tens of millions of Americans of modest means don’t just vote for that party but have become increasingly tribal in their loyalty to it. (p. 3) “As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged.” (p. 4) “What Republicans learned as they refined their strategies for reaching… voters is that issues, whether economic or social, are much less powerful than identities. Issue positions can inform identities, but it is identities—perceptions of shared allegiance and shared threat—that really mobilize… This fateful turn toward tribalism, with its reliance on racial animus and continual ratcheting up of fear, greatly expanded the opportunities to serve the plutocrats.” (p. 117) (All citations are to Let Them Eat Tweets).