No Era More Critical, More Neglected in History Education than Reconstruction, Report FindsRoundup
tags: racism, Reconstruction, teaching history
It’s impossible to understand the rest of the history of the United States without an understanding of Reconstruction,” wrote a Louisiana middle school teacher last spring in response to a survey from Zinn Education Project researchers. The survey stemmed from our Teach Reconstruction campaign to advocate for the teaching of this era and its legacies. Asking to remain anonymous, the teacher continued: “You risk being on very dangerous ground if you begin to make connections between Reconstruction and today. This is a true danger in 2021.”
These two ideas — that learning about Reconstruction is critical to understanding this country’s history, and that teaching about it is dangerous — should be at odds with each other. But no era of U.S. history is more instructive and neglected in K-12 education and public memory than Reconstruction. Historian Hilary Green has called it “essential for not only understanding the creation of the modern United States, but also how the unreconciled legacies from emancipation and Confederate defeat shape the present.” These unreconciled legacies offer answers to today’s inequities and possibilities for a better society. Teaching about them challenges the social order, which brings backlash from those who support a discriminatory status quo. This is the “dangerous ground” of Reconstruction education.
Our survey yielded hundreds of replies from educators across the country, who shared their classroom experiences and expressed similar sentiments. At the same time, bills, resolutions, and other state and local efforts to ban the teaching of “divisive topics” proliferated. These measures carry a host of consequences for teachers who dare affirm the existence of racism and acknowledge the injustices their students encounter.
In this climate, the Zinn Education Project has released “Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction” — the first comprehensive report on Reconstruction’s place in social studies standards across the United States. Gathering these standards and educators’ perspectives provided insight into the nature and extent of the barriers to teaching effective Reconstruction history, which led us to make recommendations for improvement. We concluded that most state Reconstruction standards are inadequate at best and should be radically transformed.
Why is it so important to study this era? Because Reconstruction was a Black-led movement to build a more just society from the ground up. The period after the Civil War was full of possibility for economic equity and progress for multiracial democracy, but it was soon crushed by white supremacists precisely because of its successes. The ramifications of Reconstruction’s dismantling still reverberate today, and so do its blueprints for an equitable future — from the foundations of civil rights laws, to enduring racial disparities in education, labor, health, wealth and the criminal justice system, to struggles over the idea and practice of democracy.
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