To Understand the History Wars, Follow the Paper TrailRoundup
tags: culture war, teaching history, history wars, critical race theory
James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association. Jeremy C. Young is the communications and marketing manager of the American Historical Association.
On June 15, the campaign of a candidate for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates promised voters that his first bill “will ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project in Virginia’s Public Schools.” The candidate’s website offers no evidence that he is aware of what is actually taught in the state’s public schools. The specifics of his proposed legislation suggest he has barely a notion of what critical race theory is, and that he has not actually read the text of the 1619 Project.
As historians with a combined five decades of experience teaching in universities across the United States, we’re gratified to see so many politicians interested in what historians teach. But to legislators, we offer the same advice we’d give our own students: do your homework. Read a text, learn about a situation, before passing judgment on it. Otherwise, you might find yourself peddling a sloppily written cookie-cutter bill that has no connection to what’s actually being taught in history classrooms, all because a few politicians have decided that creating a full-on moral panic will help their party win the midterm elections.
The so-called “divisive concepts” bills now enacted in nine states and proposed in 17 others prohibit things that rarely, if ever, happen, like teachers trying to “direct or otherwise compel students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to” the idea “that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior” or “that individuals…are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin,” to quote the Idaho version of the legislation. For a fun exercise, try asking a roomful of teachers whether they’ve directed or compelled students to “personally affirm” anything; then count the eye-rolls and guffaws you receive in response.
As for the idea that historians of racism believe “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” as the Texas bill presumes, Ibram X. Kendi, a historian frequently cited by purveyors of these myths, has made it clear that this is not at all what scholars have said. “No nation, no person, is inherently or permanently racist,” Kendi wrote last month. “The anti-racist resistance to slavery and Jim Crow is as much a part of American history as those peculiar institutions are. White people have been abolitionists and civil-rights activists, and they are among the people striving to be anti-racist today. Some institutions in the United States have been vehicles of equity and justice.”
Here’s the irony about what is and is not divisive: There’s broad consensus across partisan lines that what actually is being taught in schools — the history of racism and slavery and its impact on the development of American society — is essential content and wholly appropriate for school history classes. A survey conducted by the American Historical Association and Fairleigh Dickinson University with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities found that, regardless of political identity, age, race, gender or education level, most Americans agree on the need for an honest reckoning with their histories. “Asked whether it was acceptable to make learners uncomfortable by teaching the harm some people have done to others,” the survey authors wrote, “over three-fourths of respondents said it was.”