The Culture Wars – They're BackHistorians in the News
tags: culture war, teaching history, critical race theory
Laura Ansley is managing editor at the AHA. She tweets @lmansley.
In recent years, history has been front and center in the public consciousness. During the Trump administration, debates over how we interpret US history made headlines, from his proposed “Garden of Heroes,” to the backlash against the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project in the form of the now mothballed 1776 Commission, and frequent battles, some violent, over Confederate monuments.
Yet historians can still be disheartened to see our discipline is at the center of 2021’s newest culture war. As of July, Education Week reports that, in the first half of 2021, over half of US states have debated or passed legislation that limits how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in public school classrooms. From local school board meetings to state legislatures to the US Capitol, Americans are fired up about what should, and shouldn’t, be taught to children about the past.
These bills have focused on what have become known as “divisive concepts,” including critical race theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project. In Alabama, a bill has been prefiled for the next legislative session to ban “teaching certain concepts regarding race or sex, such as critical race theory.” In Florida, the state board of education has prohibited the teaching of critical race theory and the 1619 Project. In Maine, a bill was introduced in February to prohibit public school teachers from “engaging in political, ideological or religious advocacy in the classroom.” A bill in Michigan adds “anti-American and racist theories” to CRT and 1619. As the AHA’s James Grossman and Jeremy C. Young wrote for the Hill, much of the legislation is based on language posted online by the group Citizens for Renewing America, alongside a tool kit for “Combatting Critical Race Theory in Your Community.”
The speed and success of these efforts have been remarkable, and even those with legislative expertise are having trouble keeping up with developments. The National Coalition for History (NCH) is a consortium of over 50 organizations, including the AHA, that advocates on legislative and regulatory issues relating to the history discipline. Executive director Lee White describes this summer’s constant state legislative developments as like “drinking from a fire hose.” It seems every day saw a new op-ed in the New York Times, the Washington Post, or other national media outlets.
In Texas, this conflict feels familiar. In the last five years, partisan fights have flared over the contents of history textbooks and the state’s social studies standards, as Perspectives reported in 2016 and 2019. These earlier disputes prepared Texas history advocates well for the 2021 debates. Trinidad Gonzales (South Texas Coll.) spoke with Perspectives about the situation there. As he says, “The culture wars—they’re back!”
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