I’ve collected a few articles delving into various issues around history education.
This first article deals with textbooks teaching white supremacy. It tells us, “Historian Donald Yacovone, an associate at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research and a 2013 winner of the W.E.B. Du Bois medal, was researching a book on the legacy of the antislavery movement when he came across some old history school textbooks that stopped him cold — and led him to write a different book. Yacovone, who co-authored ‘The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross’ with Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2013, is now writing ‘Teaching White Supremacy: The Textbook Battle Over Race in American History.’ The [Harvard] Gazette interviewed Yacovone about the origins of his research, his findings, and why he thinks it’s necessary to teach the difficult story of slavery and white supremacy and their legacies.” In the interview, Professor Yacovone says, “I had begun a different book about the legacy of the antislavery movement and the rise of the Civil Rights era. I had spent several months at the Houghton Library before it closed down. When I was nearly finished with one particularly large collection, I wanted to take a break and find out how abolitionism had been taught in school textbooks. I thought this was going to be a quick enterprise: I’d go over to Gutman Library at the Graduate School of Education, take a look at a few textbooks, and keep going. Imagine my shock when I was confronted by a collection of about 3,000 textbooks. I started reviewing them, and I came across one 1832 book, ‘History of the United States’ by Noah Webster, the gentleman who’s responsible for our dictionary. I was astonished by what I was reading so I just kept reading some more. In Webster’s book there was next to nothing about the institution of slavery, despite the fact that it was a central American institution. There were no African Americans ever mentioned. When Webster wrote about Africans, it was extremely derogatory, which was shocking because those comments were in a textbook. What I realized from his book, and from the subsequent ones, was how they defined ‘American’ as white and only as white. Anything that was less than an Anglo Saxon was not a true American. The further along I got in this process, the more intensely this sentiment came out, I realized that I was looking at, there’s no other word for it, white supremacy. I came across one textbook that declared on its first page, ‘This is the White Man’s History.’ At that point, you had to be a dunce not to see what these books were teaching.”
Continuing in the interview, he says, “White supremacy precedes the origins of the United States. Every aspect of social interaction, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, was dominated by white identity, and white supremacy became an expression of American identity. Americans tend to see racism as a result of Southern slavery, and this thinking has all kinds of problems. First of all, slavery was in the North as well as in the South, and the people who formed the idea of American identity were not Southern slave owners, they were Northerners. The father of white supremacy was not a Southerner; it was John H. Van Evrie, a Canadian who ended up settling in New York City. Van Evrie argued that if no slaves existed, the class-based structure of Europe would have been transferred, kept, and developed in the American colonies. But with the African presence, Van Evrie said, the descendants of white Europeans saw that the difference among white people was virtually insignificant compared to what they perceived as differences between themselves and African Americans. This allowed democracy, which was an unpopular idea in the 17th and 18th century, to flourish and develop. We always forget that democracy was not an idealized form of government back then. In fact, it was considered an evil. Van Evrie’s argument was that Americans had to reimagine a new kind of government and social order and they could do so because of the African presence. This can also explain why white supremacy has persisted for so long, because it is an identity of oneself in contrast to others, a sort of a self-fulfilling, reinforcing thought about one’s self-perceived superiority. Even people who opposed slavery believed that African Americans could never be absorbed by white society. Samuel Sewall, who wrote the first antislavery pamphlet in 1700, condemned slavery, but he also characterized people of African descent as ‘a kind of extravasate Blood,’ always alien. His idea remained central to the American mind for the next 200 years. White supremacy precedes the origins of the United States. Every aspect of social interaction, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, was dominated by white identity, and white supremacy became an expression of American identity. The main feature of white supremacy is the assumption that people with Anglo Saxon backgrounds are the primacy, the first order of humanity. Van Evrie, however, saw people of African descent as essential to do ‘the white man’s work,’ and were designed to do so ‘by nature and god.’ He wrote about six different books on the subject, and he used a racial hierarchy in which Caucasians were at the top and Africans at the bottom. You’d think that white supremacists were driven mostly by hate, but at the core they were driven by their ideas of racial superiority, which of course were pure fiction and had nothing to do with reality. White supremacy wasn’t developed to defend the institution of slavery, but in reaction to it, and it preceded the birth of the United States. A lot of the white supremacists in the North didn’t even want an African American presence there. Many Northerners advocated the American Colonization Society, which would export African Americans to Liberia. But there was no unanimity of ideas about white supremacy; the only thing they all agreed upon was the ‘superiority of the white race.’ “
In comparing 20th century textbooks with earlier ones, Professor Yacovone says, “For the most part, the textbooks from the pre-Civil War period through the end of the century followed a basic format: They would go from exploration to colonization to revolution to creation of the American republic, and then every succeeding presidential administration. Anything outside of the political narrative was not considered history and was not taught. During the brief period of Reconstruction (1863-1877), the story emphasized the fulfillment of democracy, and the ideology of freedom suffused many books. This was a dramatic change. I even came across a couple of books that contained pictures of African Americans, and I was flabbergasted when I discovered one that had a picture of Frederick Douglass — that was unheard of. Prior to Reconstruction, textbooks had a few pictures, some engravings. But they disappear pretty quick once we get into the 20th century, because the ‘Lost Cause’ mythology takes over academia and white supremacy reappears with full force. During the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1940s, it was astonishing to see positive assessments of slavery in American history textbooks, which taught that the African American’s natural environment was the institution of slavery, where they were cared for from cradle to grave. There was a legacy of African American writing about freedom, but the white power structure simply wouldn’t accept it as legitimate. They dismissed the slave narratives as propaganda, downplayed the history of Africans before slavery, and ignored the work of African American scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and others. … Like so many of these books, ‘Exploring the New World’ by O. Stuart Hamer and others, which was published repeatedly between 1953 and 1965, said almost nothing [about slavery]. All these books, particularly from 1840 for the next 25 years, go out of their way to not discuss slavery. Some would say that slavery began in 1619, but most said it began in 1620 because those who are writing this narrative are New Englanders, and 1620 is when the Pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower. Half the books from this early period got the date wrong. If the textbooks wrote about slavery, it was only one sentence and would never discuss the nature of slavery or include any descriptions. When American politics became absorbed by the debate over slavery, they could not avoid that, and would mention the 1820 Compromise [that admitted Maine to the union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state] and the 1850 Compromise [that abolished the slave trade -but not slavery- in Washington, D.C.]. None of the textbooks published prior to the Civil War would ever talk about the abolitionist movement, which began in the late 1820s. It wasn’t until 1853, when the educator Emma Willard published her massive history of the United States, that she mentioned the abolitionists, but she didn’t say who they were or what they were about, except that they were tools of Great Britain dedicated to destroying the republic. In the mid 1960s, textbooks began noticeably to change because attitudes and scholarship were changing in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Scholars such as Kenneth Stampp reimagined Reconstruction, and it had a dramatic effect. There was a gradual reintroduction of the African American element in history textbooks. And now, many history teachers don’t even use textbooks. They’re using online resources. Some of the best work is being produced by the Zinn Education Project, the Gilder-Lehrman Center, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. But even when textbooks are accurate, teachers have to be willing to teach it. We know there are many white teachers who are afraid of doing it. And you have to have school systems, both public and private, committed to doing this work and not to punish teachers for doing so, which is happening. The resources are endless. But it’s complicated because in many states there are institutionalized approval processes that determine what textbook will be used. And as far as the publishing industry is concerned, this is huge money. Texas and California dominate and they determine what gets published and what doesn’t.”
Next is this article from Professor Sam Wineburg. He tells us, “History textbooks have long merited special scorn. Thicker than a Duraflame log (and weighing more), today’s books feature pages that rival news Web sites (think CNN) for busyness and clutter. Artwork with multiple call-out boxes, tricolored pictures with captions of ‘How to Read Me,’ and pointers to end-of-chapter test questions cued to state standards (with special editions produced for your state) dominate the text like the bun that smothered the patty in that famous burger ad. Years ago, when I first started teaching future history teachers, I urged them to do what I had done as a young teacher: Ditch the book in favor of primary sources. Now, with Google, the job of finding sources is infinitely easier than in my day. I soon found, however, that of my yearly crop of 30 future teachers, maybe one was practicing anything remotely like what I preached. The vast majority were just trying to survive. Enough desks for each student, a working computer (Apple IIs do not count), a blackboard: This was a high bar. But in 2004, things got better in California. That’s when Eliezer Williams et al. v. State of California, a class action filed on behalf of the state’s poor children, was settled, requiring Sacramento to spend $138 million to buy every child basic learning materials—including textbooks. I quickly realized that by exhorting my novice history teachers to renounce textbooks, I was failing to teach them to use the one classroom tool—flawed, problematic, overly flashy, and did I mention how heavy they are?—they could expect to find once they got there. So, I revamped my Methods of Teaching History course. I now begin with a lecture called ‘Textbooks Are Your Friends.’ True, I admit, textbooks are often written in that third-person voice that makes Muzak sound scintillating. But this is not the main problem. Even lively textbooks pose a threat. The main problem of history textbooks is not how they’re written. The main problem is their very existence. History’s complexity requires us to encounter multiple voices. A single voice can spellbind us with gripping narrative. But ‘history’ has at its root the Greek istor: to inquire. True inquiry admits no easy answers. The textbook achieves its synthetic harmony only by squelching discordant notes. That’s Muzak, not history. Which is exactly what I told the two executives from Holt, Rinehart, and Winston who asked me to write a feature called ‘Reading Like a Historian’ for their new high school series. ‘Well,’ I said, munching gnocchi over dinner, ‘to read like a historian means challenging your book’s narrative. It means uncovering places where interpretations are treated as facts and facts as timeless truths.’ Pouring more chianti, I told my hosts that no attempt to teach students ‘how historians read’ can coexist with a textbook’s voice-from-on-high narrator (even higher than mine was at that moment). My hosts nodded. ‘That’s why we want you to write it.’ I nearly choked on my ciabatta. Two months later and contracts signed, I got to work. To write these ‘Reading Like a Historian’ essays, one each for every chapter of a U.S. and world history textbook … Together, my 70 essays span 5,000 years of human history. Some directly challenge the main text’s interpretation of key events and offer alternative accounts of, say, the 1929 stock market crash or al-Qaida’s attack on the Twin Towers. In other essays, I alight on conclusions that the main text announces en passant and ask, how does the book ‘know’ what it claims to know? For example, we are told that skilled Egyptian workers, not Hebrew slaves, built the pyramids. What gives historians the chutzpah to demolish in one sentence 40 chapters of Exodus and three hours and 39 minutes of Cecil B. DeMille? Still other essays take up the issue of historical argument. (It’s a secret to many students that historians argue. To them history sprouts from the ground. Historians merely transcribe.) For example, the book alludes to views about why the Industrial Revolution occurred in 18th-century England. My essay throws these explanations into bold relief, pitting the now-fashionable ‘contingency theory’ (available coal plus that unique Western ability to colonize, enslave, and reap profit from cheap cotton) against the more traditional ‘brilliance of the West’ theory (Remember? Scientific inquiry, stable legal and economic institutions, a culture that prized initiative, thrift, and powdered wigs). These arguments are never resolved, but become thicker and more nuanced with each pass. This thickening—not consensus—constitutes progress. What each of my essays tries to do is help students see their textbook itself as a historical source. In order to do this, students have to yank those iPods from their ears long enough to hear how language works, how it massages our understanding even before we’ve reached the first ‘fact.’ In a chapter on the Crusades, the text describes the contest between Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted: ‘Although Richard won several battles against the Muslims, he was not able to drive them out of the Holy Land or take Jerusalem. In the end, he had to admit a draw and return to England.’ Pausing on this sentence, I raise the issue of positionality—not by quoting Derrida to 10th graders, but by taking the concept literally. What direction does the text point you in? With whom are you marching? Positioned at Saladin’s back, how would you change the narrative? Similarly, I try to get students to think about how narratives begin, for historians know that beginnings shape interpretive structure, and that any story of consequence yields multiple openings. The textbook introduces American involvement in Southeast Asia with the 1954 Geneva Peace Conference. Until then, the narrative suggests, the conflict in Vietnam was largely a French affair. In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices. My essay provides readers with alternative starting points: January 1944, when, writing to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked that ‘Indochina should not go back to France,’ a colonizer that had ‘milked it for one hundred years’; the foggy days after the Allied victory, when Ho Chi Minh appealed to Harry Truman (by writing eight letters—some not declassified until 1972) expressing a desire for ‘full cooperation with the United States’; or August 1945, when Truman met Charles de Gaulle and laid the groundwork for $15 million in military aid to an American-advised and American-equipped French force at Dien Bien Phu. Each of these options fundamentally changes the texture of the ensuing story. The goal of ‘Reading Like a Historian’ is not vocational, but liberal, as in the trivium of the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. I am most interested in those qualities of mind that history is able to cultivate long after the details of the Tang dynasty or the Treaty of Ghent have faded. Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny. Stories create entire worlds. But these worlds become oppressive and all-encompassing if we view them as God-given, rather than the products of our own hands and, thus, open to question and scrutiny. … We live in an information age. But it is also an age of boundless credulity. In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.”
This article is an NPR interview with Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries of Ohio State University. Professor Jeffries tells us, “The 1619 Project and just the focus on the centrality of slavery justified by white supremacy to the origin and evolution of this nation counters this myth of sort of perpetual progress and this notion of American exceptionalism, and there may have been some issues in the past, but we always get over them and says, no, we are not a perfect union. We may be striving towards it, but we have done a lot to prevent us even from getting there. And so I think this is just as much about sort of the history of the past as it is about the politics of the present and how the politics of the present can use this sort of fabricated history of the past to justify actions that continue to perpetuate inequality. … Certainly, we have always had this version of kind of a pseudo-patriotic history, mythmaking to instill in young people, to instill in Americans this sort of a sense of pride. But it’s a false pride if it’s not rooted in truth, if it’s more nostalgia than actual fact. And the truth is that no child, no one living today, is responsible for enslavement. I mean, that’s clear. Nobody’s placing that blame on children. No child in school today is even responsible for the mess that we have right now. But they are responsible for the problems of tomorrow and of the future. And there is no way that they will be able to address those problems forthrightly if they don’t understand how we got them in the first place. And that’s the project of history – not to create patriotism, but to create understanding. And if you teach it right, even the hard stuff will not cause you to dislike the country, to hate the country. It will cause you to take pride in the fact that there were always people who were willing to fight to make it better.” He continues, “as educators, as teachers, our principal charge is to teach the truth. We can’t stop teaching the truth or not teach the truth at a certain age and then decide suddenly at a certain grade, like, OK, now we’re going to teach you the truth. Like, it doesn’t work like that because the students are, like, well, what’s true, and what’s not true? You know, you told me I was supposed to be celebrating, you know, these great presidents, you know, in the first grade, second grade and third grade. And then we get to the eighth grade, and you want to talk about slavery and them being enslavers and how bad slavery actually was. But then I have this contradiction in my mind, right? Like, wait; these were good people, but now they’re enslavers? So what is – where do I stand? And in the end, I think that’s what we have to do, always in age-appropriate ways. But we can’t miseducate. And when we don’t teach the truth, those hard histories, then we are, in fact, miseducating, and the students know it. And so whether they are white or Black or Latino or Asian, it doesn’t matter. When students understand that they’re not being told the truth, they will either do one of two things. They will reject what they’re being taught, or they won’t believe what you have to say when you do finally teach them the truth.” Great point.
This blog post takes on the phony 1776 report. We learn, “Signed by the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission—a panel Trump created to promote ‘patriotic education,’ which was given its name in direct criticism of the New York Times’s ‘1619 Project’—it drew predictable outrage from academic historians. … some conservative activists seem to be rallying around the ‘1776 Report’ even now. And historians’ responses to the text are unlikely to persuade most American conservatives that anything is wrong with it. In any case, the controversy isn’t really about United States history as such. (I mean, it is, but that’s not why it matters.) Fundamentally, the ‘1776 Report’ is about America’s history teachers and how they do their work. When Donald Trump signed the executive order creating the 1776 Commission, he asserted that ‘many students are now taught in school to hate their own country.’ That incendiary statement is the heart of the controversy over the ‘1776 Report.’ … On a reasonably objective reading, there are three fundamental problems with the way the 1776 Commission went about its work, plus a major problem with its claims about what American students learn in school. Let me describe these problems one by one.
“1. The ‘1776 Report’ is not a report. Let’s start with the basics. The ‘1776 Report’ is twenty pages long, with another twenty pages of appendices. Some of the text is copied from things the authors previously published. Despite the name, it is not a report. In other words, it does not present any research on the current state of American education or society. No information is being reported. The document does contain many assertions. The first half of the ‘1776 Report’—about ten pages of text—comprises a somewhat mystical interpretation of the American founding. It portrays the American nation as an eighteenth-century project launched by brilliant men based on timeless political principles. It is punctuated with non-historical and unfalsifiable statements like ‘the founders’ principles are both true and eternal’ and ‘It is the sacred duty of every generation of American patriots to defend this priceless inheritance’. These statements may be true, but for the purposes of a report on American history or American history education, they are clearly presuppositions, not conclusions. This first main section is followed by another six pages of text condemning six specific ‘challenges to America’s principles’: slavery, progressivism, fascism, communism, and ‘racism and identity politics.’ This part of the document includes assertions like ‘The Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders’ and ‘Identity politics makes it less likely that racial reconciliation and healing can be attained by pursuing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream for America’. (This is a classic way of confessing, I’m afraid, that the authors have read exactly one speech by Martin Luther King. But let’s move on.) Some claims like these could conceivably be based on the authors’ research. However, the document does not cite any historical research as a basis for these claims. It does include a lot of quotations from historical figures. But these serve as illustrations of the authors’ claims, not a sound historical basis for them. Responsible historical researchers do not draw conclusions from soundbites. Once again, therefore, the ‘1776 Report’ is not a report. Now, most of the critical scholarly commentary I’ve seen focuses on those first two sections of the document. Many scholars have attacked the history in the ‘1776 Report’ on both historical and philosophical grounds. But rather than spend time adding to that conversation, I would rather move on to what the document says about the U.S. education system. The final major section of the ‘1776 Report,’ you see, makes inflammatory claims about America’s teachers and historians. These are assertions that definitely needed careful substantiation if they were to be made responsibly in a public document. The ‘1776 Report’ claims, for example, that public schools often advance ‘one-sided partisan opinions, activist propaganda, or factional ideologies that demean America’s heritage, dishonor our heroes, or deny our principles,’ and that teachers often ‘abuse their platform and dishonor every family who trusts them with their children’s education and moral development’. It claims that progressive educators ‘disdain today’s students’ and ‘see only weaknesses and failures [in American history], teaching students truth is an illusion, that hypocrisy is everywhere, and that power is all that matters’. It calls universities ‘hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship’ that ‘peddle resentment and contempt for American principles and history alike’ with ‘deliberately destructive scholarship.’ It even accuses universities of causing ‘much of the violence in our cities’. The document was also issued with a White House press release claiming that it refutes ‘re-education’ attempts’—likening America’s school system to a repressive government’s labor camps. These are not claims to make lightly. Yet the document provides no indication where these assertions originated, no indication that they reflect any firsthand experience, and no evidence at all that they are true. In that respect, as the historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela pointed out on Twitter, it’s worth comparing this document with a controversial report the U.S. Department of Education released during the Reagan administration. In 1983, ‘A Nation at Risk’ included a detailed set of findings based on research conducted over the course of several months, including information gathered from more than 200 educational institutions as well as public hearings that collected testimony from many educators and business leaders. Four decades ago, ‘A Nation at Risk’ was controversial for some of the same ideological reasons the ‘1776 Report’ is controversial. But unlike the ‘1776 Report,’ it was actually a report. In contrast, the evidence-free nature of the 1776 Commission’s work, combined with its vindictive tone toward educators in general, suggests the authors are ruminating on old culture-war grievances rather than contributing anything new, true, or useful to public discussions of U.S. history education in 2020. Fans of the commission’s work presumably appreciate the ‘1776 Report’ because it restates what they already believed, not because it provides evidence that it is true.
“2. The practical recommendations in the ‘1776 Report’ show little awareness of actual educational environments. If the 1776 Commission’s work is going to shape the work of American school supervisors, curriculum designers, and teachers, it should present recommendations that demonstrate some familiarity with the actual processes and practical challenges of history education. After all, as the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott pointed out, knowing a set of ideas intellectually is not the same thing as being able to teach them to students as part of a way of life. It is one thing for the ‘1776 Report’ to make statements about American history; it is another thing to give advice for actually teaching it. Unfortunately, the ‘1776 Report’ shows very little evidence that its authors are familiar with history classrooms—at any educational level. For example, the ‘1776 Report’ includes the following recommendation for teachers:
Civics and government classes should rely almost exclusively on primary sources. Primary sources link students with the real events and persons they are studying. The writings, speeches, first-hand accounts, and documents of those who were acting out the drama of history open a genuine communication, mediated by the written word, between historical figures and students that can bring to life the past. Primary sources without selective editing also allow students to study principles and arguments unfiltered by present-day historians’ biases and agendas.
“Of course, this recommendation is not entirely wrong. Primary sources are precious, and they are at the heart of how I (and many other people) teach—in part because they do help students grasp ‘the drama of history,’ and also because they do give students some freedom to analyze and test concepts themselves. But it is difficult to see how an effective government class could operate using primary sources ‘almost exclusively.’ Do we expect college undergraduates, let alone middle schoolers, to decipher court cases and administrative reports every time we want to explain a concept? This is a recipe not only for confusion and boredom but also for basic factual ignorance. Moreover, the notion that primary sources can liberate students from historians’ biases is also, I’m afraid, detached from classroom reality. Just think about it. As any experienced history teacher knows, to choose a primary source for examination is to make an implicit argument. We choose sources because they matter to some point we’re trying to make. To put two primary sources together in conversation is to make an argument, too. To extract a usable portion from a long book; to use ellipses to make convoluted legal syntax comprehensible; or to set an assignment that sends students looking for primary sources on their own is to make an argument, as well. And responsible educators should see to it that the arguments they’re making with primary sources are grounded in good, up-to-date scholarship, not in their own ideological commitments alone. At best, to use primary sources ‘almost exclusively’ is to create a classroom where the teacher, with whatever biases they bring in, will be the main knowledgeable source in the room for students to consult. In other words, in its ignorance of how social studies classes actually work, the ‘1776 Report’ is making a self-defeating recommendation. Here’s another example. The ‘1776 Report’ proposes a list of model discussion questions that ‘teachers can use to encourage civics discussion amongst [sic] students’ as they examine the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. (These questions were evidently written by commissioner Thomas K. Lindsay, a political scientist who once served briefly as a college president.) Here are three of these discussion questions:
What does the Declaration mean by asserting that all persons possess rights that are not ‘alienable’? Who or what, precisely, can alienate our rights? Are all rights deemed inalienable, or only some? And if the latter, why are they different? …
At the time the Federalist Papers were being written, the new Constitution did not include the Bill of Rights. What are the rights and protections enumerated in the Bill of Rights and how did they come to be amendments to the Constitution? …
What economic conditions make American democracy possible? Could American democracy under the Constitution be reconciled with any and every economic system? Why does the Constitution protect property rights? Why do critics of American democracy such as Karl Marx believe that private property (protected by our Constitution) is the root of injustice? How would Madison and Hamilton have responded to Marx and his followers’ criticisms?
“Now, all three of these sets of questions might be very useful to explore as part of a history or government class. But frankly, I’m at a loss to say how a group of teenagers are supposed to sit down with a copy of the Constitution and use it to explain the ideas of Karl Marx to each other. Or how they’re supposed to sit with a copy of the Federalist Papers and deduce the actual chain of events from 1789 to 1791 that put the first ten amendments in the U.S. Constitution. Or how they are going to read a copy of the Declaration of Independence and arrive at the meaning of alienation in eighteenth-century legal jargon through a process of deliberation. It’s pretty hard to visualize. And that should not be surprising. It stems directly from the third basic flaw in the ‘1776 Report.’
“3. The 1776 Commission did not include anyone with relevant experience in U.S. history education. The commission had sixteen regular members, plus several ex officio members from the Trump administration. As many academic critics have pointed out, none of these people are historians of the United States. Broadly speaking, instead, the scholars on the commission work on government or law. (Only two, Larry Arnn and Victor Davis Hanson, can plausibly be called historians at all, notwithstanding the White House’s claim that the commission included ‘some of America’s most distinguished scholars and historians.’) Most commission members are simply career conservative activists. This lack of U.S. historians is a definitely a problem if the ‘1776 Report’ is to be credible as a discussion of how U.S. history should be taught in colleges and universities. But there’s a bigger problem, which I haven’t seen discussed much: None of the regular commission members seem to have any substantial connection with K-12 education in U.S. history, either. Even the ex officio members seem to have been chosen almost at random, with the departments of state, defense, the interior, and housing given precedence over the U.S. Department of Education in the masthead. From an objective procedural standpoint, that is ridiculous. Once again, a comparison with the Reagan administration’s ‘A Nation at Risk’ is instructive. The National Commission on Excellence in Education, which produced that report in 1983, had eighteen members. By my count, at least three were members of school boards; one was a state education commissioner; two were school principals; one was a city school superintendent; one was a national teacher of the year; and four were college presidents. In short, whatever one thought of their ideological leanings, those were commissioners who plausibly knew what they were talking about when they discussed the U.S. education system. (They also had their own staff.) Truly, if the White House had wanted the ‘1776 Report’ to be taken seriously, it should not have been difficult to assemble a similarly qualified commission today. During the last two years, after all, the ‘1619 Project’ has been bitterly attacked by some historians, fairly or unfairly. Late this summer, indeed, the Trump administration’s call for ‘patriotic’ history education was publicly joined by two American historians working at Princeton University and the University of Oklahoma. Would it really have been so difficult to appoint some conservative historians to the 1776 Commission? Even a purely partisan commission with no ties to mainstream academia could have been filled easily with educators. Anyone who has spent much time around K-12 schools has met talented history teachers with very conservative political views. And the United States has thousands of public school boards stocked with Republican activists, not to mention conservative foundations and think tanks that employ professional education researchers. It would not have been hard to generate at least some small measure of credibility for this document by having it written by people who could conceivably know what they were talking about. Instead, as the historian Joshua Tait points out in The Bulwark, the 1776 Commission seems to have been led by activist intellectuals representing an idiosyncratic group within the neoconservative movement. ‘In short,’ as Tait writes, ‘the 1776 Report is simplified West Coast Straussianism with the presidential seal slapped on it.’ This is another way of saying the document is an ideological pronouncement, not any kind of report. And finally:
“4. The ‘1776 Report’ leaps to a conclusion about what actual students think. The three problems I’ve already identified make ‘1776 Report’ unreliable. But there’s an even more important problem with its claims about America’s education system. Here’s the thing: Even if the ‘1776 Report’ expressed a true view of American history, and even if America’s historians and history teachers were expressing an unfair view of the American past, that still would do absolutely nothing to substantiate what Donald Trump claimed when he created the commission: that ‘many students are now taught in school to hate their own country.’ Or, in the words of the document itself, that our schools ‘breed contempt for America’s heritage’, or that students are ‘learning to hate one’s country or the world’. Those are empirical claims. If they were true, it would be entirely possible to conduct research—or cite existing research—to prove them, showing what students in American schools or universities think about their country. (It would also be possible to do this for what their teachers think, too.) But the ‘1776 Report’ never makes any attempt, not one, to substantiate its claims about what our teaching leads our students to think or feel. There’s a theoretical problem there, too, as well as an empirical problem. Because the 1776 Commission advances a very narrow definition of the United States of America—as a nation invented by specific men according to specific principles in the eighteenth century—and because it views that as the only legitimate definition, the commission apparently cannot imagine that students today might understand, and love, the nation on a different basis. That is, the 1776 Commission apparently cannot comprehend the possibility, for example, that some students might love the United States precisely because it departed from its eighteenth-century form. Or that some students might understand and love it simply as a living community of people today. Or even that students might face the country’s historical deficiencies with clear eyes as a way to show love for the United States. Or that they might be able to question nationalism itself while still loving the existing American community of human beings. Or that agitating for racial equality in ways the 1776 Commission dismisses as ‘identity politics’ might draw some activist students into a greater love for the country they are trying to change. All of these are very real ways students can love the United States, and all of them are familiar to many teachers from first-hand experience, but the 1776 Commission apparently could not imagine them as possibilities.
“Conclusion What do these four fundamental flaws mean for the legacy of this document? I would say that the failure of the ‘1776 Report,’ in the end, is not simply a failure of research or a failure of historical interpretation. That would be bad enough. In the end, the commission’s worse failures are its failure of imagination and failure of goodwill. The 1776 Commission could have undertaken to chart a course for American history education consistent with conservative values, based on careful reasoning about the current state of our schools. Instead, it chose to vent grievances in a hastily compiled screed. The commissioners could have shown curiosity about the actual state of American history education and generosity toward its teachers and students. Instead, they chose vituperation, writing a polemic designed to confirm party prejudices. Conceived in bitterness and written in ignorance, the ‘1776 Report’ does nothing to advance its own stated goals. America’s teachers and students deserve better than this.”
This article illuminates how literature can be a partner to history in education and vice versa. It gives us the experience of teacher Tyler Nice in a Master’s in History and Government program that incorporated literature with history, and it tells us, “Reading the text of legislation helped Nice grasp the changes in immigration policy during the 19th and 20th centuries. Reading first-person narratives from immigrants themselves helped him understand ‘the impact of these laws on people’s lives.’ Reading fiction and poetry written by and about immigrants deepened this understanding. ‘Other classes in the MAHG program give us short first-person narratives, but this class gave us entire short stories and even novels. In my current course (The Rise of Modern America, 1914-1945), we read a first-person account of a German American being harassed during World War I. That was illuminating—but it’s just two pages.” In the history/literature course, teachers read long portions of Willa Cather’s My Antonia, experiencing the homesickness of a Bohemian American musician transplanted from an old European city to a farm on the plains of Nebraska. They explored the cultural misunderstandings complicating friendship between the Bohemian man’s family and his native-born neighbors. “The medium of fiction gives authors the freedom to express complex ideas through symbols and other creative language,’ Nice noted. He traced such symbols through a memoir he found ‘kind of bizarre’: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Kingston creatively reproduces her childhood psyche, caught between American culture and her mother’s vivid memories of the home country. The heroic story of her mother as a medical student in China gives way to the family’s current reality as owners of a San Francisco dry-cleaning business. Kingston renders her mother’s versions of family history and folklore in strange, even ‘grotesque’ images. This ‘left me with a lot of questions,’ which Nice worked through in class discussions with Professor Suzanne Brown. He enjoyed not only Brown’s ‘ability to pull nuance out of literary texts’ but also her enthusiasm. When class participants noticed an image pattern resonating with symbolism, Brown ‘was so excited!’—which fed the teachers’ excitement. Nice remembers the page of the novel ‘where we realized what the main character’s mother means when she refers to ‘ghosts.’ They are non-Chinese Americans,’ people whom the mother regards as insubstantial in their customs, yet menacing in their watchfulness. Speaking of the traditional Chinese food she prepares—delicacies to her, unappetizing oddities to white Americans—the mother boasts she ‘can defeat the ghosts: she can out-eat them,’ Nice said. The course gave Nice ‘a more comprehensive understanding’ of the struggle of immigrants to assimilate into American culture.”
This article also deals with the phony 1776 Report. It says, “One section of the 1776 report proposes ways to ‘teach Americans about their country,’offering themes that focus on the accomplishments of predominantly White and male historical figures such as Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. That would protect the long-standing status quo in civics courses, which focus disproportionately on the accomplishments of White male historical figures, while downplaying their flaws. In recent research, I found that White men continue to be the dominant figures in social studies curriculums. States that have high proportions of the nation’s school-age children hold considerable sway over textbook publishers. In particular, Texas’s sometimes controversial standards often influence what textbook publishers will release. The Lone Star state’s 2005 standards for U.S. government and U.S. history textbooks explicitly required mention of 34 historical figures. Of those, 31 were White men, one a White woman (Susan B. Anthony), and two were Black men (W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King). Of the 59 figures mentioned in the revised standards used in 2018, 49 were White men, two were White women (Anthony and Betty Friedan), four were Black men (Du Bois, King, Marcus Garvey and Barack Obama), two were Black women (Rosa Parks and Ida B. Wells), and two were Latino (Hector Garcia and Cesar Chavez). No Latinas, Asian Americans or Indigenous Americans were named in the standards. … Throughout the history of public schooling in the United States, going back to the Civil War, politicians and textbook publishers have fiercely debated what should be in social studies courses. Soon after stepping down as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities at the end of 1993, Republican Lynne Cheney characterized the 1994 revised history standards, completed under the Clinton administration, as ‘the end of history,’ because Black historical figures such as Harriet Tubman were mentioned more than ‘traditional’ historical figures, such as Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Two decades later in 2014, Ben Carson, a contributor to the 1776 report and a former Republican presidential candidate, claimed that revisions to the Advanced Placement U.S. History framework were so anti-American that students would ‘sign up’ for the Islamic State. My research finds that such debates are not only symbolic, but politically consequential. In recent research that I discussed here at TMC last spring, I found that what’s taught in American history can affect high-schoolers’ future political activity. I randomly divided 678 students into two groups and assigned each to read different historical accounts of the abolitionist movement, the formation of the National Farm Workers Association and the resistance to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Though the pages that the two groups of students read looked identical, the text came from different sources. Half of the students read segments from ‘The American Pageant,’ a traditional textbook that serves as a staple in Advanced Placement U.S. History courses. The other half read segments from Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States,’ which the 1776 report explicitly criticized. The latter more thoroughly discusses the roles of women and people of color, and places greater emphasis on social movements and collective action. After they had read their assigned passages, I asked students how willing they might be to participate in a range of political activities, including voting, protesting, working on a political campaign and engaging in nonpartisan volunteer initiatives. Reading the more critical text increased students of color’s interest in political involvement. Black and Latino teenagers who read the Zinn text reported greater willingness to participate in protests, voting and campaigning for political candidates than did those who read the more traditional text. Although these texts did not affect how White students intend to participate, it did make them more likely to report that people of color had made important contributions to U.S. history. In other words, who is represented, and how, in school curriculums affects how young people think about their role within U.S. democracy. Compared with traditional curriculums, which are widely used, the kinds of texts that the 1776 report criticizes can empower young people of color and foster greater empathy among White students. This may explain why some Republicans are opposed to curriculums of this kind.”