The Curriculum Wars Are Based On An Illusion
Americans are more united on how to teach our history than we think.
Americans are routinely told that we cannot agree on anything. From watching the news, one would think that the right and left are so polarized that there is no issue upon which they could ever find common ground. This has created the impression that politics is fundamentally a zero-sum game—that when one political party wins a cultural or legislative victory, the other necessarily loses.
One place this idea has taken root is in the debate over how to teach children about American history. Democrats will tell you that Republicans want to paper over America’s flaws and brush aside the shameful parts of our history, particularly when it comes to issues of racism and slavery. Republicans will say that Democrats want to erase the achievements of our Founding Fathers and make students feel personally responsible for the mistakes of past generations.
But the caricatures that partisans have drawn don’t resemble anything close to reality.
According to a recent survey conducted by More in Common, 83% of Republicans say that “it’s important that every American student learn about slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation.” An even greater number, 93%, agree that “Americans have a responsibility to learn from our past and fix our mistakes.” What’s more, when Democrats are asked to estimate the percentage of Republicans who believe these statements, they guess about 35%—a wild underestimate, which More in Common calls the “perception gap.”
Meanwhile, 83% of Democrats believe that “students should not be made to feel guilty or personally responsible for the errors of prior generations,” and 92% agree that “all students should learn about how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution advanced freedom and equality.” A perception gap exists on the GOP side too: Republicans estimate that only around 45% of Democrats agree with those statements.
These numbers make clear that there is a surprising level of agreement on the question of how we should teach students American history. The vast majority of Americans agree with three general principles, which together provide a good foundation for building American history curricula.
First, Americans agree that students should not be taught a whitewashed version of history. Students should learn the tragic parts of our past—from slavery and Jim Crow to the treatment of Native Americans—as well as the sacrifices that civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks had to make to overcome that past.
Second, Americans agree that history curricula should cover the great figures and achievements of the country’s history. In this bucket are the contributions made by the Founding Fathers, the ways that the Declaration of Independence and Constitution advanced freedom and equality, and the recognition of the progress that’s been made in recent decades to overcome prejudice and racism.
Third, Americans agree that teachers should not bring their personal political beliefs into the classroom and that students should not be made to feel personally responsible for the actions of previous generations. For all the attention that Critical Race Theory has received over the past two years, Americans don’t want students to feel guilty on account of their race or the country’s history.
It is important to note that, despite the overall level of agreement among Americans, the most extreme factions of both the right and left do have intense disagreements. Building on their influential 2018 report on “Hidden Tribes,” the More in Common survey labels these two extremes “progressive activists” and “devoted conservatives.” An astonishing 97% of the former group and only 9% of the latter agree that the country “needs to do more to acknowledge earlier wrongs.” Conversely, 94% of devoted conservatives and 11% of progressive activists say that “lingering too much on past atrocities prevents us from moving forward.”
This divide among the most strident ideologues will perhaps not be all that surprising to those who have read The 1619 Project Curriculum or have seen Tucker Carlson’s hysteric coverage of middle-school history curriculum. But while they make a lot of noise and are overrepresented in the media, ideologues on both the left and right comprise a relatively small slice of the American public (about 15% altogether).
Unfortunately, those who make up the more extreme ends of the political spectrum seem to have an outsized influence in a number of our institutions, including media, political parties, and universities. But Americans should not let these extremists create the illusion that the rest of us are in irreconcilable disagreement on the issue of how to teach history. The vast majority of Americans want students to be taught a curriculum that includes the good parts of the country’s history as well as the bad, that treats historical events and figures as multi-dimensional, and that doesn’t teach students to feel guilty on behalf of previous generations.
In other words, Americans want to teach history with the complexity it deserves rather than the simplicity that a political agenda would require.
Seth Moskowitz is an associate editor at Persuasion. He also writes Brain Candy, a newsletter about politics and elections.
This article represents the individual views of the author, not those of Persuasion.
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Unfortunately, history shows that a small group of highly dedicated people can make an enormous difference in the world and shift the frame of reference for millions, if not billions. This can happen for good, as was the case with George Washington and the Whigs, who were outnumbered by the Loyalists and the Apathetic, or Wilberforce and the Abolitionists, who were pushing against millennia of acceptance of slavery as normal. Or it can happen for bad, as with the Bolsheviks, who consigned billions (if you include China) to a life of misery, starvation and tyranny.
Again and again we see how a poisonous idea can start out as benign, even welcome, and morph into something pathologically wrong if not called out with some force or vigor.
As for the curriculum wars, there is an enormous difference between a clear eyed honest look at the brutality of the ages versus out of context events and characters to suit contemporary partisan needs or assign group blame. When I asked the 1619 creator why not 1513 when Ponce de Leon landed with slaves in Florida or 1518 when the King of Spain chartered the transatlantic slave trade, she stammered and protested that it was "her" project and so she could do what she wanted. OK, but if your point is the original sin of slavery in America, it seems like you start at the origins, even if that includes politically inconvenient facts (such as Hispanic surnames).
The question for me is how extreme are the education departments teaching the teachers - and how much future teachers accept any of the more extreme views and in turn teach them to our children. I have heard by some that it’s extensive.
The 1619 Project has a curriculum offered to schools. It would be interesting to see what that’s composed of.