History Wars: Views from Five Illinois High School Teachers

This summer, at Illinois State University, the historian Andrew Hartman organized a graduate seminar around the topic of American history survey courses. He focused especially on “the history wars”: contemporary political debates about how U.S. history should be taught. Most of his students were teachers already working in secondary schools.

Five of these high school history teachers wrote essays that now have been published in the new (fall 2021) issue of Teaching History: A Journal of Methods. Introducing these essays, Hartman explains the assumption and the common reading that underpins the five teachers’ work:

One of the most powerful forms of constructing the American history narrative can be found in surveys of U.S. history, books assigned in high school and college classrooms that sometimes even attract readers beyond the classroom. In short, the course objective was to think deeply about the construction of the narrative of American history by reading, analyzing, and critiquing five of the most popular and intriguing U.S. history surveys, written from a diverse range of perspectives and with distinct objectives. We read, in the following order: Wilfred McClay, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States; Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom; and Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. We also read the 1619 Project and the 1776 Report.

The teachers’ contributions to this forum are:

Tennessee’s First CRT Complaint: Kids Are Learning About the Civil Rights Movement

The Nashville Tennessean reported yesterday that the Tennessee Department of Education recently dismissed its first official complaint about a reported violation of the state’s new law banning supposed “critical race theory” from schools. The law prohibits Tennessee public and charter schools from teaching history that makes students feel “discomfort” about their race or sex.

The department dismissed the complaint, which was filed this summer, on a technicality: It referred to teaching that happened before the law took effect.

The details of the complaint, however, are instructive.

Simply put, the “Moms for Liberty” chapter in Williamson County, near Nashville, alleged that their county’s public schools illegally taught children about the Civil Rights Movement last year.

If you don’t believe me, look at the actual complaint letter, which is provided in a link by the Tennessean.

The complaint says Williamson County Schools used a second-grade language arts curriculum that included the following four books:

All four of these books are about true events that happened between the 1940s and 1960s.

The complaint says the school district illegally used these books to make second graders “hate their country, each other, and themselves.” It says these books had this effect because they depict African Americans and Mexican Americans in the mid-20th century being mistreated by white Americans, and because the teacher’s manual directs teachers to say negative things about their mistreatment.

The complaint, moreover, accuses the school district of using the word injustice too frequently in its teacher’s manual, with illegal anti-white classroom exercises like asking students, “What injustices did people face before the civil rights act of 1964?” and “How can people respond to injustice?”

The complaint sums up its position this way: “There does not have to be a textbook labeled ‘Critical Race Theory’ for its harmful tenets to be present in a curriculum; the evidence is present in the outcome.”

The illegal outcome, apparently, is for Tennessee children in second grade to learn about the history of American racism or civil rights protests at all.

Widely Debated and Currently Controversial

In the state of Texas, a new law took effect on September 1, limiting what public social studies teachers can teach. The bill passed in the state legislature on an almost perfect party-line vote.

Among other things, the law, House Bill 3979, mandates that in required courses,

a teacher who chooses to discuss [a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs] shall, to the best of the teacher’s ability, strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.

Today, NBC News has reported on the effect this law is having in the Dallas/Forth Worth suburb of Southlake, where the school district is already embroiled in a political battle over racism. The district’s curriculum director was recently recorded (surreptitiously) during a training session with teachers, acknowledging their fears about the law. She told them,

We are in the middle of a political mess. And you are in the middle of a political mess. And so we just have to do the best that we can. … You are professionals. … So if you think the book is O.K., then let’s go with it. And whatever happens, we will fight it together.

But she added, giving an example of a potential conflict,

As you go through, just try to remember the concepts of [H.B.] 3979, and make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing—that has other perspectives.

Teachers heard on the recording reacted with shocked disbelief, speculating that this directive would apply to a book like Number the Stars, a widely taught historical novel about a Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Denmark.

She said, “Believe me, that’s come up.”


EDIT: On social media, many people have been attacking the administrator for supposedly suggesting it could be legitimate to present students with “opposing” sides on the Holocaust. I think they probably have misinterpreted what happened here.

Southlake has been at the center of a very public controversy over racism at its high school. That is presumably why NBC News was provided with this audio recording in the first place; NBC has been covering this situation in depth. In this context, Southlake school district is likely to have been targeted by far-right extremists; that’s how the world often works today.

In the audio released by NBC, the curriculum director is heard clearly indicating that she finds H.B. 3979 outrageous, committing herself to support teachers when they choose to teach controversial books. But she also provides teachers with strategic advice for protecting themselves against the law.

Because the text of H.B. 3979 does not discriminate against far-right extremist ideas.

In my reading, it is significant that the curriculum director corrected herself when she started to talk about supplementing the curriculum with “a book that has … an opposing” perspective on the Holocaust, switching to “a book … that has other perspectives” on the Holocaust.

Remember the actual language of H.B. 3979: When a teacher discusses a controversial social studies topic, they must “explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” Given that language, teachers targeted by extremists would be providing themselves with legal cover for teaching the Holocaust truthfully if they could find “diverse and contending perspectives”—which could mean a lot of things other than Holocaust denial or approval—to include in the discussion.

And given Southlake’s recent history in the public eye, I’m inclined to believe the curriculum director, at least in a general way, when she says this issue has “come up” already.

I certainly hope that any court would rule that the Holocaust does not qualify as a “widely debated” topic. (“Currently controversial,” unfortunately, would include, by definition, virtually anything that resulted in a teacher being targeted.) But teachers and school districts do not have infinite resources for going through the process of finding out how courts will rule when they interpret bad laws.


A second EDIT to add: It is also worth understanding the internal dynamics of Southlake’s school district, to the extent they are publicly known.

The Dallas Morning News and the Forth Worth Star-Telegram report that a fourth-grade teacher there—a Carroll ISD 2020 “teacher of the year,” in fact—was recently the target of political harassment for having in her classroom a book called This Book Is Anti-Racist. The politicians on the school board—including two who had received donations from the parents’ PAC who complained—voted to reprimand the teacher for doing her job. In making this decision, the politicians were overruling the school administration, who had investigated the complaints and had cleared the teacher of wrongdoing.

In an environment like this, for anyone to attack a school administrator for trying to protect teachers against political harassment, as the curriculum director in the most recent controversy did, is to compound the chilling effects of Texas law, making it more dangerous to be a history teacher in Texas, not less.

“A Teacher in My District Died of Covid Yesterday”

Texas governor Greg Abbott in 2018 (photo by Jay Godwin, public domain)

One of my good friends is a schoolteacher in Texas, my home state. There, the governor, who is running for a third term in 2022, has ordered school districts and public colleges not to enforce basic pandemic precautions, even as COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are returning to last winter’s levels.

My friend has written the following update, which I’m reposting here with their permission.


“A teacher in my district died of Covid yesterday. His last day at school was one week ago, the first day of classes. He welcomed groups of 12 year-olds back for a new year, and then today those kids learned that he is no longer alive. And they learned this news at school, because classes are still in session at every campus. I don’t know how many cases we’ve had at any of those campuses because the district isn’t required to report that information, so they aren’t.

“I didn’t know this teacher, and I also don’t know when or how he got Covid. I assume he was with me 11 days before he died, crammed into the high school entryway for breakfast and a vendor fair with all the rest of the district faculty and staff, and later crowding the hallways playing teambuilding games. I don’t know if he was one of the 15% or so of people wearing a mask as we all sat together in the gym and the superintendent told us that he and the school board weren’t willing to end up in a courtroom over trying to impose a mask mandate in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order.

“I have worn a mask in the building every day since I returned on August 4th, except when I am alone in my classroom. I am not enjoying it, and I’m not looking for any social bonus points for doing so . . . I just want to survive (and maybe even thrive). Actually, I feel a bit stupid wearing a mask in spaces where 95% of the people around me aren’t. Does it even matter? That ratio has improved over the past few weeks, but I don’t know whether it’s enough. I’d say roughly 1/4-1/3 of my students have masks covering some portion of their face at any given point during class.

“But of course, I’m not wearing a mask to protect myself from them. I’m wearing a mask to protect them from me (and hoping enough of them will do the same to move the needle). Because the other piece of this is that, although I don’t know how many people in this building have been vaccinated (the county is at less than 40%), I know they all at least could be if they chose to. Everyone else in my family is spending all day surrounded by people who definitely aren’t. All of my kids are under 12, and my spouse teaches pre-K. Their school has already had so many staff out sick that they’ve decided to impose a mask mandate effective today. I haven’t heard yet how that’s going. My 4th grader complains that I make her wear a mask even though only 3 other kids in her class do, and her teachers don’t, either. The 2nd grader is in pretty much the same boat. (Their campus has had 6 cases in the first 5 days of school, and 55 in the district as a whole.) And of course my toddler’s daycare is . . . a daycare; just a petri dish with 4 walls and a roof.

“I can’t stop thinking about 5 years ago when the Trump campaign put out an ad that said, ‘If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful?’ in reference to desperate Syrian families seeking asylum. You’d be hard pressed to decide whether the analogy was more stupid, more racist, or more lacking in basic humanity (the Trump trifecta), but the basic analogy suddenly feels like it has merit in this whole new context that he and his party have landed us in. There are bowls of Skittles all over Texas with a few poison ones mixed in, and every teacher and student in the state is being told to reach into a bowl and eat a Skittle every single day. I’m being asked to gamble the lives and the health of my family every day, weighing the small but ever-present risk of disease and death against the certainty of losing my livelihood. Some choice.

“Conservatives like to say ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings.’ And it’s certainly a fact that they don’t care about my feelings . . . But they also don’t care about my health, my well-being, my life . . . or facts.”


My friend’s update is explicitly partisan in a way I normally avoid at this blog. But under the circumstances, I think it’s important for me not to censor their thoughts.

I’m hearing similar stories of frustration from a lot of other educators in states whose leaders have rejected their public responsibilities.

“How to Cure Colleges’ Adjunct Addiction”

Although I’m not quoted, I had the privilege of speaking with Holly Brewer this week as she worked on an important opinion essay for Washington Monthly. Here’s a taste of her argument:

This problem keeps getting worse, yet university administrators show little interest in addressing it, and sometimes deny it even is a problem. If anybody’s going to fix this, it will probably have to be the federal government. Subsidies to higher education total about $150 billion annually. To protect this investment, the government should set a floor for what universities must pay teachers, and a ceiling of perhaps one-third for the proportion of total teaching jobs that a university administrator may fill with adjuncts.

It’s appropriate that government should solve higher education’s gig-economy problem, because government (at the state level) helped create it by reducing its support for public universities.  In 2020, state governments supplied $8,600 per student, a 40 percent decrease in real dollars from 1994.

But the universities themselves bear plenty of fault too, with a costly proliferation of administrators who, paradoxically, are assigned the task of economizing. Between 2011-2012 and 2018/2019, administrative pay at American public universities increased by $3.7 billion. That represented, for each full time student, a 24 percent increase in administrative salaries. At the University of Maryland, where I teach, former President Wallace Loh was last year paid $734,565 as an adviser.

Rather than bring these absurd administrative costs under control, administrators are going after the university’s core function by opting to hire the cheapest possible teachers. That’s adjuncts.

—Holly Brewer, “How to Cure Colleges’ Adjunct Addiction,” Washington Monthly (Aug. 4, 2021)

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Image: McKeldin Mall at the University of Maryland, College Park; cropped photograph by Radhika Kshirsagar, 2013 (CC BY-SA 4.0)