Who Supports Teaching U.S. History in Public Schools?

An infographic prepared by the Washington Post, labeled "

In the Washington Post yesterday, the data journalist Philip Bump highlighted some results of a March 2022 edition of the Grinnell College National Poll. His article focuses on respondents’ views of what should be taught in American public schools.

The poll shows that Republicans and Democrats differ significantly in their level of expressed support for (in particular) sex education and attempts to instill patriotism—though clear majorities in both parties actually say they support both. Thus, the current headline, “Democrats want to teach kids sex education. Republicans want to teach them patriotism”—is misleading, though it’s grounded in truth.

What caught my eye was the entry for history.

Unsurprisingly, strong majorities in both major parties believe that public schools should teach history. But I couldn’t help noticing that support for teaching history was ever-so-slightly lower among Democratic respondents.

That’s consistent with what another major survey found in 2020: American conservatives were more likely than liberals (92% to 84%) to say that teaching U.S. history to children is very important, and they’re also more likely (44% to 30%) to say they wish they’d had more American history courses in school.

Curious, I dug up the new Grinnell poll’s topline results.

I found that this poll, too, actually asked about American history, not history in general. And interestingly, although there was slightly lower expressed support for teaching U.S. history among Democrats than among Republicans, there wasn’t any significant difference between 2020 Trump and Biden voters.

Data table for Question 5A in the Grinnell College National Poll for March 2022. The question is: "American history: Please tell me if you think it is an essential subject for public schools to teach, important but not essential, not that important, for something public schools should not teach."

What conclusions should we draw from this? I really have no idea. Probably, we shouldn’t draw any conclusions at all. Anyway, all the potent debates of our moment are about what should be taught in public schools as American history, not whether American history should be taught.

But I know that if I ever see support for teaching U.S. history in public schools drop significantly, among either Democrats or Republicans, I’ll have a new big thing to worry about.

Schools That Forge a Public

Every student deserves to be introduced to American literature and history, as well as such subjects as math, science, and civics. Few Americans get this at home, whether they be native or foreign born. An integrative approach respects students’ diverse backgrounds while preparing all young people to be fluent, competent, and empowered citizens. …

The public schools are public. Their mission is to forge a public. They should help young people to move beyond their pre-existing identities to see themselves as part of the nation. In a country so divided that we no longer consider each other fellow citizens, reviving the democratic mission of public schools has never been more essential.

—Johann Neem, “Restoring the Democratic Promise of Public Schools: An Integration Agenda for the Biden Administration”

Describing a Democratic Approach to History Education

rcbcmountlaurelcampusguide

Edit, Aug. 26, 2019: Since I posted this, my plans for Fall 2019 have changed. I will not teach the course described below at RCBC, but I will teach a different course at Rowan University, which is also a public institution.

Earlier this month, I posted a draft syllabus statement for my new courses at La Salle University. It explains how my approach to history may fit into the “Lasallian” tradition—that is, the tradition of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the 300-year-old Catholic teaching order that sponsors that university.

Now I’d like to present a draft syllabus statement for a different kind of college. This fall, I’ll be teaching a course in the history of western civilization at Rowan College at Burlington County (formerly Burlington County College), a community college with a main campus in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. It’s my first time working at a community college, which has long been a goal of mine.

Here’s my initial attempt to explain what I think a history education should offer students at a public two-year college. I welcome criticism, especially from instructors who have worked in similar institutions.

Screenshot:

Purpose of a history course at RCBC

Text:

Public Philosophy

As a community college, RCBC invites Burlington County to learn together, making a college education something for all of us, “in an accessible and diverse environment,” rather than a privilege for the few.[1] This opens doors to greater personal prosperity and further educational opportunities. But it also strengthens our democratic society in two ways.

First, education helps you become a more responsible part of a free community. In the ancient Greek city of Athens, young citizens reportedly had to recite an oath when they reached adulthood. They swore to uphold their democratic society’s traditions in order to defend its freedom. Modern schools and colleges have sometimes adapted that oath in their commencement ceremonies to describe the ideal educated person:

We will never bring disgrace to this our city, by any act of dishonesty or cowardice, nor ever desert our suffering comrades in the ranks. We will fight for our ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the city’s laws and do our best to incite a like respect in those above us who are prone to annul them and set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public sense of civic duty. Thus in all these ways we will transmit this city not only not less but far greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.[2]

At the same time, “higher” education (or education beyond high school) should prepare adults to question tradition, criticize their society’s existing values and institutions, and create new forms of knowledge and wisdom. College should expand our freedom as well as preserve it. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, who helped establish one of America’s first public universities, we should “follow truth wherever it may lead,” enjoying “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”[3]

A college education in history, especially at a public college like RCBC, should do both of these things at once. Carefully studying the past will help you think for yourself—using resources provided by the people of Burlington County—while inspiring you to cooperate with others in making your society freer, wiser, and more beautiful in the years to come.

You may find some irony in my posting this now, right after questioning how reliably a formal humanities education improves the health of a democracy. All I can say is that this syllabus statement is aspirational and normative, not necessarily descriptive. I am setting forth what I  hope my history course will help students accomplish. The eventual outcome will depend not only upon what I do during the semester, but also what my students do—both individually and together.