Publicity for a Survey Course

I’m excited to be able to say that my modern U.S. history survey course is currently featured in a banner story on the Rowan University homepage. Barbara Baals, an assistant director of the university’s media office, came with us when we visited the Hollybush historic site, and she wrote a great article about our class.

Core history survey courses don’t often get that kind of attention, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to advertise our work.

How We Talk about Heroes with Feet of Clay

Earlier this week, near the end of class in my modern U.S. survey, an undergraduate student posed a provocative and timely question: Why do we only want to talk about the good things people from history did, and not the bad things? I think the wording was pretty close to that, though I don’t recall exactly.

In the context of the lesson, the student’s question was about public monuments, and specifically the colossal presidential faces of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. (My student particularly mentioned George Washington’s slaveholding as an example of an inconvenient truth about a historical figure.) But the question also seemed to voice a complaint about the student’s experiences in K-12 education.

We were about to run out of class period, so we tabled this question for the next lesson.

I wanted to make sure we discussed this question properly because a lot of the students in this class are education majors. Whether or not they specialize in social studies, they’ll soon be dropped into a public maelstrom centered on this problem. And many of them will have to decide how they are going to teach children responsibly about flawed figures from America’s past.

Discussion backdrop with detail from a photograph by Sergio Olmos, via OPB

To set up the conversation at the beginning of the next class period, I looked up a story from two years ago.

In October 2020—on the weekend before the federal holiday that Oregon would later designate as Indigenous Peoples Day—some two hundred people in Portland participated in an “Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage.” By the end of that night, some of the protesters had pulled down statues of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, defaced a mural of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and smashed windows at the Oregon Historical Society, accusing that organization of “honoring racist colonizer murderers.”

I focused on this story because—much more than the recent destruction of some other kinds of monuments—it presents us with legitimately challenging questions about public memory. (We’re toppling Lincoln now? Really?)

It also involves a specific atrocity I discussed in the last class period. Painted across the plinth of the Lincoln statue in Portland that night in 2020 were the words “Dakota 38”: a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s approval of the public mass execution of 38 prisoners after the U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862. The statue’s hand was also painted red, presumably to signify Lincoln’s guilt as the Dakotas’ murderer. He had authorized, notoriously, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Basically, I didn’t want to make this conversation too easy. If we wanted to talk about hard truths, we should talk about hard truths, not easy ones. Thus, to begin our discussion in the following class period, I displayed a photograph taken that night in 2020 by the Portland journalist Sergio Olmos, and I briefly explained the story of the protest.

Then I posed two questions for the whole class. First, if you agree with the premise of your colleague’s question—that we usually want to talk about only the good, and not the badwhy do you think we’re like that? Second, how can we do better when we talk about our past?

The ensuing conversation lasted half an hour—a substantial portion of our total class time.

Out of an abundance of caution about protecting my students’ privacy, especially considering the political sensitivity of the discussion, I won’t go into the details of what they contributed. But I can tell you for sure that this issue has been on the minds of some of these students.

They are keenly aware that it’s a hot political topic. They understand that politics directly shapes what K-12 teachers can safely say about American history at work. And they already have strong opinions about this, opinions they have formulated with considerable care—in most cases, I’m quite sure, before arriving in my classroom.

Even though I’m being discreet about the contents of this class discussion, I’m writing about this because I think it’s important for American citizens who aren’t attending our colleges and universities to understand that these conversations are happening. It’s also important to understand that students are often coming to their own conclusions before they arrive in the college classroom.

And sometimes, correctly or not, they believe they’re reaching these conclusions in spite of the way they’ve been taught in primary and secondary schools, as much as because of it.

A Democratic Rationale for Public Higher Education

It is not enough to see to it that education is not actively used as an instrument to make easier the exploitation of one class by another. School facilities must be secured of such amplitude and efficiency as will in fact and not simply in name discount the effects of economic inequalities, and secure to all the wards of the nation equality of equipment for their future careers. Accomplishment of this end demands not only adequate administrative provision of school facilities, and such supplementation of family resources as will enable youth to take advantage of them, but also such modification of traditional ideals of culture, traditional subjects of study and traditional methods of teaching and discipline as will retain all the youth under educational influences until they are equipped to be masters of their own economic and social careers.

— John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 114

“Inherently Corrupt and Possibly Unsalvageable”

I want to talk about two pieces of writing that have appeared online in the last few days. Both focus on the role Thomas Jefferson should play in the way we imagine American history.

One article comes from a very thoughtful historian who wants U.S. history to have something to offer everyone in America. The other is a thinly veiled racist conspiracy theory.

I think talking about them together could be illuminating.


First, in the new issue of the Hedgehog Review, Johann Neem, a historian of education, expresses concern about what he calls “post-American” narratives of United States history. An immigrant from India, Neem discusses his fear that contemporary educators are being drawn to historical narratives denying that American heritage, in anything like its traditional form, can belong to everyone.

Another way of putting this, I suppose, is that Neem takes up the question of whether it’s still appropriate to teach the history—a single inclusive history, handed down from prior generations—of a united American nation. Perversely, Neem argues, some educators may be (accidentally) joining forces with white supremacists by claiming that America has only ever been, and thus can only be, a white nation.

Continue reading ““Inherently Corrupt and Possibly Unsalvageable””

When Lies About CRT Spill Over

Yesterday, a young racist attacked a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, shooting thirteen people in a targeted attack on an African American community.

Ben Collins, a reporter covering domestic extremism and disinformation for NBC News, has published an assessment of the accused Buffalo terrorist’s manifesto. (As a matter of principle, I will not name the accused terrorist or directly address his manifesto here.) The attack is part of a string of white-power terror attacks around the world and in the United States since 2018. But it has a couple of specific elements worth noting. According to Collins, the attack appears to be related to high school education in at least two ways.

First, the accused terrorist, who is now eighteen years old, “claims that he was radicalized on 4chan”—a known breeding ground for Internet extremists, including the earliest participants in the QAnon hoax—“while he was ‘bored’ at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.” Presumably, that would be the period when his high school was closed for in-person instruction.

Second, the accused terrorist “claims ‘critical race theory,’ a recent right-wing talking point that has come to generally encompass teaching about race in school, is part of a Jewish plot, and a reason to justify mass killings of Jews.”

Assuming the manifesto is authentic, as it appears to be, this is how paranoia and political lies spill over.

Xenophobia, treated as a useful tool and amusing plaything by cynical politicians and media personalities, finds new targets, over and over again. That’s its job. But people who know better will continue finding excuses for it.

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.

What Can the Trojan Horse Hoax Tell Us About American Education Wars?

This week, I finished a podcast called The Trojan Horse Affair. It’s published by Serial Productions, which is now owned by the New York Times. In eight episodes, released together on February 3, it details the effort of two podcast journalists to find out who created a hoax that shocked the United Kingdom in 2014.

The hosts are Brian Reed, a This American Life producer best known as the host of the controversial 2017 podcast S-Town, and Hamza Syed, a former medical doctor who introduced Reed to the story and began reporting on it for a graduate-school project.

Syed is a Muslim from Birmingham, England. The hoax was a partial letter that had purported to detail an Islamic plot—risibly dubbed “Operation Trojan Horse”—to take over Birmingham schools from the inside and indoctrinate children as extremists.

Although the Times of London, among other press outlets, had recognized the letter immediately as a likely “crude” forgery, the British government had used it as a basis for a major inquisition in Birmingham schools, a campaign to ban several Muslim educators from their life’s work, and permanent changes in British counterterrorism law. So the hoax has deeply affected people like Syed.

Now that it’s available, the Trojan Horse Affair podcast may be instructive for Americans watching today’s “education wars” play out in the United States.

Continue reading “What Can the Trojan Horse Hoax Tell Us About American Education Wars?”

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.