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.

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.

“Clear-Eyed, Nuanced, and Frank”

This morning, dozens of scholarly and educational organizations in the United States—including PEN America, the American Historical Association, the American Association of University Professors, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the American Federation of Teachers—have signed a joint statement condemning broadly-worded bills that aim to curtail discussions of racism and history in schools and colleges.

First, these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students ‘discomfort’ because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration. Educators owe students a clear-eyed, nuanced, and frank delivery of history so that they can learn, grow, and confront the issues of the day, not hew to some state-ordered ideology.

Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History, June 16, 2021

U.S. Adults Want Teachers Vaccinated

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in mid-February, adults in the United States have grown more concerned (since July 2020) about the effects of K-12 school closures on student academic progress. They have grown less concerned about the risk of SARS-CoV-2 spreading among students or teachers.

The risk of losing academic ground is now the leading factor cited by American adults as a determinant of whether schools should return to in-person instruction—ahead of students’ emotional wellbeing as well as pandemic transmission risks.

However, almost three in five American adults still say that K-12 school buildings should not reopen for in-person instruction until teachers have the chance to get vaccinated.

That becomes an overwhelming consensus among Black, Hispanic, Asian, and lower-income adults, as well as among Democrats, all of whom say, at least two-to-one and as much as four-to-one, that teachers should be vaccinated before K-12 schools return to in-person instruction.

In other words, statistically, the most vulnerable Americans are also the ones who most want teachers vaccinated before K-12 school buildings reopen.

You can find the news release about the report, along with links to the full data, at the Pew Research Center’s website.

“Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country”

I have been reluctant to comment on the “1776 Report.”

If you aren’t familiar with it, this is a document that Donald Trump’s White House published early this week. 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.

I wasn’t sure I had anything useful to add to the conversation about it, especially considering that Joe Biden took office only two days later, rendering the “1776 Report” a dead letter. Biden disbanded the 1776 Commission on Wednesday afternoon with his first executive order. (The “1776 Report” was archived as a matter of routine when the new administration took office. It is available in the National Archives’ copy of the Trump presidential website.)

However, 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.”

I do have some things to say about that.

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.

Continue reading ““Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country””

Quick Update on Credentials

This is a very minor announcement, but it feels more important because it took so long during the pandemic. Some seven months after I applied—which was just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and shut down agency offices—the New Jersey Department of Education has finally issued me a certificate of eligibility in social studies (CE 2300). This is a content-area endorsement for prospective public school teachers that covers not only history but also anthropology, economics, geography, government, political science, and sociology.

This is not a teaching certification, as that term is usually understood; it’s more like an authorization to begin working toward a teaching certification. (By itself, it represents little more than state affirmation of academic credentials I already had.) For now, nothing about my career as a college instructor has changed.

Still, I’m very happy to be able, finally, to add this to the inventory.

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Image: New Jersey State Normal School, Montclair, N.J., 1912. New Jersey State Library, Digital Jerseyana Collection, Montclair Postcards. Public domain.