The truth about the history making wars in 2022

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In 1996, Ralph Reed, chairman of the Christian Coalition, urged his conservative legions to take over America’s public schools. “I’d rather have a thousand school board members than one president,” said Reed, whose organization sought to “bring America back to God” through school prayer, Bible reading, and bans on evolution classes.

Former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon also called on right-wing Americans to conquer the schools last year. “The path to saving the nation is very simple – it’s through the school board,” Bannon said. But Bannon mentioned neither God nor religion; Instead, he warned against critical race theory and the 1619 project.

This is the most significant change in our school wars in the last two decades: they have become secular. Conservatives have attacked public education for as long as it has existed. But they used to scold schools for hollowing out God and country, as the saying goes. Now they are leaving God out of the equation and focusing their anger on the way schools teach about American history and identity. They have led campaigns to ban the teaching of critical race theory, teaching about gender norms, and anything else that seems to threaten traditional conceptions of the nation.

It would be a healthy thing for our democracy if schools took this moment to deliberate our differing views on America. But today’s GOP campaign aims to stifle that debate, not provoke it. Witness the avalanche of government measures banning the teaching of “divisive issues,” particularly race and gender. These laws seek to enforce a narrative unique to the United States because, sadly, we no longer have a common one.

And that’s new too. Previous conflicts over history in schools typically concerned who was part of the story, not its larger arc and purpose. Our textbooks described America as a land of liberty and progress, but they denigrated – or simply shut down – women and racial minorities. So these groups fought tooth and nail to win a role in the grand national narrative.

But most of them also resisted questioning this story, lest they belittle their own contribution to it.

For example, in the 1920s, immigrant groups allied with Protestant patriotic societies to block critical interpretations of the American Revolution. At the universities, a new generation of historians argued that the revolution was not simply a moral game between evil redcoats and freedom-loving colonists. Some British statesmen supported American independence, large numbers of Americans opposed it, and the same nation founded on liberty and equality continued to enslave millions of blacks.

But when students encounter this complexity, Polish immigrants fear they may think less of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish nobleman who supported the American cause. Ethnic Germans feared that their own Revolutionary War heroes, Baron DeKalb and Molly Pitcher (born, the Germans said, Maria Ludwig) would not look quite as heroic. African Americans rallied to defend Crispus Attucks, the first human to die in the revolution. And Jewish Americans wanted to protect the good name of Haym Salomon, the Philadelphia merchant who helped finance it.

The history curriculum sparked controversy during the Civil Rights era — when black protesters campaigned to remove racial defenses of slavery from textbooks — and into the 1990s, when a proposed set of national history standards ruffled conservative luminaries like William Bennett and Lynne Cheney. But the standards that gave renewed attention to women and racial minorities fell squarely into the traditional story of freedom and progress. “Can there be a grander narrative more powerful, coherent, democratic and inspirational than the struggles of groups that have suffered discrimination?” asked the Standards effort’s leaders. Indeed, added one teacher who helped develop the standards, Thomas Jefferson himself would have been proud of the project.

In short, as the tension over the story flared, we inserted new actors into the old story. But America’s religious struggles could not be settled in the same additive way. Either humans evolved from apes or they didn’t; Either Jesus was the Messiah or he wasn’t. Most schools conducted prayers and scripture readings from the Protestant Bible, prompting angry objections from Catholics and non-Christians alike. Others ran “release-time” classes, theoretically allowing families to choose their own denominational instruction.

Much of this activity ended in the early 1960s when the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading. Conservative Christians struggled to keep it, designing sports team prayers and other activities to “smuggle” religion (a football metaphor, of course) into schools.

But they fought a losing battle. Church membership and attendance have declined sharply since 2000. Meanwhile, Orthodox believers were increasingly abandoning public schools for Christian academies or simply homeschooling their children. Dispersed communities still struggle over religion, like in the Washington state school district, which said a football coach can’t pray on the field after games. (Earlier this year the Supreme Court ruled it could do so.) Overall, however, the religious wars in our schools have cooled significantly.

But our struggles for history are now blazing like never before. Over the past two decades, historians and activists have raised new questions about America’s greater purpose and meaning. Rather than simply bringing new actors into the same triumphant story, they asked if the story was a triumph—and for whom. This isn’t just about what Jefferson would have liked. Instead, the question is whether we should like Jefferson, a man who enslaved people and fathered children with one of them.

Such challenges prompted the predictable outcry from Republicans, particularly after the 2008 election of Barack Obama. The Tea Party movement and other conservatives claimed—falsely—that Obama was born in another country to end the “American state of emergency.” defend in schools. In practice, that often meant ridding textbooks of material on slavery, Native American expulsions, and anything else that seemed to cast the nation in a negative light.

All of these tensions exploded during Donald Trump’s presidency. The 2017 white rally in Charlottesville and the 2020 police killing of George Floyd — plus Trump’s own racist rhetoric — sparked even more debate about the nation’s past. The 1619 Project was not simply a demand to include minority voices in the American story of liberty and progress. Instead, as the name suggests, it rooted that narrative in slavery and oppression. Trump responded with his own flag-waving 1776 Commission, which President Biden dissolved as soon as he took office.

But the battle for history continues, not only in local debates at school board meetings — as Bannon demanded — but also in state buildings. New legislation restricting the teaching of race and gender in schools has all been sponsored by Republicans who feel — rightly so — that the American history they grew up with is being scrutinized like never before.

And so is another story, one about religion and nation that liberals used to tell: As the country secularized, Americans would become more tolerant and more united. But the opposite happened. We split into hostile political camps that became quasi-religions in their own right.

The real question is whether either team would be okay with their beliefs being criticized in schools. How many Americans would agree to showing our students documents from the 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission and letting them choose which story they prefer? American history is a lot muddier than either side cares to admit. It combines the noble ideals that the right wants to emphasize and the oppressive reality that the left insists on incorporating. Good history teaching incorporates both perspectives and, above all, requires students to understand them. This is not to say that we must give “equal time” to Holocaust denial or other patently false claims. But we must recognize that equally sane people use the same facts to arrive at different views of our common past.

We cannot celebrate America for valuing individual freedom of thought and then tell each individual what to think. To heal our broken nation, we must allow our future citizens to tell the story for themselves.

This essay is the first in the PEN America-sponsored Freedom to Learn series and provides historical context for controversies surrounding free speech in education today.

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