The wars of American history | The Economist


PARENTS ARE scandalized by a new program. Politicians fear educators will indoctrinate students with a non-American revisionist history. Progressives argue that this updated version of the program reflects an American reality that should not be hidden from children. The two camps clash during school meetings, teachers are under fire from criticism. The problem could be the current controversy over critical race theory in the classroom. Or it could be one of the many skirmishes of the past century over the teaching of history, whether it was pro-British or if it was pro-Marxist.

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Critical Race Theory (cathode ray tube), which became the battleground this time, originated in the 1970s as a legal perspective that emphasized the role of systemic racism (as opposed to individual racism) in reproducing inequalities. The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank seeking to prevent the teaching of critical race theory in schools, describes the set of ideas as follows: a “perspective … who believes that all events and ideas around us … Must be explained in terms of racial identities. ”. To complicate the argument, some conservatives use the phrase to encompass everything from discussions of institutional racism to diversity training.

Twenty-six states have introduced measures that would limit critical race theory in public schools, according to EdWeek. Federal lawmakers are also crammed into the debate. Seven Republican Senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, reintroduced the Saving American History Act in June to limit federal funding to schools that use a program derived from Project 1619, a set of Pulitzer Prize-winning essays published by the New York Times magazine that places slavery at the center of the nation’s founding and development (and has received mixed reviews from professional historians). The federal bill, originally introduced in July 2020, is mostly symbolic: Congress has little control over state and local curriculum, and the bill is unlikely to pass when there is Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. But the policy is clear. Republicans believe that a war on critical race theory is good policy, even if attempts to ban it could prove unconstitutional.

The Tennessee bill, signed by the governor in May, prohibits public schools from teaching concepts that promote “discomfort, guilt, anxiety or some other form of psychological distress.” Texas law specifically prohibits Project 1619, prevents teachers from awarding course credit for “advocacy for social or public policy,” prohibits required training “that exhibits any form of racial or sexual stereotyping or blame on the subject. basis of race or gender ”, and restricts the teaching that“ slavery and racism are anything other than deviations, betrayals, or breaches of the genuine founding principles of the United States ”. Idaho law prevents any public institution, including colleges, from “coercing[ling] for students to affirm, adopt or adhere personally ”to the concepts according to which“ individuals… are intrinsically responsible for actions committed in the past ”. In May, the lieutenant governor of Idaho convened a task force “to protect our young people from the scourge of critical theory of race, socialism, communism and Marxism.”

It is not known to what extent theory, as described by liberals or conservatives, is taught in classrooms. According to the Heritage Foundation, another conservative think tank, 43% of teachers know cathode ray tube, and only 30% of this group view it favorably (about one in ten overall). Despite this, the National Association of Education (NEA), America’s largest union, recently released a statement embracing cathode ray tube.

This competition on how to tell national history may seem new, but it is part of a century-old struggle. The battle began after schooling became compulsory in all states in 1918. In the 1920s David Muzzey, a historian, was called a traitor for his textbook “An American History,” which critics say undermined the American spirit with pro-British distortions. of the Revolution and the War of 1812. According to Gary Nash, a historian, an opponent of Muzzey’s text claimed that American children would now sing “God Save the King” instead of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” after reading it. . Attempts to ban the book failed: it sold millions of copies.

Choose your own manual

Other controversies followed. In the 1930s, Harold Rugg, an education teacher, was accused of “sovietizing our children” by conservatives, who claimed that his textbook focused on American social ills and propagated Marxism. The McCarthy era spurred investigations of teachers labeled as Communist sympathizers. In the 1970s, the Textbook Wars led to violence in West Virginia, where protesters bombed schools and injured reporters over books with controversial multicultural content. The Liberals have also attempted to censor documents. In the 1980s, literary critic and professor ED Hirsch published a list of common knowledge for American children that became a New York Times Bestseller. Liberal critics accused Mr. Hirsch of prioritizing the achievements of white men and the prospects of Western Europe.

The most analogous fight, however, may have taken place in the 1990s over voluntary national history standards. The elective curriculum, originally designed under the administration of George HW Bush and continued under Bill Clinton, has been mocked by conservatives. Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, presidential candidate, declared her opposition in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal titled “The End of History”. Ms Cheney accused the standards of “political correctness” and lamented the lack of representation of white men in the program: Ulysses S. Grant had only one mention and Robert E. Lee had none, compared to six for Harriet Tubman. The Senate passed a resolution condemning voluntary standards, killing the program.

“These attacks are still tied to what was going on in politics at the time,” says Mr. Nash, who helped create the voluntary national standards. The Understanding America study, a nationally representative survey conducted by the University of Southern California, found Americans united about the importance of civic education for children. With little partisan disagreement, a majority of parents agree that it is important for children to learn about how government works (85%) and about voting requirements (79%).

But political differences emerge over who should feature prominently in history lessons. Parents’ opinions diverge on the importance of learning about women (87% of Democratic parents are in favor against 66% of Republican parents) and non-whites (83% against 60%). The gap is greater in discussions of inequality. A majority of Democratic parents said it was important for students to learn about racism (88%) and income inequality (84%) compared to less than half of Republican parents (45% and 37% respectively).

Conservatives tend to argue that students should learn a unified, upbeat version of American history, and that learning about specific groups is divisive. “Critical Race Theory is destructive because it advocates racial discrimination through affinity groups, racial guilt based on your ethnicity and not your behavior, and rejects the fundamental ideas on which our freedom is based.” says Matt Beienburg of the Goldwater Institute. Meanwhile, the Liberals are open to a more fragmented and less flattering version of the country’s past.

It is this point of view that seems to be gaining ground. Howard Zinn’s “A Popular History of the United States” (told from the perspective of women and racial minorities) is also lumped under the Goldwater Institute’s Critical Race Theory Debate: It sold for 2 million copies since 1980. Project 1619 is taught in many school districts, including Chicago. According to NEA, nine states and the District of Columbia have laws or policies establishing multicultural studies or ethnic studies programs.

Greg Lukianoff, chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit, urges liberal Americans to take conservative concerns seriously, or face a “terrifying” surge in nationalism. far right. “It’s going to get more intense as the polarization worsens and confidence wanes,” he says. If each successive historical war becomes more intense, he adds, “Where do we end up in ten to twenty years? ”

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The Wars of History”


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