By Robert Maranto, University of Arkansas
We cannot take the politics out of public schools, because decisions about what to teach and what to leave out are inherently political. Social-studies curricula seem the most political of all, since they lack the precision of math and combine history with heritage.
Though often wedded together, history and heritage differ. Like all tribes, the people of the United States have a shared heritage, the legends inspiring us to continue our nation. In contrast, the field of history is a Western invention seeking to portray what happened, warts and all. Heritage is Mason Weems’s myth that young George Washington confessed to chopping down the cherry tree because he couldn’t tell a lie. Arguably, history with a bit of heritage is Washington’s evolving discomfort with and eventual rejection of slavery.
These definitions matter, because the United States is a multicultural democracy where heritage influences the histories schools teach. As Jonathan Zimmerman observes in his classic Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, in the 1920s, Italians and Norwegians fought over whether Christopher Columbus or Leif Eriksson discovered America. Germans burnished their American credentials by inserting the historically unimportant but identifiably German Molly Pitcher into school textbooks; African Americans added Crispus Attucks. Marginalized groups thus married into the American heritage taught in schools.
In contrast, the early-20th-century Southern white activists promulgating the Lost Cause myths undermined both history and American heritage, creating a new Southern heritage through Southern schoolbooks whitewashing the Confederate cause. As Zimmerman details, the United Daughters of the Confederacy held student-essay contests defending slavery. One award winner portrayed slavery as “the happiest time of the negroes’ existence.” Zimmerman writes that “Confederate groups often challenged the entire concept of objectivity in history” by insisting that their lived experience offered unique insights that Northern scholars with their so-called objective historical methods could never uncover.
This should all sound familiar today. After suffering their own Appomattox with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Marxists became the new Confederates, supplanting scholarship with lived experience, stories, and now tweets. As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay detail in Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody, in recent decades academic (and now journalistic) leftists replaced class politics with identity politics, retreating into postmodern rejection of universal truths. Accordingly, it would be a mistake in teaching about slavery to rely too much on tendentious sources such as the New York Times’s 1619 Project.
Some assert that American schools ignore slavery. This statement was probably accurate—in 1970. My children, one a high school senior and the other a recent graduate, agreed that our Arkansas public schools covered slavery and Jim Crow between six and eight times in 12 grades—far more than they covered the founding of the United States, the Constitution, or World War II; indeed, the latter made an appearance only once, or twice, counting a Holocaust unit. My kids also observed, however, that their schools’ treatment of slavery, like their coverage of history overall, was superficial. As one of my children put it, “They teach you slavery is bad, but not much else.” (This may characterize Arkansas standards generally. A recent Fordham Institute report rated them as “mediocre,” observing that, “strangely,” the topic of secession is not addressed in the state’s Arkansas history standard and that “the lack of direct references to slavery” in that standard was “notable.”) To the degree that our local teachers covered slavery, it was primarily through political history, as a key cause of the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and the Civil War, suggesting that state standards may bear little relation to what happens in class. Relatedly, Jim Crow is taught primarily through a matter of local interest, the integration of Little Rock Central. In fairness, as the Fordham Institute report makes clear, coverage of slavery and of history generally lacks depth in most states, not just in the South.
So what is to be done? You can’t beat something with nothing, so on the elementary level, schools might adopt the relatively specific Core Knowledge curricula, developed by E. D. Hirsch, in which knowledge builds on knowledge. To a far greater degree than is true of typical curricular approaches from education consultants, Core Knowledge focuses less on amorphous “skills” and more on facts, which provides the foundation for more knowledge and for interpretations. As Hirsch writes in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, psychological research shows that “the ability to learn something new depends on an ability to accommodate the new thing to the already known.” The more we already know, the easier it is to learn new information; hence better curricula can help. Teacher quality also matters. On the secondary level, where I do fieldwork, educators joke that every social-studies teacher has the same first name—“Coach”—suggesting the need to hire knowledgeable teachers, not those for whom teaching is a secondary priority and whose main expertise is athletics. Meanwhile, when educators teach about the owning of human beings, as indeed they should, they should teach within the context that slavery was not uniquely American but has existed in countries with every major religious tradition and on every inhabited continent. (Core Knowledge does this.) When teachers cover slavery, they should include discussions of which countries ended slavery, when, and why, perhaps using visual aids such as maps to help convey the information.
Educators could also make the broader point that nearly every country once had (and that some still have) slavery, but only America can claim the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the reconstruction of Europe and Japan after World War II, and an indispensable role in defeating the twin evils of fascism and communism. It is these uniquely American contributions that should define our nation for today’s schoolchildren and tomorrow’s citizens.