J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 02, 2021

“Frantic reactions to the teaching of history”

Back in February, Prof. Michael Leroy Oberg of the State University of New York at Geneseo wrote an op-ed essay for the Syracuse Republican addressing legislative pressures to limit what public school history teachers could teach.

Oberg wrote:

Frantic reactions to the teaching of history are commonplace. Teaching history is always political. Debate over what stories to include and what to exclude are fundamental to the very enterprise of history. It is impossible to include everything, so choices have to be made, and those choices can easily spark debate and discord.

There always has existed a tension between history as civic education (aimed at the production of patriotic and law-abiding citizens) and history as an academic discipline (the critical study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures).
The accurate study of history may make it harder for teachers and other adults to promote admiration for the society being studied. However, if the goal of education is improvement of that society, then studying the actual history is a necessary part of the process.

Since this essay appeared, several state legislatures have taken up and in some cases passed bills aiming to limit how history is taught in specific ways. Despite concurrent complaints from the political right about historical figures or voices being “cancelled,” that same wing is trying to define what can’t be taught in public schools and colleges.

The particular bogeymen held up by sponsors of those bills are the New York Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project” and “critical race theory,” which the laws rarely define (and if they do, never as the concept’s actual originators did). Obviously the tender spot is the undeniable history of racial discrimination in America.

Oberg saw the initiatives coming this year as the latest manifestation of a long pattern:
The [modern] Republican Party’s positions have been consistent. Republicans argued against “multiculturalism” in the 1980s, against the National History Standards in the 1990s, and current efforts to write and teach a more inclusive history. Always, they stand opposed to discussions of slavery, violence and dispossession. . . .

As a result, if you argue, as nearly every historian does, that enslavement was central to the growth and development of the United States, that the Constitution as an instrument of governance protected the institution of slavery and hard-wired its governing institutions for control by slavers, you are anathema to today’s Republican Party. If you assert that this country could not have developed in the way that it did without a systematic program of Native American dispossession, your loyalty is suspect.
In fact, if people are truly loyal to the idea that, as Abraham Lincoln said, the U.S. of A. is “dedicated to the proposition that all men [and women] are created equal,” then they should accept the meaning of the word “proposition.” That is a hypothesis to be proven, a challenge to be met, an ongoing responsibility to fix problems.

Limiting how teachers discuss the history of race discrimination in America would be simply giving up on that proposition. It would confirm that American society is inherently, irreparably racist—exactly the idea that the people pushing these new laws ostensibly object to.

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