Don’t Know Much About History…

Time Magazine recently reported on what it called America’s “history wars.” The article began by reporting on the results of a survey fielded by the National Institute for the Humanities, and revealed–I know you’ll be shocked–that while 84% of Republicans believe that history classes should “celebrate our nation’s past,” 70% of Democrats think history should question it.

The article took pains to say that the divisions over teaching history weren’t all partisan.

White respondents are more than twice as likely as people of color to feel that the histories of racial and ethnic minorities garner too much attention. Those with a college degree see men dominating the thoughts of historians at nearly twice the rate that non-degreed respondents do. Age is likewise a factor, with people in the 18-29 bracket calling for more attention to LGBTQ history by a 19-point margin, relative to those in the 50-64 age range. The “history wars” are thus polarizing beyond the party affiliations within which they are typically framed.

Of course, as political scientists might point out, people of color, people with college degrees and younger Americans are more likely to be Democrats these days, so the stark differences do map onto party affiliation.

Republicans are doing what they can to add the teaching of history to their arsenal of culture war issues. Thirty-six Republicans joined with Mitch McConnell in sending a scathing letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, accusing him of endorsing a “politicized and divisive agenda” in the teaching of American history. 

Historian Heather Cox Richardson explained the genesis of that accusation.

On April 19, the Department of Education called for public comments on two priorities for the American History and Civics Education programs. Those programs work to improve the “quality of American history, civics, and government education by educating students about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights; and… the quality of the teaching of American history, civics, and government in elementary schools and secondary schools, including the teaching of traditional American history.”

The department is proposing two priorities to reach low-income students and underserved populations. The Republicans object to the one that encourages “projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning.”

This assault comes on the heels of the GOP’s hysterical objections to the New York Times 1619 project. The Times describes the Project as an ongoing initiative that began in August 2019, a date chosen because it was the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. The project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

It is certainly possible that historians might quibble over this or that element of the Times curriculum, or that different scholars might bring different perspectives to aspects of America’s history. Those scholarly disputes, however, are not what is animating the GOP assault. 

The current battle over the teaching of history is a battle between two utterly unreconcilable world-views: a semi-religious hagiography/mythology grounded in White supremacy, on the one hand, and an insistence that the study of history be an accurate accounting of where we’ve been–both good and bad– on the other.

As the Time Magazine article noted, and as many students can verify, history classes–especially in high schools (where they are often taught by coaches whose interests are more focused on playing fields) are too often taught as dry collections of dates and facts, rather than as a form of inquiry, an unfolding story in which event A led to reaction B and consideration of how that reaction shaped still other events and attitudes. Accurate history–including good faith scholarly debates over the importance, description or impact  of past episodes– can illuminate how America came to be the country it is, and help us navigate the future.

National myths have their place, but that place isn’t history class.


  1. Former Gov. Mitch Daniels called Zinn’s book execrable and tried to ban its use in Indiana’s public high schools and universities. So it’s got that going for it.

  2. This is a good and timely article, relating to the hysteria of the parents in Hamilton County who are objecting to the teaching of Critical Race Theory in the school systems in Carmel and elsewhere. The fear is that in uncovering the history of minority groups that has been ignored in our education will in some way do harm to the history of our country. It does not. Instead it creates a more true picture of our past that gives us a chance to change and heal from the harm of injustice so we as a people can move forward and improve the lot for all.
    I think Americans are capable of realizing that our country is great, and at the same time has made serious mistakes that need to be addressed.

  3. Joseph,

    Zinn’s history book is truth-seeking at its finest, and the Republicans hate it. Mitch Daniels, when governor, censored it and called Zinn nasty names when he died. This was several years before he positioned himself at the helm of Purdue University. The recent tribute to Mitch by Inside Indiana Business was outstanding propaganda.

    The current news/political spectrum from right to left should be replaced with propaganda on the right and truth on the left. It would be much more accurate than the current realm of politics.

    With a global free press ranking of 44th, the leadership of this country made themselves look silly last week, endorsing freedom of the press and its importance to a thriving democracy (we rank 25th in global democracies). Independent journalists blasted Biden and Blinken for their outrageous hypocrisy. They’re in the throes of deep denial or sociopaths.

    We need a global truth campaign coordinated by independent journalists, historians, subject matter experts who can assemble and tell it like it is. As citizenry, we are grossly misinformed about our history and current events. Quite frankly, television is mass consumerism at its finest while it misinforms the masses daily. None of it resembles the truth.

    We are now four months beyond a legitimate attempt of a coup or insurrection in this country, and we still cannot get the truth from our intelligence agencies, politicians, or media.

    We had politicians clamoring the past two days about Hamas’s weapons flying into Israel having Iran’s name on them, but nothing about Israel’s armory having the US’s name. It’s all perverted to cover up our real motives. Propaganda.

  4. The screaming about critical race theory is just a way for the right-wing to deflect from it intentions to erect a blockade against anything the Biden administration wants to do. It convinces the white supremacists (in both parties) that they are in danger of losing their superiority, as the “others” increase in the population and in political influence.

  5. Joseph, Zinn’s book is largely correct. Again, there are things scholars might quibble about, but the reaction against it comes from a desire to mythologize American history rather than learning from it.

  6. Parents complaining about “critical race theory” should first be required to explain what it is and if they had even heard about it until one guy went on Fox news to complain about it. Then, they should be required to admit that the Founding Fathers left out all the mothers. That the Civil War was about slavery (proving how well the “all men are created equal” thing worked out.) That due to Jim Crow, their parents lived in legally segregated, red-lined neighborhoods and attended legally segregated schools. And, that it was a potentially fatal act to register to vote or to ride a Greyhound. Nothing critical about that stuff is there?

  7. Do we celebrate centuries of slavery with the founding fathers being slave holders, the Civil War to end slavery followed by what was called the Republican “Reconstruction” of the southern states which has reappeared as the party of Donald Trump? Do we celebrate the continuation of Jim Crow laws which now includes denying civil and voting rights to all minorities and is financed by Citizens United? Do we celebrate the continuation of attempted destruction and denial of citizenship of our Native Americans? Do we celebrate the United States who denied sanctuary to a ship filled with Jews, many released from Concentration camps and told they would be welcome here? They were returned to Germany and most of them returned to Concentration camps where they died. Do we celebrate the execution of Private Slovic with a barely normal IQ who became separated from his platoon during a battle and considered a deserter in WWII and the Court Marshal of Capt. McVey of the USS Indianapolis with this country bringing the Japanese Capt. of the submarine which torpedoed the ship to testify against Capt. McVey? Most of these were lessons of dark chapters of our history learned long after the events due to access to information hidden from the public.

    Do we now and will we in the future celebrate the past six years of chaotic government lack of leadership based on the changing whims of a mentally unstable man which began when he came down that escalator in 2015 and announced to cheering crowds of racists he was running for the presidency? Who will write the history of America’s appointed president who allowed the Covid-19 to become part of the Pandemic by having repealed President Obama’s bill preparing for the prevention of a pandemic happening here? And the repeated attempts to end health care for all Americans? Almost 600 MILLION Americans are dead from Covid-19 and the Trumpists are still allowing it to continue by telling their followers not to wear masks or take advantage of the vaccines. This is recent history, not yet in our history books but available on thousands of web sites on the Internet.

    “Accurate history–including good faith scholarly debates over the importance, description or impact of past episodes– can illuminate how America came to be the country it is, and help us navigate the future.”

    “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” We are already on that path to our own destruction as the once strongest and most trusted nation in the world; warts and all, we were once the greatest. Not until Trump’s tyrannical reign, hiding behind the name of the Republican party, is ended, dead and buried will we return as a world leader.

  8. As long as the Texas School Board has such great sway over textbook selection, we know that nothing approaching the truth will be taught from the textbooks in our schools. That being said, a textbook is a terrible way to learn history. Museums are much better suited to the task.

    For those who might like a lighter approach to history, may I recommend a television show, “Adam Ruins Everything.” It got canceled in 2019, but you can still find the episodes out there on You-Tube. He doesn’t get everything right, but he gets a lot more right than most of us are used to.

  9. Revisionist/denial history has always been a major tool in the fascist’s kit. I taught science in Texas for five years and saw the political impact on public education there first hand. Peggy is right. I had to review biology texts in my rural district for the “big buy” one year. Naturally, I selected the book that gave evolution and developmental biology the most correct and thorough examination. The school board went nuts. Note: The town had a population of 780 with 7 churches of different Christian sects.

    Zinn’s book is terrific. It certainly opened my eyes to our history, history that I was taught in Ohio in the late 1950s. Yes, history/government were date recitation classes, except for those that weren’t. During my 12 years as a public school teacher between 1994 – 2007, most of the history/government/social studies classes were indeed taught by coaches in both Colorado and Texas. I knew of one excellent history/government teacher who drilled deeply into U.S. History and used Socratic methodology to bring our past to light. The kids loved him.

    As we see from the Republican attacks on anything not white and Christian, they refuse to accept the basic premise for the successful evolution of humans: WE LEARNED FROM OUR MISTAKES IN ORDER TO SURVIVE.

  10. While history can high light the critical problems of the past 5000 or so years in the various cultures of antiquity to the present, it does not solve a single issue today anywhere in the world. It’s a lot easier to bitch about the moles and weeds in my yard than getting rid of them. Of course I blame my neighbors, still does not solve the problem.

    That’s where our society is today, reliving the past 20 or more generations of social/political/economic ills but doing nothing today to improve them BECAUSE IT REQUIRES HARD WORK BY ALL WITH THE PRIVILEGED TAKING THE LEAD.

    Was and is slavery wrong? Absolutely!! We can’t undo how our ancestors lived beyond identifying the cause and effect of those actions and working to avoid them both in the present and the future.


  11. Peggy, I would also recommend “Drunk History”. It, too, was canceled, but can be found.

  12. BTW, Thanks for the earworm, Professor! Glad it’s an old tune I love. Sam Cooke is suddenly relevant again and it would indeed be a “Wonderful World” if people did know much about history.

  13. I don’t mind myths so long as they are clearly designated and explained as such. Who would want to be deprived of Snow White and Aesop? Trouble is, the Trump crowd apparently cannot distinguish between Paul Bunyan and Don Trump. Critical thinking (in short supply) to the fore! But the hard white right is not only opposed to teaching slavery as evil; they also want the Cartesian blank slates to be deprived of the necessary tools to make informed and small d judgments in re this “peculiar” institution.
    We cannot pretend to see the politicization of history as something new (see the civil war history as written by northern and southern historians, which is a history in and of itself). Cleansing a society of its mythology won’t happen, so we are left with the task of living with it while treating its excesses. Those such as the president of Purdue who profit by not so subtly appealing to racists via mythology are such “excesses” and are to be called out for their massah theatrics. There is one race – with varying hues – and that’s no myth. See Darwin.

  14. Over time, history has come to be regarded as scripture, dogma, set in stone. My strategy was to teach from documents and ask questions (what does this letter tell us? etc.) and encourage discussion. As inquiry, history stimulates deepening understanding and encourages an open mind. Exams still focused on facts as well as conflicting ways that they can be interpreted. And it’s fun.

  15. Sheila. You are about to get blasted by a HUGE group of high school teachers (not just Social Studies) for your “supported” remark about the level of instruction in high school history classes. Times Article is inaccurate. To some history can and should be an exciting and engaging universe. It can also be dry and boring. What was you own remembrance of those classes?
    You are brilliant but on this score you suck.
    It turns out that many teachers also coach. John Wooden is an example.
    You screwed up the GOP position about academics by the coaching remark and you lost my focus.
    You have pissed me off.

  16. Americans will not benefit from a “white washed” history of our nation. There are many people in minorities who are absolute heroes in our nation. They made major sacrifices for our country. All those men and women who have helped us make a “more perfect union” should be celebrated.”

    I don’t know how long Zinn’s book is, but I will have to read it based on what all of you are saying about his history book.

    Our country is an “experiment” in democracy. It is a messy process in which we move forward and then backward again. And yes, we must not only have a more accurate presentation of our messy history but must also address the continued gap between the ideals in our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in the present day.

    History can help us understand where we are today on these issues. The question is how shall we move forward to create a union amidst diverse races, sexual orientations, faith traditions, and ethnicities. If we we wish to truly be the beacon of liberty for the world then we must become a country that ensures the civil rights of all the citizens of this country. We have made progress ( ie the 14th and 19th amendments), but we still have work to do.

    COVID has revealed the glaring disparity in access to health care and other civil rights’ issues. The horrific murder of George Floyd has awakend us to the racial disparities in police departments and the criminal justice system. We still have lots of work to do.

    I am deeply grateful to all those people who have moved our country forward to become true to the ideals of our democracy. We all stand on their shoulders. May we each find the courage to get into “good trouble” as John Lewis and others have done.

  17. It is time for “history”, especially American, to be to be about the establishment and evolution of the “American Idea”, with heavy doses of critical thinking exercise – not about dates, events, etc. on multiple choice tests. If it is about the principles and values demonstrated in “what happened”, then all screaming “identity” groups will have their due without fueling more culture wars.

    As I have grown older, it has been become crystal clear to me that my jaundiced view of our history is not from twisted versions, but simply not being exposed to “what happened” in school.

  18. JoAnn: “Almost 600 MILLION Americans are dead from Covid-19.” I think you meant to say 600 thousand.

    Isn’t this another discussion about whether truth is superior to lies? Lying makes us feel better sometimes, but I can’t come up with a second benefit. As awful as we are, America is superior in many ways to many other countries. Shouldn’t that be sufficient to let us beat our chests until we feel better about ourselves and our homeland? Can’t we just acknowledge that the human race is no prize and that the surprising thing about it is that, against daunting odds, it produces so many stellar individuals (most of whom are flawed in some way)?

  19. I had the typical Baby Boomer version of history. Essentially, the USA was the good guy in the White Hat. The Vietnam War protests and the Civil Rights Marches and demonstrations upset that vanilla history we were taught.

    Two books gave me a better insight into our history – Howard Zinn’s book and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The progress of our nation was not the vanilla history of slow but sure change for the better.

    The Progressives were resisted every step of way by Reactionary forces, including the 1% and their enforcers at the local, state and federal levels, which included elected officials, the police and the courts.

  20. Sheila: “while 84% of Republicans believe that history classes should “celebrate our nation’s past,” 70% of Democrats think history should question it.”

    That all comes down to whether one is seeking truth and enlightenment or reassurance and obfuscation. Today’s discussion here at home is why America cancelled the Enlightenment in favor of the Unenlightenment (aka The Dumbing Down of America or “Reagan’s Big Idea”).

  21. Terry; Mea culpa! Of course I meant thousands; everything else is counted in the millions today, I lost my concentration in being so enraged by all of the Covid-19 numbers which are in the millions.

  22. It seems that Republicans are no longer into governance at all but have, as befits cults, become culture incubators. What they are betting on is that a culture based on lies will support a government based on lies.

    What else could they do when the real culture based on truth is no longer on their side?

  23. As long as national myths are exposed as such and demonstrated to be false they should be covered and discussed in history classes. They are a vital part of the American past,

  24. Stephen – It is neither the fault of Sheila nor the coaches that coaches are frequently chosen to teach history; it is the fault of the administrative folks in charge of curricular design and allocation of resources, folks who apparently underappreciate history and other social studies in favor of STEM worship.

    My now deceased wife, a university professor of education, was an expert in curricular design and made me aware of the reality Sheila cites along with other such administrative anomolies in the world of education. She was invariably chosen to represent her department when the accreditation teams came to campus and was able to maintain accreditation for all of the courses offered by her department, including one she personally invented and which I doubt anyone else could teach, coach through Einstein. It was called “Creative Modes of Expression.” How she ran that one by the accreditation teams I’ll never know, but she did. There must have been more substance to that course offering than I as a mere lawyer and interested onlooker could appreciate.

    I think your offense is justified but misdirected.

  25. “History,” as I see it ought to be about what actually happened, “…an insistence that the study of history be an accurate accounting of where we’ve been–both good and bad….” Zinn’s book is of the latter sort.
    The GOP likes the fairy tales, which, perhaps, literally white-wash the story.
    Hagiographers need to go the way of gas street lamps, especially as they are full of gas.

  26. “I know you’ll be shocked–that while 84% of Republicans believe that history classes should “celebrate our nation’s past,” 70% of Democrats think history should question it.”

    Both are wrong.

    We should teach human knowledge of history as it has been ascertained to be by professional historians.

    There can be of course culture based on fact and cultures based on fiction. History has recorded that certainly. The ones based on fiction always eventually give way to the ones based on fact.

    That’s going on today in America and in fact around the world. It doesn’t serve right-wing politicians. They are about to become a casualty of the process and they are fighting tooth and nail to survive it.

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