Culture Warriors—on Both Sides—Are Wrong About America’s History Classrooms

For the past half-decade, amid overheated rhetoric contesting the very essence of national identity, Americans have been subjected to competing caricatures of the country’s history classrooms. Progressives have voiced fears that the typical U.S. history curriculum is a whitewashed fable that suppresses uncomfortable truths about slavery and race. Conservatives have claimed the opposite—that educators, swept up in a hypercritical obsession with race, now teach children to hate their country. The good news is that neither of these panicked portrayals are accurate. Media accounts of a politically charged war for the soul of social studies are overblown.

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For the better part of two years, the American Historical Association has been carefully gathering an empirical picture of the landscape of U.S. history curriculum. After a 50-state appraisal of standards and legislation, our researchers commissioned a National Opinion Research Center survey of thousands of middle and high school U.S. history educators across a sample of nine states and conducted long-form interviews with hundreds more teachers and administrators. We collected instructional materials from districts, teachers, and publishers, representing school settings from small farm towns to sprawling suburbs to big cities. Our key finding, which we are previewing here ahead of a webinar and plan to publish in full later this year, is clear: The typical American history classroom is neither awash in white supremacy nor awoke with critical race theory.

Claims by partisan pundits are also inaccurate in a more fundamental sense. Flashy national declarations can’t possibly reflect or determine what’s on teachers’ desks. Even state social studies standards, a topic around which considerable political energy can (and should) be spent, tells us little about what schoolwork looks like.

Read more: Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History

The American education system, famously devolved and divided, has as many curricular decision points as there are districts, schoolhouses, and teachers. A statewide exam that assesses U.S. history content can exert a strong aligning force on curriculum, but only a few states have a mandate to that effect.

Social studies departments are rarely structures of command and control. Depending on the locale, an ambitious administrator might set expectations about pacing, assessment, and materials, but teachers retain substantial discretion over what they’ll use in their day-to-day lessons. Textbooks have moved to the margins of the history classroom, reflecting a relentless push for “one-to-one” ratios of computing devices to students. Over 30% of teachers surveyed said they never use a textbook, and those who do are far more likely to describe them as “a reference” than something that they expect students to read regularly in class or for homework.

Instead, teachers create lessons from a vast array of digital resources from a decentralized online universe, with three quarters of those surveyed reporting that they pull no-cost materials from the web. While there is some regional variation to how teachers define a trusted resource, teachers gravitate to a short list of usual suspects, including federal institutions like the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. Today, teachers have access to resources that give students a more sophisticated understanding than ever of what it means to think, read, write, and argue like a historian.

Again, some good news: teachers don’t need a top-heavy bureaucracy or a testing mandate to teach good history. A healthy, national history-teaching culture includes a common ground of norms, resources, and vocabulary that teachers nationwide recognize.

Chief among them? Political neutrality. Across multiple interviews, teachers repeated their shared commitment to keeping a political poker face in the classroom. Teachers we surveyed strongly agreed on the top goals of social studies education: critical thinking (97% of respondents) and informed citizenship (94% of respondents). History teachers instruct and inspire, but they do not indoctrinate.

This does not mean that threats to the integrity of good history teaching don’t exist or that everything in state standards and local curricula is praiseworthy. Unvetted and underdeveloped resources slip into teacher lesson plans and onto state-hosted resource hubs more often than they should. Many teachers would benefit from (and welcome) more professional development focused on historical content rather than the usual emphasis on pedagogy or technology.

They also would benefit, however, from a buffer against political forces. The political polarization of the past decade has spun out troubling emphases, evasions, and pressures. Teachers in some red locales are bullied and spooked away from perfectly good lessons by the rolling threats of activists who accuse educators of liberal indoctrination. Meanwhile, teachers in some blue enclaves cringe as administrators perform their particular vision of progressive antiracism by revising perfectly good history curriculum into ahistorical word salads.

Though cold comfort to those teachers who have the misfortune of working in a district where ideology has crept into the curricular mix, neither of these distorting influences has carried the day. America’s national patchwork of educational decision-making—while frustrating to those who would prefer a more centralized system—actually offers a strong defense against the ideological takeover that some catastrophize about.

Read more: The Split in How Americans Think About Our Collective Past Is Real—But There’s a Way Out of the ‘History Wars’

When they do occur, curricular missteps tend to manifest in acts of simplification rather than partisan bias. Whether under pressure to rush through a topic, or frankly admitting that they lack strong content knowledge in particular areas, teachers cite the need for ongoing, history-rich professional development on both ends of the American history timeline; precolonial Native America and events since the 1970s rank high as areas where teachers sense the need for more training.

It’s civic learning week in America. Nationwide, educators, students, parents, and community leaders are exploring what citizenship means in a 21st century republic. History teachers have long understood the central role that their subject has been made to play in civic training: their classrooms are places to learn the founding story of the nation, to understand the shifting mechanics of its political institutions, and to witness the dramatic sequence of contests among Americans over what it means to be a self-governing people.

Politically motivated activists may be waging a history war, but teachers are not its warriors.

The friction of recent culture wars offers a unique opportunity for teachers and other historians to clarify what’s exciting about history—and how it’s distinct from ongoing red-versus-blue conflagrations. Ultimately, what history teachers teach their students about (cause and consequence, structure and agency, context and complexity, contingency and continuity) bears little resemblance to what partisan culture warriors argue about (“who we are as a nation” and how we should feel about it). The former trains the mind for judgment, the latter for propaganda. Everyone should agree on which one of these we want for the next generation of Americans.

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