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Teaching American history needs openness, not dogma

The loudest and most abrasive voices on both sides appear committed to all-out ideological warfare in which neither side gives a rhetorical or pedagogical inch, no matter how damaging the result.

The Capitol Hill 4th of July Parade, July 4, 2014. Credit: Mike Licht via Wikimedia Commons.
The Capitol Hill 4th of July Parade, July 4, 2014. Credit: Mike Licht via Wikimedia Commons.
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur is the U.S. politics editor for the Jewish Journal.

After a weekend in which we commemorated this nation’s founding, it seems like an appropriate opportunity to think about how we teach history to our young people. And during a time in which the debate over critical race theory has upended the question of what, and whose, history should be taught, this conversation is about to become a lot more contentious.

As is the case with most political arguments in our hyper-polarized America, the two extremes of this discussion are most useful as a reminder of which options should best be avoided. On one side, there are those who would literally whitewash American history, returning to a time in which injustices against women, minorities and other marginalized communities were consistently and inexcusably ignored in most classrooms. On the other margin are the voices who believe that the United States has been an inherently racist nation from its inception, that racism is still embedded systemically in almost every American institution and that schoolchildren should be taught our history through that unforgiving and divisive prism.

There’s certainly a logical middle ground to be had, in which students are taught about both the positive and negative aspects of hundreds of years of a country’s existence. We should be able to construct a syllabus that addresses both the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth, both the Tulsa Massacre and the Freedom Riders, both Nathan Bedford Forrest and Martin Luther King Jr. It ought to be possible to teach about racist and sexist behavior without rejecting an entire society as racist or sexist, but these false choices represent the nature of the combat we have begun to witness. Unfortunately, the argument over the balance and emphasis of the good and the bad has the makings for a brutal political battle that will not be resolved anytime soon.

The current landscape is particularly ill-suited to host a discussion on these topics. The initially unifying and uplifting national reaction to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year quickly gave way to a highly polarized scorched-earth political debate over public safety and police reform that ultimately left the electorate even more divided. The argument regarding critical race theory seems destined to end up in the same place. Most Americans yearn for a middle ground on which people of varying backgrounds can recognize their differences, identify their commonalities and build bridges between their communities. But the loudest and most abrasive voices on both sides appear committed to all-out ideological warfare in which neither side gives a rhetorical or pedagogical inch, no matter how damaging the result.

One side calls for a curriculum based on The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which commemorates the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in colonial Virginia and suggests that this event was the actual starting point for the American historical narrative. Their opponents countered with what they call a 1776 Commission, established by former President Donald Trump to design a more traditional program of study that emphasizes more inspirational aspects of the nation’s birth and growth. In an ideal world, our children would learn about both. While a 1697-and-a-half curriculum would be both awkwardly worded and of dubious chronological relevance, a philosophical compromise along these lines might be the best possible way of reconciling these two uncompromising factions.

The challenge becomes even more difficult when the conversation expands from historical questions to the challenges of teaching race relations and racial structure in contemporary society. Assumptions that every white American is either irredeemably racist or completely blameless should leave ample middle ground for reasoned and respectful dialogue, but absolutists from both extreme positions will continue to drown out those discussions. (This becomes an especially difficult environment for Jewish Americans, who are still wrestling with the uncomfortable realization that many minority leaders no longer see us as allies, but as an obstacle at best and as enemies at worst.)

In the meantime, the two groups of diametrically approved true believers will continue to frame this debate in the most absolute terms. Both intuitively understand George Orwell’s famous maxim from his book “1984,” where he wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

The stakes are immense. Both sides passionately believe that their respective versions of the past are entirely accurate, and both believe strongly that they and their ideological allies deserve complete hegemony over the present and therefore the last word over our collective future. No wonder that compromise is so difficult—and so necessary.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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