In 2020, as we began to look at state U.S. history standards for the first time since 2011, I was concerned about what we would find. Educational materials have long been prone to lean left (though there have been notorious examples of rightward bias in local curricula, textbooks, and more), and that was certainly the pattern we found in 2011: Too many standards pushed teachers and students to judge the past by the standards of the present without regard to context, and thus to condemn the past as an unalloyed story of oppression and evils. There was also, at the same time, a dramatic and worrying example of bias from the right. The justly notorious 2010 Texas standards went to the opposite extreme, actively downplaying and factually distorting injustices in the American past, including the centrality of slavery in causing the Civil War.
With our national divisions growing more obvious than ever over the last decade, I feared that context-free presentism would have grown more entrenched in many blue states, while additional red states would have followed Texas’s lead, pushing an ideological and inaccurate narrative of historical perfection.
Instead, to my considerable surprise, there was an all-around improvement. Obvious ahistorical presentism was less prominent than it had been in 2011. Indeed, several states now specifically warned against presentism. A number of states’ standards, including many of the strongest, directly urged students to understand both the formative power of America’s founding ideals and the nation’s long and still incomplete struggle to make those ideals a reality for all—precisely the balance that U.S. history education should always strive for. Meanwhile, my fear that Texas’s ideological manifesto would become a model for other states’ standards not only hadn’t been realized, but Texas itself had revised its contentious standards in 2018. A number of the more obviously ideological items were made significantly more balanced and factual.
But where are things heading next?
America’s culture wars only continue to escalate, and standards may not stay above the fray indefinitely. Pressure is coming from both sides. On the one hand, there is a continuing insistence that America must be seen solely as a tainted nation, with injustice as the essence of its being. On the other, there is an alarming and escalating denial of any negatives in our past (or present), ironically borrowing language from the left to attack any discussion of such realities as “divisive,” “hurtful,” and “racist.”
The most visible recent flashpoint from the left has arguably been the 1619 Project. These materials centered on inherently valid goals: promoting knowledge of slavery’s enormous importance in American history and combating its persistent legacy of racial inequality. But, as too often happens in American history education, it too easily slid into an oversimplified picture of America as built on little more than bigotry and lies. The Project correctly identified slavery as a central, inescapable, and foundational element of U.S. history—but it ran into trouble by effectively claiming that slavery is the only defining factor in our past, branding America’s founding ideals as little more than a set of deliberate lies concocted to protect slavery and white supremacy. (The project’s author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has made some changes in response to criticism from prominent historians, including altering a particularly problematic passage to more accurately say that just “some” founders supported revolution to protect the slave system.)
Pressure from the right can too easily slide to the opposite extreme. Too many end up pushing a complete whitewash, while denouncing any other perspective as “unpatriotic.” That was certainly the case with President Trump’s 1776 Commission, which instead of trying to place slavery and racism in better historical context, largely sought to downplay them as incidental tangents to a narrative of national glorification.
To further confuse issues, many on the right have lately latched onto a once fairly obscure academic discipline as a catch-all label for a supposed conspiracy against patriotic pride: critical race theory.
In its actual academic form, critical race theory (or CRT) studies race as a social construct, the use of racial concepts in societal power dynamics, how racial attitudes become and remain embedded in culture and institutions, and how unequal racial power dynamics affect both the marginalized and the privileged. Like any academic discipline, CRT is defined and invoked differently by different practitioners, some more radical than others.
Even more to the point, until this recent politicized explosion, few beyond academia had even heard of CRT, let alone used it as a core element of public school curricula. The right has adopted the term as a convenient bugbear—presumably because it can easily be made to sound like “being critical of people for their race,” and because it suggests a single, organized “movement” that can be neatly targeted for purgation. Unfortunately, even thoughtful conservative educational analysts have been overly prone to adopt the misleading label in criticizing liberal priorities, and the media has been lazily credulous in adopting the term—feeding an unhelpful narrative of insidious infiltration by a sinister, anti-American dogma.
The dire picture invoked through the critical race theory label claims that students are being indoctrinated to see our national past as purely evil and discriminatory (a concern that has some degree of validity, as, for example, more measured and substantive criticisms of the 1619 Project show). Yet all too often, the “solutions” offered are no better than the ills they claim to counter. A string of new state laws banning critical race theory from schools have the alarming potential to discourage any meaningful discussion of past injustices, and perhaps even more, any acknowledgment that racism remains a force in American society today. Students must be taught that America’s ideals are far more than mere lies. But they should not be taught that our past is a story of uncomplicated triumphs, in which fundamental injustices and long (unfinished) struggles for change are brushed aside.
Too many on the left would proudly embrace the precisely opposite mantra. We see it in growing, contentious demands to remove all monuments to the founders (and even to Lincoln), who are to be seen only in light of their (unquestionable, important, and sometimes self-admitted) flaws, and thus not to be honored for their vital contributions to the nation.
The choice must not be between a left-wing absolutism, insisting that positive ideals in America’s past are mere lies concocted to justify oppression, and a right-wing absolutism, denying that discrimination was and is a fundamental part of our nation’s history. Such dichotomies are dangerously false, allowing each extreme to feed off and fuel the other. America, and its classrooms, need to understand both 1619 and 1776. E Pluribus Unum does not mean all Americans must be subsumed into a single feel-good narrative, or that teaching many strands of our national experience is “divisive” or “segregated.” And neither should diversity deny any sense of shared American heritage.
The best state standards have it right: we need to emphasize the power and uniqueness of America’s founding ideals, while also studying the many and ongoing struggles to make those ideals fully real. As the culture wars rage, we will see if those admirable successes by California, Alabama, Massachusetts, and other states can be protected and sustained.
Editor’s note: Dr. Jeremy Stern was lead reviewer for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s recent report, The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021.