The New York Times is no stranger to initiating debates over curricular content, as the release of the “1619 Project” by the New York Times Magazine last year demonstrates. The publication recently reentered the fray by releasing an analysis that compared over 4,800 pages of American social studies textbooks used in Texas and California classrooms to teach students in eighth through eleventh grade. It is a helpful commentary on how cultural conflict manifests itself in school curricula––useful not simply because it raises awareness about the political process by which textbooks are produced, but also because it prompts reflections about the aims of teaching history.
According to The New York Times, textbook review panels, which are appointed by state policymakers, request that textbook publishers emphasize different moments of American history, present them through distinct and carefully crafted language, or leave out details to subtly affirm the correctness of their own views. From this process arises the differences in textbooks in Texas and California. This is disappointing but not surprising; politics shaping historical narratives is a tale as old as time. A more noteworthy implication of the reporting is the inadequacy of textbooks as a vehicle for understanding historical nuance and truth. What’s needed in terms of curriculum reform is not simply a less-partisan account of history, but the proliferation of classical liberal education that fosters discernment, good judgment, and above all, an understanding of human nature and love of truth.
Contrary to what one might infer from The New York Times’s analysis, there are not simply two American stories, one conservative and one liberal, nor is there an unbiased alternative that is unpopular because of our present partisanship. Rather, history always consists of a dramatic unfolding of the contradictions of human nature––an arm-wrestling match between aspirational beliefs and human limitations and failures. This is true not only of United States’s history, but of the discipline more broadly, making it impossible to teach the subject without inserting normative judgements and opinions about the human strengths and weaknesses that shaped it. Consequently, textbook publishers cannot help but put forth a historical narrative that is partisan in some form. To attempt to teach history stripped of bias and judgment would be a fool’s errand, not simply for the impossibility of the task, but because doing so would hollow out the drama of history that is its chief charm.
To judge history well, students must acquire more than just knowledge of historical facts; they must also develop a prudent and thoughtful disposition to interpret them. The primary question that educators should ask themselves, then, is not simply how to offer a less-partisan account of history, but how education can form citizens capable of judging our history with prudence and justice. A classical liberal arts education, gradually being proliferated across the country in K–12 schools, offers a time-tested means for fostering exactly these virtues.
Classical education fosters judgment by seeking to understand what it is to be human and, in doing so, offers a measurement for judging what is good or bad, noble or base about particular human actions throughout history. Through an intense study of literature, philosophy, theology, history, art, and more broadly, the humanities, it searches for a conception of human nature that is shared across time and place. Rather than set up a narrative, as the textbooks presented in Texas and California aim to do, it offers a standard of judgement for historical moments based on a well-crafted vision of what human beings are.
Such study does not simply refine the judgement of its students; it offers an antidote to the polarization that The New York Times highlights. Indeed, rather than focusing inquiry exclusively through the lens of one group identity such as race, gender, or political party, classical education examines what is fundamental to the unity of persons.
Out of this choice to place the study of human nature at the center of inquiry follows a particular approach to history. Rather than teaching it simply as a series of ages, as textbooks tend to do, classical education presents history as a collection of particular persons and moments that, through great texts and deeds, gives birth to the movements that shape history. This view of history follows naturally from classical education’s emphasis on the study of human nature. Following a general study of human nature through the humanities, classical education looks to the speeches and deeds of a particular country so as to understand how the shared characteristics of human nature are molded in a distinctive way by the laws, customs, and statesmen peculiar to one nation. In short, classical education tends to begin from the study of what is fundamental to all persons and move toward an understanding of how one person is formed by the institutions and customs of his or her political community so as to become a part of a family, neighborhood, state, and nation.
This approach requires understanding our nation’s history, not only by reading a list of texts considered crucial to our history, but inquiring after how those texts––the ideas they embody and the movements they give rise to––shift how Americans define themselves as a people. Thanks to this emphasis on original sources, classically educated students are freer of the partisan lenses that inevitably work their way into the crude summaries of these texts. At the same time, they are also led to a fuller appreciation of not simply what is said in the texts, but how these words shape the American character, for good or for ill.
In response to our crisis of partisanship that The New York Times analysis points toward, we should consider that the best response is not explicit “nonpartisan” education. Rather, we should look back to primary questions of human nature and the primary sources that reveal the way our nation’s history has shaped our response to those questions. Classical liberal arts education allows students to see not only the conflicts that our country currently suffers, but more importantly, the source from which they emanate, both in the failures of particular historical moments and in the perennial shortcomings of human nature. Such an education allows us to achieve our goals of nonpartisan conversation while also attaining a depth of understanding of our country and ourselves.
Clare Basil is a Public Interest Fellow in the Civil Society, Education and Work program at the R Street Institute.