Memory  /  Antecedent

This Critical Race Theory Panic Is a Chip Off the Old Block

How 20th-century curriculum controversies foreshadowed this summer’s wave of legislation.

This summer’s spate of state-level bills aimed at censoring the content of history teaching in public school classrooms—bills that have made much of the supposed double threat of “critical race theory” and the New York Times’ 1619 Project—might seem somewhat random. But in fact, conservative attacks like these on humanities curricula that discuss race and racism in the United States follow a long-established pattern.

First, right-wing fears are always more about a vague idea of the content of such curricula than about classroom realities. (In Indiana, suburban parents have been “angered” by the supposed presence of critical race theory, or CRT—typically a graduate-level elective offered to law students—in their schools, despite the fact that their schools do not teach it.) Second, because activists on the right view the schools as the grease that makes slopes slippery, they tend to use school curricula to talk about a host of related social issues. (Anti-CRT activists lump together everything they don’t like, from Marxism to Black Lives Matter to progressive education, and call it CRT.) And third, these battles have always been waged over the stories that get told about the American past, present, and future. In that sense, the angry right wing is correct: The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Earlier battles over curriculum provided the template for today’s anti-CRT, anti–1619 Project political campaigns. In the late 1930s, for instance, activists in right-leaning patriotic groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion warned their fellow Americans about a subversive set of textbooks. The fact that the textbooks written by Columbia professor Harold Rugg were widely popular and had been used for years in schools across America did not matter. The books, conservatives warned, represented an attempt by “radical and communistic textbook writers” to turn American children against America.

In reality, the books intended no such thing. Their lead author, Harold Rugg, an engineer turned professor of pedagogy whose intellectual roots lay in the Progressive education movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, took pains to categorically deny his participation in any communist or socialist movement. His vision of a good education, Rugg explained, consisted of “young people confronting social conditions and issues squarely and digging to the very roots of our changing culture.” Rugg hoped his books would lead students to think critically about the most difficult questions in American history, including racism and inequality. In his teachers’ guides, Rugg encouraged teachers always to ask students, “What do you think?”

Rugg published a series of historical textbooks that encouraged students to confront the country’s chronic problems of racism and class conflict—problems that loomed large in the collective consciousness during the Depression years, a time of great national stress. In Culture and Education in ...