Memory  /  Antecedent

How U.S. History Is Taught Has Always Been Political

Hearing about backlash to what kids are learning in U.S. History classrooms? It could have been last week—or 150 years ago.

With the nation divided along political lines, amid ever-mounting suspicion of supposed outside influences undermining American security, a group of powerful people decided to go right to the root of what they saw as the problem: American students, they believed, were being taught a skewed version of their own history that was designed to weaken patriotism. To stop the corrosion, someone would have to intervene.

This scenario may sound familiar, but it didn’t take place just last week, when President Trump threatened the funding of California schools that teach the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which reframes the country’s origins around the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia. (Material from the project has been used to supplement curricula in schools nationwide, though the extent of its implementation in California is not clear.)

But in fact, that scenario could have taken place in the aftermath of the Civil War. Or in 1917. Or in 1948.

So it’s no surprise that historians’ collective reaction to Trump’s tweet—and a similar sentiment expressed earlier this summer by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton’s introduction of the Saving American History Act of 2020—was one of déjà vu. The teaching of U.S. History in public schools has always been political, and such concerns about whether curricula are “anti-American” are par for the course in moments of turmoil.

“It’s the story of history education in this country,” says historian and former AP U.S. History teacher Lindsay Marshall. “Cycle after cycle of political anxiety manifesting in ‘well, obviously we’re teaching our own history wrong and that’s the problem.'”

That anxiety tends to come up in the wake of wars and other disturbances to the status quo. After the Civil War, for example, Northern and Southern states continued to fight, this time about how to talk about the Civil War in schools. Donald Yacovone, an associate at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, points out that one late 19th century textbook framed the war as a battle between monarchical Northern states and the South, which seceded from the Union to preserve true democracy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to rid textbooks used in Southern schools of “long-legged Yankee lies.” In doing so, these advocates often instead planted the seeds of the Lost Cause myth, manipulating the story of the war to minimize the role of slavery; the ramifications of that campaign are still felt today.