Memory  /  Dispatch

Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America's History

The debate over how to teach the history of race in the U.S. is entangling local school boards and engulfing national politics.

Like many communities where critical race theory has been a subject of fierce debate, the Rockwood school district does not even teach it. Actual critical race theory is rarely taught below the graduate level. Yet educators like Harris are under fire for their increasing efforts to ensure schools teach a more diverse curriculum, with an emphasis on equity. That afternoon in March, the school district filed a police report and looped in the FBI. A security guard was sent to Harris’ home and the nearby home of his colleague Brittany Hogan, who is also Black and served as the school district’s director of educational equity and diversity, a title created for the 2020–2021 academic year. The district has since filed three police reports because of social media posts concerning staff members; at least four staff members and one incoming assistant principal—all but one of whom are Black—have received threatening voice mails, emails or social media posts.

Harris is undaunted. “We have to talk about the fact that race and racism is real, and is as much of the fabric of America as apple pie or the Fourth of July or the Second Amendment,” he says. “Just because that’s where we are doesn’t mean that’s where we have to be.”

But not looking back is also an American tradition. “We have it in our power,” Thomas Paine wrote in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, “to begin the world over again.” In that spirit, New England towns perpetuated a myth that Native Americans had died out, as Native American historian Jean O’Brien has tracked. John Burk’s three-volume history of Virginia, published in the early 19th century, largely left out slavery. “There were no bigger revisionist historians than the founding generation themselves,” argues historian Michael Hattem, author of Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution. Worried about children reading “long-legged Yankee lies” in textbooks written up North after the Civil War, the United Daughters of the Confederacy played a key role in propagating the “Lost Cause” myth that the South fought nobly for states’ rights, not for slavery.