How Columbus Became Conservative

[Editor’s Note: To commemorate Columbus/Indigenous People’s Day, we’ve pulled up this post from the ILYBYGTH archives, originally posted in 2014.]

Christopher Columbus used to vote Democratic, but now he’s a leading voice among America’s cultural conservatives. Not the man himself, of course. But celebrations of Columbus’ life used to be lean to the left. These days, conservatives have become the leading celebrants. How did that happen?

What are the children learning about Columbus?

In these United States, today is officially a federal holiday. Columbus Day was only established as a federally recognized holiday, though, due to the complicated politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. Italian immigrants had long lobbied for recognition of their greatest ethnic hero. As Roosevelt cobbled together his powerful but shaky New Deal coalition, he couldn’t afford to alienate any urban constituency. Establishing a federal holiday was a politically cheap way to symbolize Roosevelt’s sympathy with Italian-American voters.

At the time, Christopher Columbus represented Italian pride. Columbus stood for the fact that Italy had produced world-beating explorers and scientists. By the early 1900s, of course, Italy had become a leading source of poor, sometimes-desperate immigrants to the United States. The image of Italian-Americans in the yellow press at the time had become one of poorly educated “garlic-eaters.” Columbus Day’s federal recognition in the 1930s represented both a repudiation of those stereotypes and a recognition of the increasing political clout of Italian-Americans in the Democratic Party.

Today, of course, Christopher Columbus has acquired entirely new meanings as a cultural symbol. Instead of representing the heroic triumph of Italians, Columbus has come to embody the culture war over the settlement of the Americas. On the left, Columbus personifies the nature of that settlement. To leading leftist historian Howard Zinn, for example, Columbus’ quest was for loot, and his method was rapine. As Zinn wrote in his popular People’s History of the United States:

The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone….” He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need … and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”

Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans’ intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.

Today’s leftist activists, too, hope to puncture the heroic legend of Christopher Columbus. As one described it, the main legacy of Christopher Columbus was to turn North America into a “crime scene.

In response, conservative intellectuals have tried to maintain Columbus’ place in the halls of heroes. As the recent controversy over the new Advanced Placement United States History framework has demonstrated, conservatives will unite against anything they perceive as a smear of America’s traditional heroes. For example, long before Dinesh D’Souza rolled out his recent patriotic film, he bashed the left’s tendency to bash Columbus. As D’Souza argued in 1995, Columbus had the moxie to cross a dangerous ocean. And Columbus may have misunderstood Native Americans, but he admired them. The violence came from the native side. As D’Souza put it,

While the first Indians that Columbus encountered were hospitable and friendly, other tribes enjoyed fully justified reputations for brutality and inhumanity. On his second voyage Columbus was horrified to discover that a number of the sailors he left behind had been killed and possibly eaten by the cannibalistic Arawaks.

For many conservatives, as for D’Souza, Columbus has come to represent more than just the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas. For conservatives, Columbus has become the poster child for the proper attitude toward the past. Historians on the left, many conservatives believe, have been very successful in spreading their anti-patriotic smears. The proper thing for conservatives to do, then, is rally around those symbols of traditional American exceptionalism.

Badger Bound!

When conservative activists have won their battles about public education, how have they won? I’m excited to make my case next Monday at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

bucky badger

Thanks, Bucky. It’s great to be back!

Thanks to an invitation from my grad-school mentor William J. Reese, I’ll be traveling to sunny Madison, Wisconsin this week to talk about the history of conservatism and American education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that I explored this history in my second book, The Other School Reformers (Harvard University Press, 2015).

In that book, I wondered what it has meant to be conservative about education in these United States. It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Some conservatives want one thing, others want another. Most people–whether they consider themselves conservative or not–don’t have crystal-clear ideas about what they want out of schools.

In my talk next week, I’ll share some of that research, but I’ll also expand it to include my more recent findings. In short, I think that conservatives have won NOT by proving their case for conservative values and ideas, but rather by doing something else.

What’s the “something else?” Well, you’ll just have to come to Wisconsin on Monday to find out. Good seats still available: Monday, October 14, 12:00, Education Building room 245.

madison talk flyer

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Impeachment in classrooms, impeachment among evangelicals…and a few stories NOT about impeachment this week, too.

How can Smithsonian tour guides defuse anger about good science? At RNCSE.

most volunteers make a rookie mistake: they focus on what their response should be, rather than taking the time to understand the values and fears of the person they’re speaking with. Often, this takes the form of focusing on communicating the science. While effective and accurate communication of science is a crucial element, it is not enough to reach the most skeptical populations. By taking time to assign real human emotions to the visitors, volunteers can better empathize and use this newfound understanding to decide the best way to share their evidence.

Impeachment in the classroom:

Imagine, for example, a project in which students listen to the Nixon tapes and make the case for and against impeachment in that historical context. Students might research impeachment’s constitutional context as a congressional power and how the Founding Fathers saw this process as a safeguard for democracy.

Teachers might worry about taking on such a controversial political topic, either because they don’t have time for it in a packed regular curriculum, or because they worry about the discussion getting out of hand, possibly angering parents and administrators. But there are ways to treat this as a learning opportunity rather than a political smackdown, especially because many students may raise the news in class and look to teachers for clarification.

Historian Peggy Bendroth wonders why mainline Protestant women didn’t act angrier, at RA.

I am beginning to think the psychological issue isn’t actually mine at all—it’s those churchwomen I’m trying to write about, ladies with pillbox hats and big corsages, smiling gamely from the pages of denominational magazines. How can you tell a compelling human story with so much of its emotional valence buried out of sight?

I cannot believe that they were not angry—i.e., furious beyond measure at being belittled, patronized, and ignored, many years of education and prodigious talents wasted, while they watched feckless male bureaucrats rise through the ranks and then write books about their own accomplishments.

bendroth RAWill the impeachment investigation push some white conservative evangelicals closer to Trump? At AP.

“I do feel like we are, as Christians, the first line of defense for the president,” Christina Jones, 44, said before [Franklin] Graham took the stage. Trump is “supporting our Christian principles and trying to do his best,” she added, even as “everybody’s against him.” . . . In the crowd at Graham’s tour, which will stop in six more North Carolina cities over the next 10 days, believers had reserved their concern for Trump’s Democratic antagonists. “They’re just digging things up and making things up just to try to take him down, and I don’t think that’s fair,” said Mike Fitzgerald, 64.

Students know the rules about prayer in public schools, but many don’t care. At PRC.

Nationwide, roughly four-in-ten teens (including 68% of evangelical Protestant teens) who go to public school say they think it is “appropriate” for a teacher to lead a class in prayer. Some of the teens who express this view are unaware of the Supreme Court’s ruling. But most know what the law is; 82% of U.S. teens in public schools (and 79% of evangelical teens) correctly answer a factual question about the constitutionality of teacher-led prayer in public school classrooms.

Federal judge rules in favor (again) of campus Christian groups, at IHE.

When is “Bring Your Bible to School” Day? Every day, at R&P.

Bringing a Bible to school (public or private) is a legal, common, and regular practice in the U.S. . . . The federal government protects this right, unequivocally. Hindrances in the U.S. to the practice of Christian religious freedom are rare, usually stem from confusion around school policy, and are often quickly resolved.

It might take more than 6,000 to figure out all the financial connections. New Yorker story unpicks the connections between real-estate deals, Congressmen, dinosaur fossils, and sad homeschool “research” trips. HT: CS.

What is school reform like? Larry Cuban reviews the metaphors. Jalopy? Or old house?

Over the years I have used the image of a jalopy.

Incremental change means sanding and re-painting the old car. Getting a tune-up, new tires, and replacement car seats for the torn ones–you get the idea.

Fundamental (or transformational or radical) change, however, refers to giving up the car and getting a different kind of transportation–biking, bus or rapid transit, walking, car pooling, etc.

“Court evangelicals” and the culture of fear, at TWOILH.

John Wilson–you need to get out more. The fearful people I am writing about here do not read back issues of Books & Culture or attend the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing.  They do not talk theology in the coffee shops of Wheaton, Illinois.  There is an entire world of evangelical Christians out there who you have not yet met. They are very afraid.  They seek comfort in strongmen of both the political and religious variety.  Donald Trump and the court evangelicals are exploiting their fears for political gain.

Ouch. Bad news for the Education Department. It was the second-least-favored federal department in a recent survey. Plus, more Republicans (55%) like the EPA than the Ed Dept. (48%). At PRC.

Pew fed agencies EPA or ED

Teachers: Do you buy it? American Enterprise Institute says the ‘underpaid-teacher’ thing is a myth.

predictions generated by the underpaid-teacher hypothesis — such as that teachers must have high quit rates, or that a large percentage of their income flows from second jobs — are not supported by the data. Teachers as a group are generally well compensated, and teacher pay and benefits have risen faster over time than compensation in private-sector jobs. Failure to recognize these facts can lead education reform down a blind alley.

Can universities accept philanthropy tainted by the Oxycontin scandal? Many have, at AP.

Oxford, the University of Glasgow in Scotland and Cornell each received $5 million to $6 million, tax records show. Columbia University followed with nearly $5 million, while Imperial College London and McGill University in Montreal each received more than $3 million.

It’s not only K-12 schools. Preschool programs are even more segregated by race, at Hechinger.

early learning programs are twice as likely to be nearly 100 percent black or Hispanic than kindergarten and first grade classrooms.

Empathize with Racists? Really?

Historians—especially K-12 teachers and public historians—have been struggling with the challenges of teaching the history of slavery. It is time for us to learn from the dearly bought experiences of our science-education colleagues. The hardest lesson of all? Sometimes it’s not about being right.

BBC slave plantation

Sometimes tourists say some nasty things. What should we do about it?

First, some background: You’ve probably seen the disturbing stories lately about how difficult it can be to teach tourists about the history of slavery. At Monticello, for example, tourists ask guides not to focus so much on the negative stuff. In South Carolina, tourists sometimes actually defend the institution of slavery. As the BBC reported recently,

“Slavery was not that bad – it’s probably the number one thing we hear,” says plantation tour guide Olivia Williams.

“To my face, people have said: Well, they had a place to sleep. They had meals, they had vegetables.”

It’s not only museums that are having problems. As one contributor to the NYT’s 1619 project described, the history of slavery in the USA has long been ignored by schools, at best. In her words,

It’s ugly. For generations, we’ve been unwilling to do it. Elementary-school teachers, worried about disturbing children, tell students about the “good” people, like the abolitionists and the black people who escaped to freedom, but leave out the details of why they were protesting or what they were fleeing. Middle-school and high-school teachers stick to lesson plans from outdated textbooks that promote long-held, errant views. That means students graduate with a poor understanding of how slavery shaped our country, and they are unable to recognize the powerful and lasting effects it has had.

So what are history teachers to do? There are a lot of resources out there to help students understand the history of slavery, like Teaching Tolerance, PBS, and Stanford History Education Group materials.

But there’s another place to look that might not seem obvious at first. Like historians, science educators have been struggling for generations to break through popular hostility toward central scientific ideas. Most powerfully these days, many people have a strong visceral distrust of any ideas about human evolution and human-caused climate change.

How have science educators grappled with these challenges? What can historians learn?

In the latest edition of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Kate Carter describes the ways she trains tour guides at the Smithsonian. Carter knows that many visitors will come already hostile to the messages of mainstream science. They are often already convinced that concepts of deep time and human-caused climate change are bogus. For example, she describes one typical couple that walked away from the information concluding, “There are two sides to every story.”

rncse empathy

Can history educators learn from this kind of science-ed training?

What are educators to do? We can’t just throw up our hands and conclude that some people are just not willing to learn about science or history. Carter suggests we avoid a simple “rookie mistake.” Instead of preparing to bombard our students or visitors with the evidence for our cases—whether it be about human evolution or American slavery—we should start with a very different idea: EMPATHY.

Make no mistake: Carter is not suggesting we avoid the subject, or agree that there are simply two sides to every story. No, she agrees that communicating the best information about science is our main goal. To get there, though, she suggests beginning by trying to understand the people with whom we’re speaking. As she explains,

While effective and accurate communication of science is a crucial element, it is not enough to reach the most skeptical populations. By taking time to assign real human emotions to the visitors, volunteers can better empathize and use this newfound understanding to decide the best way to share their evidence.

Seems obvious, right? But when it comes to teaching the full, unvarnished, unpleasant history of American slavery, empathizing with resistant listeners can be extremely difficult. If a tour guide tries to understand a visitor who doesn’t want to learn about Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, is she continuing the lamentable tradition of overlooking the truth? If a teacher spends time trying to understand why her students reject the evidence for the brutality of slave markets and slave labor, is she guilty of contributing to the long, shameful silence of those crimes against humanity?

In short, it seems like the time for polite empathy about the history of American racism and slavery is over. Teachers and tour guides might blanch at the prospect of bonding with racist tourists and students.

In spite of these important challenges, we can still learn from our science-ed colleagues. No one is suggesting any kind of watering-down or truckling, either to neo-creationists or neo-confederates. All we want to do is begin a conversation by filling in culture-war trenches and building connections so that a real conversation can take place. If we don’t start with that, no amount of proof, evidence, or explanation will do any good.

The Myth About Evangelical Politics Just Won’t Die

Big-name pundits such as Newt Gingrich and Kevin Kruse are battling about one historical myth. Meanwhile, in a quieter corner, there’s another myth that just won’t go away. Among historians, there is no doubt that conservative evangelicals never really retreated from politics. As one evangelical writer just demonstrated, however, that historical fact hasn’t sunk very deep roots yet. What’s it gonna take for people to stop saying that evangelicals retreated from politics between the 1920s and the 1970s?

Gods own party

Evangelicals have ALWAYS been political…

First, the history. Let’s start with Daniel K. Williams’ work, God’s Own Party. In this terrific book, Prof. Williams demonstrates that conservative evangelicals did not retreat from politics in the 1920s only to re-emerge with the Moral Majority in the 1970s. That was a convenient story for evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Sr., who could claim to be a reluctant politico. It just wasn’t true. As Williams concludes,

evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues—they had been doing this for decades—but because they were taking over the Republican Party. It was an event more than fifty years in the making.

Similarly, Matthew Avery Sutton argued in American Apocalypse that the “rise-fall-rebirth” myth of evangelical politics doesn’t match reality. As Prof. Sutton wrote, the fundamentalists’

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

For what it’s worth, I made a similar case in Fundamentalist U. Ever since the 1920s, fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical intellectuals remained closely involved with politics, keenly interested in protecting their rights to radio airtime, leading anti-communism rallies and networks, and allying with secular conservatives to fight in the political arena against a variety of foes, including racial integration.

SuttonJust as the furor over the recent 1619 Project demonstrated that we can have vast discrepancies between well-established historical truths and widely held popular opinions about history, so this non-controversial historical truth about evangelical politics seems to be limited mainly to academic circles.

The latest case in point: In a recent article in Christianity Today about Classical Christian schools, Louis Markos repeated the old, false myth about evangelical politics without a blush. As Markos put it,

In the wake of the fundamentalist reaction against modernism and especially Darwinism, conservative evangelicals tended to withdraw from society. If they did engage society directly (e.g., the temperance movement), it was likely to be critical—asserting what they were against, rather than what they were for.

As the universities, the media, and politics absorbed more and more of the modernist world­view, evangelicals withdrew even further, circling the wagons as a means of protecting their children from a society cut off from its Christian roots. Rather than seeking to be salt and light, they embraced a more Old Testament ethos and sought to separate themselves from the unbelievers around them (Ezra 10:11).

This ethos manifested itself in a Bible-only approach to learning that cast suspicion on non-biblical sources of wisdom.

…really? Politics aside, a description of mid-century evangelical higher education as a “Bible-only approach to learning” would come as a nasty surprise to twentieth-century fundamentalist scholars such as J. Gresham Machen and Gordon Clark, not to mention hundreds of less-famous evangelical teachers of the period. Clark, in particular, was famous at Wheaton College in Illinois for teaching classical philosophy. With his Ivy-League doctorate, Clark helped launch the careers of many well-known evangelical scholars, including Edward Carnell, Carl Henry, Paul Jewett, and Harold Lindsell. And Prof. Clark did it by challenging the comfortable assumptions of his students, having them read and debate anti-Christian and pre-Christian philosophy. To be sure, Clark’s approach was controversial at the time, but it was anything but a “Bible-only approach to learning.”

Or consider the final exam from Harold Lindsell’s class at Fuller Seminary in 1961. Students who enrolled in Lindsell’s “Critique of Communism” course confronted the following final exam:

Select any FIVE of the following and write a short and concise statement of what each term means:

  1. Democratic centralism
  2. Socialism in one country
  3. Class struggle
  4. Surplus value
  5. Imperialism
  6. State socialism
  7. Utopian socialism

SELECT ANY THREE OF THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS AND WRITE AN ESSAY ON EACH ONE OF THEM.

  • Analyze the concept of DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM, showing what its ideas and components consist in and how it is related to the Weltanschauung of Communism.
  • Describe the unique contribution made to Communism by Lenin.
  • Discuss in detail the Communist system of ethics and indicate how this ethical system operates in actual practice at home and abroad.
  • Construct your own plan of action as an answer to Communism and show what specific steops you would take in order to meet this danger.
  • Analyze the ways in which the views of Marx and Engels have proved to be wrong and state what changes have been made since then to modify their original theories.

Does this sound like a course at a school that had withdrawn from politics? That taught students only the Bible? That was “withdraw[n] from society”? Quite the contrary, and Lindsell’s course was only unusual in that he retained all the papers—including the final exams—in his voluminous files for later historians like me to uncover.

Yet intelligent, informed writers like Markos still default to the old “retreat” story without hesitation. Why? We know—or we have a good guess—why some political conservatives resist the lessons of the 1619 Project so vociferously. But why do smart evangelicals these days embrace this myth of evangelical politics so consistently? And why cling to it when it has been rejected so completely by historians?

What Does Rosa Parks Barbie Have to Do with 1619?

So…we now have a Rosa Parks Barbie, apparently. In a way, it seems like a triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, right? But only in a way. Like the conservative backlash against the NYT’s 1619 series, Barbie’s version of history proves once again that there is still an unyielding third rail in America’s public conversations about history.theoharis on barbie

What’s wrong with a Rosa Parks Barbie? One might take it as good news—more progress toward giving children a diverse set of heroes to look up to. As scholars have pointed out, however, the Barbie version of Ms. Parks’ story has been whitewashed. Instead of a devoted Civil Rights activist protesting for decades against racial inequality, Mattel tells children that Parks was only a tired woman who had led an “ordinary life” up until her famous refusal to give up her bus seat.

Why would the toy company want to politely ignore real, established history? It has something to do with the NYT Magazine’s recent 1619 series. That series, about the history of racial slavery in the British Colonies, has sparked a ferocious response among conservative historians and pundits. Perhaps most memorably, Newt Gingrich freaked out about it on Fox News.

As Gingrich declaimed,

The whole project is a lie. Look, I think slavery is a terrible thing. I think putting slavery in context is important. . . . I think, certainly, if you are an African-American, slavery is at the center of what you see as the American experience. But, for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on. There were several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves. The fact is that I saw one reference that The New York Times claims that the American Revolution was caused in part to defend slavery. That is such historically factually false nonsense that it’s embarrassing that The New York Times is doing this.

This leads us to our two big questions. First, why do conservatives—even history experts such as Rep. Gingrich—get so flustered over an extremely uncontroversial position like the one taken in the 1619 project? After all, among historians, the centrality of racial slavery in the founding of the United States is a given. And second, what does any of this have to do with a Rosa Parks Barbie?

My two cents: Over the years, conservatives have been very willing to expand the galaxy of American heroes. In addition to the traditional cluster of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison, conservatives have been happy to add new heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr., Sacagawea, and, yes, Rosa Parks.

The idea that a mild-mannered “ordinary woman” could stand up to injustice fits in nicely with the traditional tale of heroic America. Sure, there have been problems—the story goes—but heroic Americans have always stepped up to solve them. Even the curse of slavery, Gingrich pointed out, was solved by the self-sacrificing heroism of “several hundred thousand white Americans.”

What doesn’t fit in is the real story of Rosa Parks. Parks, a life-long civil-rights activist, learned from radical institutions such as the Highlander Folk School, and campaigned against racism long past the 1950s. That real story raises questions most Americans are not comfortable confronting. For example, what were the connections between civil-rights activism and left-wing politics? Why did Parks feel a need to keep campaigning for racial justice long after the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Why was the second-class-citizenship she endured so entrenched and durable? What did the Civil Rights Movement leave unsolved?

All those questions point to a fundamental fact about American history that conservatives can’t abide. Instead of a flawed-but-improving land of truth and justice, these questions point to a vision of United States history in which the nation has always been fundamentally formed and guided not by heroism, but by racial (and other) hierarchies.

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservatives have drawn the line when it comes to questioning America’s heroic history itself. Any intimation that the United States has fundamental, formative flaws has always drawn ferocious criticism. Consider, for example, the reaction to a popular textbook series in the 1930s and 40s. Harold Rugg’s textbooks sold by the millions. But when rumors spread that Rugg’s books denigrated America’s unique awesomeness, they crossed a culture-war line.

One conservative critic, Bertie Forbes of Forbes Magazine fame, warned in 1940 that the textbooks guided teachers to criticize the greatness of the United States. When one middle-school teacher was asked by her students if the USA was the greatest country in the world, she looked at her Teacher’s Guide and responded, “No. . . there are several countries in Europe which have as good, if not better, form of government than ours.”

Forbes warning rugg books

Forbes raises a stink, October, 1940

Not a particularly shocking statement, but it lit a fire under conservative Americans at the time. Sometimes literally. Soon, Rugg’s books were yanked from school bookshelves and rumors spread of book burnings in Wisconsin and upstate New York.

When it comes to Barbies and popular histories, then, we shouldn’t be surprised to find this third rail still firmly in place. We Americans are happy to add heroes to our list. We are happy to have Rosa Parks Barbies as well as Malibu ones. But as a whole we can’t stand to see the big story of our history challenged. We can’t and won’t tolerate public discussions that imply that there are any serious, fundamental, structural flaws in America’s past.

Stupid Question: Are You “Extremely Proud” to Be an American?

Just in time for the Fourth: New poll results prove that Democrats are a bunch of anti-American no-goodniks. But anyone who knows culture-war history will see that Gallup goofed in the wording of this patriotic question.gallup pride

The poll results won’t really surprise anyone. When asked how proud they are to be Americans—“extremely proud, very proud, moderately proud, only a little proud or not at all proud”—fewer and fewer respondents are saying they are “extremely proud.” Among Democrats, the number has slid to a mere 22%, from a post-9/11 high of 65%.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, asking someone if they are “extremely proud” to be an American doesn’t tell us much. For almost a full century now, this kind of phrase has not been a true measure of one’s love of country, but rather a marker of which side you were on. As I argued in The Other School Reformers, following World War I a certain sort of knee-jerk patriotism became a hallmark of cultural conservatism.

Consider the case of Harold Rugg. Rugg’s textbooks were used by millions of American students. Starting in the late 1930s, however, conservatives in the American Legion and other “patriotic” groups attacked Rugg as sneakily socialist. The books, conservatives argued, were un-American because they questioned America’s role as an unqualifiedly positive force in world history.

As have lefties ever since, Rugg fought back. He insisted that he DID love America, but that children should learn about its faults as well as its virtues. As he put it in 1941, he felt

profound admiration and deep loyalty to the historic American version of the democratic way of life.

He also believed that real American virtues were under attack, not by lefties like him, but by

a few false patriots in our midst who, while mouthing the slogans of Americanism, stamp on the Bill of Rights, destroy tolerant discussion of issues, bear false witness and defame the characters and reputations of other Americans who are sincerely striving to honor and protect the democratic process.

These days, too, asking people if they are “extremely proud” to be American seems to be the wrong question to ask. Consider the flip side: With a few exceptions—such as conservative isolationism in the early 1940s—generally the Left has been the side of “peace.” Since the Vietnam War in particular, saying that you are in favor of “peace” has lined you up with hippies and vegetarianism and Jane Fonda.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Boring…boring…boring from within.

Of course conservatives are also in favor of “peace.” Who isn’t? But any poll that asked Americans if they were on the side of “peace” would get skewed results. It would find that Democrats apparently favored “peace” more than Republicans.

For this Fourth of July holiday, too, with T-diddy promising “brand-new Sherman tanks” in a Stalin-esque military display, it seems perverse to ask people if they are “extremely proud” to be Americans. Ask us if we love this country. Ask us if we are willing to make sacrifices for the common good. Ask us a million different questions and you’ll get a better answer.

What Would Howard Zinn Say?

I admit it—I was confused. I had to read the news from San Francisco two more times before I realized that I had read it right. The school board had voted to destroy a communist-painted mural that depicted US history as the story of slavery and genocide because…it was racist. They didn’t want students to have to see Washington depicted as a slave-purchasing Indian-killer.washington mural 1

First, the historical background: As I described in The Other School Reformers, in the 20th century conservatives fought long and hard to keep what they called “communist” histories out of America’s schools. Books that told the stories of genocide and slavery were repeatedly attacked by groups such as the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution as anti-American and subversive.washington mural 2

This week in San Francisco, though, the 1930s-era murals by communism-friendly artist Victor Arnautoff will be destroyed. It’s not that people don’t understand the point of the murals. The school board seems to understand that these murals were meant to criticize Washington’s participation in genocide and slavery. However, the school board decided that these particular anti-slavery, anti-genocide murals were not the best way to teach kids. In the words of the school board’s working group,

We come to these recommendations due to the continued historical and current trauma of Native Americans and African Americans with these depictions in the mural that glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. This mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students. If we consider the SFUSD equity definition, the “low” mural glorifies oppression instead of eliminating it. It also perpetuates bias through stereotypes rather than ending bias. It has nothing to do with equity or inclusion at all. The impact of this mural is greater than its intent ever was. It’s not a counter-narrative if [the mural] traumatizes students and community members.

Indeed, the activists who opposed this mural came from the left, not the right. It was not the honest depictions of slavery and genocide against which they protested, but rather the depictions of African Americans and Native Americans solely as victims, slaves, and corpses. As one anti-mural activist told the LA Times,

Our students deserve better. We don’t need to see ourselves portrayed as dead Indians every single time we see ourselves portrayed in any type of art or in any books. We don’t need that. . . . We know our history already — our students don’t need to see it every single time they walk into a public school.

washington mural 3As another anti-muralist told the Washington Post,

It is time to erase the dominant narrative of the dead and defeated Native American. . . . It is important that our public schools are a place for all students to learn and be educated in a safe environment.

After reading these arguments, I felt like I understood the objections better. Perhaps the school board is not merely echoing the sentiments of right-wingers and trying to block any depiction of the ugly side of US history. Rather, the goal is to give students a deeper “counter-narrative.”

Still, as a history teacher, I’m feeling nonplussed. It is difficult enough to talk about racial violence and imperialism in class. Literally whitewashing an attempt to show those histories doesn’t seem like the best way to get those important conversations going.

It’s Not Only Right-Wingers Who Get Schooled

It was embarrassing. Yesterday, NPR’s Cokie Roberts said a bunch of stuff about the history of abortion that just wasn’t true. After an academic historian exposed the goof, NPR had to retract the whole thing. Why did Roberts do it? Because to be a “real” historian, you don’t need a tenure-track university job or a PhD from an elite graduate program, but you do need to think a certain way about the past and be willing to spend the time to understand the past correctly.Dr Thompson Tweet Roberts apparently couldn’t be bothered.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably sick of hearing about the ways academic historians “dunk” on right-wing history pundits such as Dinesh D’Souza. In those cases, academics such as Kevin Kruse debunk the false historical assertions made by pundits for purely political purposes, like when D’Souza claimed that the Republican Party was the true anti-racist, pro-civil-rights party. When D’Souza and other right-wing pundits like David Barton make their bad history, they tend to cherry-pick factlets without giving full weight to the broader, truer historical picture.

Yesterday’s case was different. NPR’s Cokie Roberts did indeed make a political point using history. She argued that today’s pro-choice politics assume that abortion was common—and dangerous—before Roe v. Wade. But Roberts did not just pick out a few truish facts to make an untrue argument. Instead, she misinterpreted the past based on her own lazy methods.

Originally (NPR has since removed Roberts’s goof), Roberts said,

there are many articles by abortion rights proponents who claim the procedure was so common that newspapers advertised providers. Look, I did a search of 19th century newspapers and couldn’t find them.

Dr. Lauren MacIvor Thompson, an historian at Georgia State University, quickly pointed out the huge hole in Roberts’s argument. Perhaps Roberts really had done a search of newspapers, but as a bad historian, she did a bad search. Roberts searched for phrases such as “abortion” and “birth control,” phrases that weren’t used in the 1800s, and found out—surprise, surprise—that they weren’t used in the 1800s. Her faulty conclusion? Newspapers did not advertise for abortions in the past.

As Dr. Thompson pointed out, Roberts made two huge mistakes that any trained historian would have avoided without even thinking about it:

1.) Roberts assumed that the terms we use were the same as the terms used in the past.

2.) Roberts did not take time to understand the historical context for her quick database search.

As Dr. Thompson pointed out, 19th-century newspapers really were full of advertisements for abortions and other anti-pregnancy medical interventions, but they used different language to describe them. Back then, newspapers referred to “menstrual regulation,” “medical relief,” “curing irregularities,” and so on.

Let’s be clear: There is absolutely no reason why someone needs a PhD or a tenure-track university job to be a “real” historian. All kinds of people do great historical work everyday, whether they are middle-school teachers, stamp collectors, historical re-enactors, or hard-working journalists.

What Cokie Roberts did is different. She skipped the hard work necessary to understand the past and instead accepted her own flitting google-search to be decent historical evidence.

All the News That’s Fake to Print

Teachers don’t get freaked out easily. But our new world—in which the President denounces journalists as “enemies of the people” and news coverage he doesn’t like as “fake news”—has altered the world of classroom teaching already. Peter Boyer recently warned that Trumpism might kill the New York Times. In schools around here, at any case, it’s already dead.

New York Times Trump

Who will be the ultimate loser in this fight?

Here’s what we know: Boyer took a look at the long and contentious relationship between Trump and the Times. As NYT reporter Jim Rutenberg argued back in 2016, Trump forced some journalists to question their core beliefs in non-partisan journalism. As Rutenberg wrote,

If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.

And Boyer concluded,

The unavoidable takeaway from [Rutenberg’s piece] was that Donald Trump, in shattering the norms of presidential politics, had baited the elite news media into abandoning the norms of traditional journalism—a central tenet of which was the posture of neutrality. That certainly seemed to be the case at the Times, which soon began to characterize dubious Trump statements as “lies” in news reports and headlines, a drastic break from the paper’s once-indelible standards.

What does this have to do with today’s classrooms? Everything.

I’m lucky to work with a group of smart, engaged history teachers. Recently, we were looking at some material from Stanford’s History Education Group. The goal of one lesson was to help students evaluate arguments made online, in places like Facebook threads.

Facebook Argument_edited

News, Fake News, and Damned Lies…

The SHEG folks offer a mock-up of a potential Facebook debate about gun control. They want students to be able to differentiate between substantive arguments with good evidence and claptrap. As SHEG writes,

Successful students will notice and compare the sources each user provides. Anya links to an article from a mainstream, national newspaper. In contrast, Grace’s chart comes from a group that lobbies against restrictions on gun ownership.

The hope was that students would recognize the superiority of a New York Times article over a partisan, pro-gun organization. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works any more. The teachers I met with immediately warned that their students would tend to think that the New York Times was untrustworthy and politically imbalanced. Teachers knew their students would not trust the New York Times or consider it a “mainstream” reliable source.

Boyer warned that Trumpism had put “the news media’s bond of trust with its audience . . . under strain.” In classrooms around here, at least, that bond of trust is more than strained. It has already snapped.