Trump and DeVos: Improving Science and History Education?

It’s too soon to tell, of course, but that’s not going to stop me from wondering. Historians, science-educators, and members of the Democratic Party have all been horrified by Trumpism. But murmurs from the field suggest that Trump’s excesses are sparking a pro-history, pro-science, pro-donkey backlash. At least a little.

History first. It didn’t take an expert to be shocked by some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Shouting about “America First,” for example, seemed to willfully ignore the tortured history of that phrase.

Then science. Trump has long bashed climate-change science as a “hoax,” a “Chinese plot,” a “con job.”

And politics. Trump’s surprise victory had many Democratic Party faithful wringing their hands at their abject failure. If they couldn’t stop a buffoon like Trump, how could they expect to get anywhere?

Trump and devos

So bad it’s good…?

So maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but we’re hearing all sorts of mumbling about anti-Trump backlash.

Amy Wang asks if Trump’s surprise victory has sparked renewed interest in history on college campuses. In the past few years, the number of history majors has slumped, as more and more college students study business and engineering. At Yale, however, the history major recently regained its top spot. Elsewhere, students are looking at the history major with renewed interest. Wang wonders if Trump’s victory

has broken through an apathy barrier of sorts. People who’d become disengaged with politics suddenly started paying attention again.

And at least one progressive Seattle science teacher claims that Trumpist science-denialism has sparked greater interest among his students in studying real science. As he put it,

My students are angry and frightened and I am humbled by the fact that most of them have only deepened their commitment to do what Trump will not: honestly explore and enact how best to live on Earth.

When it comes to politics, too, Democrats are finding that Trump and DeVos make excellent fundraisers…for Democrats. As Politico reports, Democratic Party campaigns that focus on DeVos’s policies are raking in the dollars. As Politico’s Michael Stratford reports,

Emails citing DeVos are raising money at a faster clip than others and driving engagement from supporters.

We shouldn’t be surprised, I guess. No one was less popular in the 1930s than FDR, and he stayed in office for four terms. Nobody provoked greater animosity than Abraham Lincoln, and he got the penny. So we don’t want to overestimate the importance of inevitable anti-Trump backlash.

We can’t help but wonder, though: Will Trumpism really spark a renaissance of academic history, science education, and Democratic Party politics?

The Third Rail in American History

It’s more than just “not easy to talk about.” Among the many controversial issues in American history, there’s nothing more difficult to address. A new educational outreach program tries to get people to talk about it, but I’m not very optimistic that it will have the kind of results it should. Why is this such a dynamite topic? I think it has something to do with pronouns. I’ll explain.

Let me back up a little bit and tell my story: A few years back I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a social-studies teachers’ conference at a large urban school district. They had invited me to speak because their annual theme was “Teaching Controversial Issues in US History.” I was delighted. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, I obsess over such questions.equal justice initiative

A few weeks before the conference, I was talking with the planners about my talk. I told them I planned to include a discussion of the topic of lynching. I planned to lead a workshop for teachers about the intense difficulties of teaching American students about it. I planned to share resources with them and get them to share their experiences.

The planners blanched. No way, they said. Not that they prohibited me from going ahead, but they told me that even mentioning the word “lynching” would cause immediate uproar. Let me repeat: This was a meeting of social-studies teachers. This was a group of people who taught history all day every day. And, in the opinion of people who knew them best, they would not tolerate a discussion of the topic of lynching.

It’s not just my experiences. A while back, an elementary teacher got in trouble in Florida for using a coloring book that featured an image of a lynching. It was considered too controversial to teach children about the history of lynching.

image-from-who-was-jim-crow-coloring-book

Too much knowledge?

Right now, I’m not interested in questions of free speech and anti-intellectualism. Rather, I’m concerned with the bigger question: Why is it so impossible to talk about lynching? Why is it so controversial to teach this topic in American classrooms?

It’s not because smart people aren’t trying to get us to talk about it. And it’s not because there aren’t good teaching materials out there. The Equal Justice Initiative has been trying to address this problem for a while now. They recently released their online platform to teach about lynching and the history of racial violence in America.

Will it get more teachers to talk about lynching? I wish I could be more optimistic. I think the problem is more deeply rooted than it might seem. It goes all the way down to the grammatical level. When most of us talk about history, that is, we talk about it in ways that make it very difficult to calmly consider the history of racial violence. If we’re talking about the Trail of Tears, for example, depending on who we are, we say things like, “We forced them to move;” or “They pushed us off our land.”

So when it comes to talking about lynching, we can’t teach students about it without saying things like, “We terrorized the African American community with whippings, burnings, and hangings;” or, “We have always been attacked when we tried to assert our rights.” We can’t teach the history without confronting students’ own moral culpability.

Please don’t get me wrong: I believe it is important to acknowledge and address historical culpability. But that is an effort that can and should be separated from historical education. I want students of all ages to know and understand the true history of these United States. As I’ve argued in the case of other controversial topics such as evolution education, I believe we can do that separately from a moral campaign (which I also happen to support) to address the grievous racial injustices that have always been part of American society and history.

Too often, the only times the history of lynching has been addressed has been as part of an effort at political indoctrination. That is, left-leaning historians have taught about it as a way to show that America has always teetered on the edge of racial apocalypse. Right-leaners have downplayed the importance of the subject, suggesting that such “unfortunate” parts of American history don’t really tell the whole story. Most often, as with every controversial topic, history teachers just politely ignore the subject. That’s more than a shame.

Burying the painful history of lynching in layers of ignorance and euphemism will not make it go away. We need to teach students the real history of this country. And we can do that without wrapping it in layers of ideology and indoctrination.

But What about All the Dead Bodies?…

Forget about evolution and creationism for a minute. We see more evidence today that the first shot in many educational culture wars takes place not in science, but in history.

When it comes to schooling and culture wars, we spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about creationism and science. It makes sense. In that case, we see a stark and shocking disconnect between contending visions of proper knowledge for children.

But some of the most virulent culture-war battles happen over historical issues. Conservative Christians in the United States often embrace an historical narrative that is at odds with mainstream academic interpretations. Counter-historians like David Barton sell just as many books as do counter-scientists like Ken Ham. And the difference between mainstream academic history and dissenting Christian histories can be just as stark as the differences between the modern evolutionary synthesis and young-earth creationism.

In the United States, one of the most stubborn conservative dissenting histories has been that of neo-Confederatism. As David Blight demonstrated in his terrific book Race & Reunion, conservative history activists in the US South scored major successes in limiting public-school histories to those that flattered the losing side in the Civil War.

In nations around the world, culture-war conflicts often show up as debates over the nature of real history. In Japan, for example, the horrific crimes of the Japanese army in World War II are repeatedly minimized or even ignored in mainstream textbooks. In my own ancestral homeland of Estonia, a long Russian occupation has generated a kind of historic cognitive dualism. Most Estonians of a certain age know the pro-Russian history they got in their Soviet-era schoolbooks, but they don’t believe it. In contrast, Estonians tend to believe a folk history of heroic Estonian resistance, even though they don’t know much about it.[1]

In the pages of the New York Times this morning, we see another example of this kind of battle for history. In pro-Russian breakaway regions of Ukraine, new educational directives insist that the Soviet famine of the 1930s was not a Stalinist genocide, but rather a morally neutral tragedy that befell the entire Soviet Union.

Controlling the past to control the future...

Controlling the past to control the future…

According to mainstream historians, including especially Robert Conquest in English, the Ukrainian famine was anything but morally neutral. Instead, the famine—a tragedy that killed millions of people—was the precise goal of Stalinist policy. In order to bring restive provinces in line, Stalin intended for the region to suffer.

According to the NYT, the new “Fatherland History” hopes to emphasize the region’s long ties with Russia. It plans to minimize Ukrainian nationalist ideas. Igor V. Kostenok, the new minister of education in charge of the new historical guidelines, described the goal as the creation of “a culture, a culture for the Slavic world, for the Russian world.”

Will it work? Not likely. As is the case in every aspect of our educational culture wars, dissenting ideas have a way of surviving and even thriving in spite of official condemnation.

[1] See James V. Wertsch, “Is It Possible to Teach Beliefs, as Well as Knowledge about History?” in Stearns, Seixas, and Wineburg eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History (NYU Press, 2000), pp. 38-50.

How Columbus Became Conservative

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?

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.

School Protests and Negative Nellies

Suburban Jefferson County is in an uproar. Teachers and students have taken to the streets. They’re protesting a move by conservative school-board members to modify the new Advanced Placement US History framework. Predictably, conservatives nationwide have rallied behind those school-board members. In ways today’s protesters might not recognize, conservative rhetoric in this case dredges up a long conservative tradition—the fight against excessive negativity toward America. In surprising ways for “The Party of No,” when it comes to educational attitudes, conservatives have often been the party of “Yes, Please.”

This Denver-area protest is not the first to result from the changing framework for the Advanced Placement US History class. Conservative pundits have attacked the changes as pernicious and short-sighted. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, those conservative concerns have a legacy all their own. Conservative intellectuals and activists have protested that the new framework depicts the main themes of US History as oppression and racism. Some conservatives have called for US History to be taught in more traditional ways, more patriotic ways.

In this case, conservative school-board members proposed a new look at the framework. The five-member board has a solid three-member conservative majority, and those three called for a reform that would emphasize “positive aspects” of US History, an emphasis on ideas that “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual right.” In addition, conservative leaders want less emphasis on materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

In protest, district teachers called for an orderly sick-out. Teachers planned to call in sick to draw attention to both this change in curriculum and a proposed change to teacher pay. As word spread, students joined in. Soon, teachers and students alike took to the streets to protest any change in the history curriculum.

Predictably, conservative commentators huffed and puffed at the student protest. Gretchen Carlson of Fox News called the protesters “punks.” “How can being patriotic or learning about patriotism be a negative?” Carlson asked. “And what does it say about our young people and the teachers joining the protests that patriotism is now a negative?”

Writing in the pages of National Review Online, Ian Tuttle had a similarly dismissive attitude toward these “sign-waving baby barbarians.” Not only did the students expose their own ignorance with their hopelessly ironic protest signs, but their movement could not even count as legitimate social protest. Real protest, Tuttle fumed, was a vital patriotic legacy. This sort of display, in contrast, was only “self-indulgent grievance-mongering.”

Maybe a little cencoring would be okay...?

Maybe a little cencoring would be okay…?

Back in Colorado, one of the conservative board members opined that the student protesters were being used as hapless “political pawns.” The real issue, he said, was the question of teacher pay. The teachers’ unions cynically exploited the naïve enthusiasm of students in order to line the pockets of union members.

There’s more going on here than just 1960s hangover culture wars. Beneath these specific worries about student orderliness and patriotism, there is a decided theme about the proper attitude schools and students should have toward American society in general. As I researched my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, I came across this theme time and again. In addition to worries about political leftism and secularism in schools, conservatives have worried vaguely about a pervading sense of negativity in progressive school curricula. Sometimes this has had to do with the portrayal of America’s past, as in the current Colorado student protests. But sometimes it has been a broader complaint about a general negative attitude in school books.

In what follows, I’ll share three long examples from 1923, 1939, and 1970. In each case, leading conservative activists attacked the negativity of progressive educators. Just as in Jefferson County, conservatives in each case worried that students were being taught that America stunk, that life in general stunk.

First, a speech from April 16, 1923. In this speech, the leader of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution warned of the creeping negativity and anti-patriotism of America’s teachers. Too many teachers, President General Anne Minor insisted, poured that negativity down the throats of trusting young schoolchildren.

Character and patriotism and obedience to law—there are the essentials of training in the schools. Do we find them everywhere? There are many who feel that there is a weakness of moral fibre [sic] in the teaching in many of our schools. And it is well known that there is an organized movement of many years’ standing among radicals to insinuate their doctrines into the schools and colleges all over the land….We want no teachers who say there are two sides to every question, including even our system of government; who care more for their ‘academic freedom of speech’ and opinion (so called) than for their country. Academic freedom of speech has no place in school, where the youth of our country are taught and their unformed minds are developed. There are no two sides to loyalty to this country and its flag. There is nothing debatable about allegiance to that flag and the Republic for which it stands. Freedom of speech does not give the right to teach disloyalty to our children and college youth. The teacher who does not wish to teach loyalty toward the land that employs him, has one good remedy. He or she may resign and go where disloyal opinions can find expression without harm to anyone. Guard well your schools, lest the life of the nation be poisoned at its source.

Years later, in 1939, a school-board member in Englewood, New Jersey lambasted the leftism and negativity of a popular set of textbooks. In this case, that conservative school board member was B.C. “Bertie” Forbes, the founder of Forbes Magazine. The textbooks at issue were a set of social-studies books by progressive scholar Harold Rugg. In this snippet, Forbes tells a story he repeated over and over again in his crusade against the Rugg books:

One of [a local teacher’s] pupils came to me, very much upset. In effect, he said that he had always regarded America and the American form of government as wonderful. But, he proceeded to relate that when the class had been asked to record their opinion as to whether ‘The people of the United States have a better government than have the people of any other county in the world,’ their teacher expressed disagreement with those young Americans who had replied, ‘Yes.’ According to this pupil she disabused their minds of any such idea. According to him, she told her young charges that the answer was ‘No’, that ‘there are several countries in Europe which have as good, if not better, forms of government than ours.’

At this critical time, when we are preparing to conscript our youths to become American soldiers, I cannot but question the wisdom of impregnating young minds with any such notion that our system of government is open to question.

If teachers of the Rugg books are seeking ‘subtly’, to use Professor Rugg’s own word, to convey such ideas to the coming generation, ideas which cannot possibly inspire them with veneration for their flag—which they are asked to salute every day—surely the parents of Englewood are entitled to learn the facts.

A generation later, in 1970, conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler told the Texas State Board of Education that too many textbooks focused only on the negative. The Gablers went through the list of approved books, one by one. In each case, the Gablers noted the relentless negativity of the texts. In what follows, I’ll include a full long book-by-book quotation from the Gablers’ testimony:

This book contains some of the chilling, horror-type stories that seem to appeal to the morbid imagination of this age’s youth; but so much time spent thinking upon strangeness can make it almost seem normal. The characters in ‘The Jam’ are dope addicts. ‘The Hitchhiker,’ which follows, has an identical climax, both written to horrify. ‘The Birds’ was made into a Hitchcock movie, so is well-known, but in reading it there is so much more blood and gruesome detail that the reader feels the need to escape and cleanse himself from such horror. ‘Zero’ leaves the impression that it is normal for children to hate parents and for parents to be indifferent to the needs of children. Everything in the book is conducive to causing emotional instability in the impressionable mind.

This [Rebels and Regulars] is another very depressing book. As far as the language used, it is in keeping with the characters and plots of the stories, but not the sort of language the thoughtful parent would approve of in his children. There is throughout the book the undercurrent of ‘a cause,’ which gives a prejudiced viewpoint, always picturing the white man as the villain against different minority groups or individuals. Typical of the stories is ‘The Cyclists’ Raid,’ which is militant, lawless, defiant, and completely without consideration for the individual. . . . A whole semester of concentrating upon rebellion as pictured in these stories will have a negative effect upon an impressionable young person. It becomes more honorable to rebel than to obey laws or consider the rights of others. . . .

This book [Ways of Justice] indicates that justice is whatever an individual decides it should be. ‘Junkie Joe Had Some Money’ shows bullies getting away with murder because the only witness is intimidated. In ‘Manuel,’ a kindly act is rewarded with utmost cruelty, written in vivid detail. ‘Mateo [86] Falcone’ tells of a young boy who is bribed to reveal the hiding place of another, then his father kills him. Nothing here to indicate love or understanding is possible between parents and child. ‘Marijuana and a Pistol’ gives all the sordid details of a maladjusted youth who smokes ‘weeds,’ including the uncontrolled giggling and vomiting. ‘They Grind Exceedingly Small’ is a story about the person who has money, taking advantage of the poor, hard-working, underprivileged—indicating that all money and power are in the hands of the cruel, wicked, dishonest, and undeserving. . . .

Couldn’t half of the stories in this series tell about people living together in harmony, love, understanding, and helpfulness?

Is reality only negative? Does not reality also include the many acts of kindness between races that is evident across our nation? It must be remembered that qualities such as morality must be taught. They do not come naturally. Education without morality will result in a depraved society.

Our conclusion is that if these books do not contribute to rebellion, lack of respect for authority, sadism, violence, and disillusionment, they will most certainly defeat the whole purpose for studying literature in our schools; for there is absolutely nothing presented here that would open the wonderful world of the printed page to our youth and cause them to want to pursue reading for the pure joy of doing so!

In all these conservative protests, the notion that school materials must somehow be positive and patriotic takes center place. Whether it was in 1923, 1939, 1970, or today, conservatives have insisted that school materials do more than present the negative side of life. In today’s protest, the issue is the teaching of US History. And that has certainly been a central subject in these battles. But it was not only history that became controversial. As the Gablers pointed out, the negativity of the cultural left showed up in literature selections as well. As they asked so plaintively, “Is reality only negative?”  And, and President General Minor protested way back when, a pervasive, destructive negativity also showed up in teachers’ attitudes.

Again and again, conservatives have wanted students to learn positive messages. Conservatives have worried that too much negativity might produce a generation of cynics. In a sense, we might say that conservatives in schools have sometimes been the party of positivity.

Bill Gates: Creation/Evolution Warrior ???

Bill Gates seems to be wading into the creationism/evolution controversies. But he doesn’t seem to know it. At least that’s the sense I get from an article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine.

Bill-Gates-bashing is a popular sport these days among progressive-education types. I don’t usually go in for it. But this article makes it crystal clear that Mr. Gates really does have more money than sense. He seems utterly unaware of the history and context of his own pet projects.

The story focuses on Mr. Gates’ new vision for teaching World History in American high schools. Mr. Gates apparently became enamored of the lecturing style of one David Christian, an Australian historian with a penchant for offering what journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin calls a “unifying narrative of life on earth.”

Gates liked it. So he thought everyone should get it. He funded a project to bring Professor Christian’s style of “unifying” world history to high schools nationwide. Instead of lumbering through disconnected areas of culture and geography, the thinking goes, students will be electrified to see the connections behind seemingly disparate events and disciplines.

Let’s ignore for a minute the other painful moments in this article, such as when Mr. Gates gleefully notes his ignorance of the history of teaching biology in secondary schools. Gates told Sorkin happily that he had no idea about this basic history. “It was pretty uncharted territory,” Gates said, “But it was pretty cool.” Of course, this history of biology as a school subject is not at all “uncharted territory.” Even a two-second google search would have offered Mr. Gates some quick historical outlines of the issues involved.

Let’s also pass by Mr. Sorkin’s apparent ignorance of the roughest outline of American educational history, as when he states that high-school education began to be mandatory in the 1850s. It didn’t. In some states, such as Massachusetts, education became compulsory at that date. In other states compulsory education laws did not kick in until the 1910s. Even in compulsory-education states, high school was not required as such. Again, I’m not expecting a journalist like Sorkin to have delved deeply into this history. But even a check of Wikipedia would have helped.

But let’s politely ignore those howlers and move on to the main question: What does this new Gates history curriculum have to do with creationism?

Both Gates and Professor Christian do not seem aware of the long history of their sort of “unifying” history. As Jon H. Roberts demonstrated so brilliantly in his co-authored book The Sacred and the Secular University, the decisive shift away from religious moralizing in mainstream colleges came with the abandonment of the effort to offer students a satisfying “unifying” narrative.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Roberts demonstrated, college presidents traditionally offered a capstone course in “moral philosophy.” This course hoped to give students a sense of the unifying nature of all forms of truth. In most cases, that truth was lodged in Christian theology. In other courses, too, professors in old-style colleges tended to suggest that there was a supernatural glue that held all knowledge together. It was the intellectual revolution that included Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism of natural selection that wrought a wholesale change in this sort of “unifying” education.

As Roberts’ co-author James Turner argued, this shift in university attitudes was pushed and accompanied by the rising prestige of disciplinary knowledge. In older schools, professors were supposed to pursue knowledge as such, to pursue the unifying sorts of knowledge that David Christian seems to prefer. In modern universities, that knowledge was parceled out into the academic disciplines we’re familiar with today.

What does any of this have to do with Bill Gates’ Big History Project?

Gates and Christian seem utterly unaware that the notion of a “unifying” sort of history class is not a new idea. It is, instead, a discarded idea. As philosopher Philip Kitcher might say, this is not “bad history” or “new history,” but rather “dead history.”

In its older incarnation, a sweeping history that unified all sorts of knowledge suggested that the unifying element was God. The reason students should seek knowledge in all its forms, the thinking went, was because all knowledge pointed toward the Creator.

Whether they mean to or not, Gates and Christian will have to choose what sort of unifying idea they prefer. And they seem surprisingly unaware that this choice is precisely at issue in our century-long culture war over evolution and creationism.

The Big History Project doesn’t put God at the center of its narrative. It begins with the assumption that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. It explains the roots of humanity in other forms of life. These are ideas at the center of the continuing creation-evolution controversies.   If Gates and Christian are looking to produce a Cosmos-like statement about the intellectual weakness of creationism, fine.

But they don’t even seem aware of the issue. In the NYT article, at least, Gates seems to worry only about educational bureaucrats getting in the way of his big idea.

Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps Gates deliberately plans to bypass creationists entirely. Perhaps he hopes that by not mentioning creation/evolution controversies, he won’t have to engage with them. But for anyone even mildly aware of the current state of cultural tension over the teaching of humanity’s long history, such a curriculum seems fraught with controversy.  It seems like something they might want to think about.

America: Schools Taken over by Scheming Progressives

What sorts of history did you learn in school?  As I argue in a recent commentary published on History News Network, conservative thinkers and activists have often insisted that school history has been taken over by a scheming, America-hating, progressive history cabal.

It looks as if Dinesh D’Souza’s new film dives headfirst into that tradition.  In America: Imagine the World without Her, D’Souza denounces American education as woefully slanted.

In a recent interview about the film, D’Souza accuses even the best schools of teaching a “doctored account” of history.  Young people, D’Souza believes, have all been taught a skewed leftist history.  In his film, D’Souza hopes to counter this horrible history with a heroic counter-argument.

But as I found when I researched the twentieth-century history of conservative activism in the United States, I found that conservatives have exerted just as much influence over the nature of American education as have progressives.

So why do conservatives like D’Souza continue to insist that schools have been taken over by dunderheaded progressives?  If you want to read my humble opinion, you’ll have to check out the HNN essay.

A Patriot’s History: The Movie!

What’s a patriotic conservative to do?  So often, history textbooks have been accused of peddling a leftist mishmash of America-bashing and skewed intellectual flag-burning.  As we’ve argued in these pages, for generations conservatives from the American Legion to David Barton have attempted to publish their own history textbooks that tell a more patriotic, more Christian story.

One of the most successful of those textbook efforts has been Larry Schweikert’s and Michael Allen’s 2004 A Patriot’s History of the United States. The book tells the story of the United States in a way that celebrates the triumphs and tragedies of America from a traditionalist patriotic viewpoint.  According to the book’s Wikipedia page, one reviewer from the Heritage Foundation wrote in 2005 that the book centered on a simple premise: “that there are principles and purposes reflected in American history that make this imperfect country worthy of our affection.”  Other reviewers had more hostile opinions.  David Hoogland Noon wrote in the pages of the History Teacher that this book was “written for an audience of the previously converted . . . hardly worth anyone else’s time.”

Via Andrew Palmer at Conservative Teachers of America we see that Schweikert is hoping to turn the book into a movie.  Schweikert has published a four-and-a-half minute trailer.  Tellingly, the dramatic intro promises the film will tell viewers “the history you always knew.”  In other words, the approach of Schweikert and Allen has been to confirm the traditional story of America’s greatness.  Not that this story has been one of unalloyed heroism, Schweikert and Allen might say, but overall the sweep of history has proven the United States to be the greatest nation on earth.

The choice of bits and pieces for this trailer tells us something about the movie’s approach.  First of all, it begins and ends with fireworks.  It includes scenic panoramas of cherry blossoms on the Mall in Washington DC, Ansel-Adams-like vistas of rocky outcroppings, and other traditional American eye candy.  As I watched, I took sketchy notes of some of the featured elements:

  • Happy colonists
  • Heroic suffering in the Revolutionary War
  • Heroic racing in wagons to settle the West
  • The Civil War
  • An Industrial Revolution with awesome achievement
  • D-day and Iwo Jima
  • Immigrants as ardent patriots
  • The Green Bay Packers!
  • Mount Rushmore
  • The Moon Landing
  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • A jet in Vietnam napalming a field
  • Reagan calling on Gorbachev to tear down this wall
  • Baseball
  • The hockey “Miracle on Ice” of 1980
  • Lots of Fireworks.

Clearly, any movie trailer tells only part of the story.  This one certainly skews toward the positive elements of American history.  Unlike some academic histories, the story of the settling of the West is told as a heroic race to fill in land with settlers, not as the invasion of Europeans and the genocide of the native inhabitants.  As much as what was included, this trailer leaves out some important elements.  I saw no suggestion of race slavery, for example, nor of the systematic extermination of native peoples.

Will conservative teachers and schools embrace the film as conservatives embraced the book?  I don’t see why not.  In my experience, conservative intellectuals don’t want children to read patriotic lies about America’s past, but they do want children to read patriotic truths.  In the case of the American Legion’s 1926 textbook series, for example, as soon as the Legion leadership found out that the book was riddled with errors, the Legion pulled its support.  And as soon as David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies accumulated accusations of inaccuracy, its original publisher yanked it.

My hunch is that the makers of A Patriot’s History would argue that they do tell the full story of America’s past.  The trailer, for example, did include clips of America’s troubling policy of napalming villages in the Vietnam War.  To be a success, I’m guessing, this film will have to convince conservative audiences of two things.  First, it must seem like a full and true history of these United States.  Second, it must make clear that this country—despite its historical blemishes—is the greatest nation on the earth.

The hard question remains: Would you want your kids to watch it?

 

150 Years Without History Are Enough!

It’s not a “conservative” thing, really.  Or a “progressive,” “liberal,” or “traditionalist” thing.  But I’ve mounted up on my high horse in the pages of History News Network to complain about the sad state of American history education.

Specifically, I’m stumped and saddened by the continuing prevalence of neo-Confederate histories in America’s public schools.  Or, at least, by the continuing desire of some activists and authors to keep neo-Confederate histories alive.

In the HNN essay, I argue that there are clear parallels between this sort of history education and the long campaign against the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes.   Just as in that case, I think there are plenty of conservative intellectuals who will agree with me that neo-Confederate myths shouldn’t be taught as real history, just as there are lots of conservative evangelicals who dispute the young-earth style of creationism peddled by Ken Ham.  Just as I wouldn’t want history teachers to use Zinn’s woefully slanted leftist People’s History of America in their classrooms, I bet there are plenty of conservatives who don’t want American kids to learn that the Civil Rights Movement was no big deal, or that lots of slaves fought FOR the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Take a look and offer your comments over there.  Bonus points if you can make sense of my oh-so-clever title BEFORE reading the essay on HNN!

 

What Do You Want Your 7-Year Old to Learn about Lynching?

A story yesterday from Jacksonville, Florida raises some difficult questions about what we want to teach our children.

According to News4Jax.com, a parent of a second grader complained at the coloring book his child brought home.  The coloring book, “Who Was Jim Crow?” by edhelper.com, included some disturbing racial imagery.  Not least shocking was a picture of a crowd lynching a victim.

Image source: News4Jax.com

Image source: News4Jax.com

As a historian, I think we need to teach young people the sometimes-disturbing story of America’s past.  But this sort of classroom material raises all sorts of questions:

  • How old do Americans need to be to learn about racial stereotyping?
  • How should students be taught about America’s history of racial violence?
  • Should teachers be using cheap on-line teaching materials like this?  Even if the school board approved them?
  • Is this an example of racial political correctness gone wild?  Or is this an example of classroom racism?
  • Can offensive racial stereotyping ever make good teaching materials?