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Trump’s Threat to Pull Funding From Schools Over How They Teach Slavery Is Part of a Long History of Politicizing American History Class

9 minute read
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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.

Parallel anxieties persisted into the 20th century, and adapted themselves to whatever conflict was at hand. For example, in the archive of the textbook publisher American Book Company, Marshall—a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is writing a book about U.S. history textbooks—found letters revealing a conversation in the fall of 1917, during World War I, about whether to remove the Declaration of Independence from a textbook on the history of the United States so as “to foster no animosity against our ally, England” in “the year 1917 when patriotism is pitched as high as it is.” The company ultimately decided that would be going too far.

However, she says, wartime fear that the children of German immigrants would grow up loyal to Germany did prompt the New York State Legislature to pass a law in 1918 banning public schools from teaching textbooks containing material “seditious in character, disloyal to the United States, or favorable to the cause of any foreign country with which the United States is now at war.”

In the 1920s, as anxiety over immigration and communism helped fuel a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the North, textbooks were once again in the cross hairs. Seth Cotlar, a professor of history at Willamette University, shared on Twitter a screenshot of a law passed by the KKK-dominated Oregon State Senate, prohibiting public schools from using any textbook that “speaks slightingly of the founders of the republic, or of the men who preserved the union, or which belittles or undervalues their work.” Cotlar points out that recent accusations that Black Lives Matter is spreading a “radical left” agenda echo mid-20th century fears of radical left ideas brainwashing children.

Several historians told TIME that the latest wave of backlash also reminded them of a controversy over a popular series of schoolbooks in the late 1930s and early 1940s that asked children to consider whether the U.S. was living up to its founding ideals. Published during the Great Depression, the series was seen as anti-capitalist, rankling leaders in the business world. There was a lot of suspicion about the writer himself, Harold Rugg, because he was a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, an institution that some conservatives considered a hotbed for communist thought. Schools withdrew the series after the negative press coverage and pressure from The American Legion accusing Rugg of printing “treason.”

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But, just as anxiety over “anti-American” history curricula is nothing new, neither are efforts to push back.

In the aftermath of World War II, during the Red Scare of the Cold War, curriculum writer Paul Hanna—whose publication Building America was nixed in 1948 by California curriculum officials over similar concerns that it portrayed communist society too favorably—warned that students would fall for propaganda more easily if they weren’t armed with a balanced view of U.S. and World history. “We do believe that strength sufficient to withstand the world pressure of Communism will be enhanced if we are (1) realistic about our own achievements, and (2) know the strengths and weaknesses of our adversaries,” Hanna said in a March 1948 statement responding to the controversy. “To deny our youth a chance to study a balanced statement of the good and evil in our own nation and in the world is to render our future citizens weak and unprepared for the struggle of our time.”

More recently, the culture wars of the 1990s fueled a controversy about the National History Standards, a set of federally-funded, historian-developed guidelines for teaching American History and World History to K-12 students, which aimed to include more information about the contributions of Black people, American Indians and women. In an Oct. 20, 1994, Wall Street Journal editorial headlined “The End of History,” Lynne Cheney, chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, expressed outrage that the framework mentioned McCarthy and McCarthyism 19 times and Harriet Tubman six times, while mentioning President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address only once, and not mentioning Paul Revere, Robert E. Lee, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. The editorial also quoted an unnamed member of the group overseeing the draft of the standards, accusing the writers of promoting “revisionist” history and accusing the scholars of having “great hatred of traditional history.”

Cheney told Jane Pauley that the standards take a “grim and gloomy” view of American history. Republican Senator Bob Dole said it “threatens us as surely as any foreign power has.” But in fact, the controversy exposes a lack of understanding of the way such curriculum guidelines work.

Though thousands of teachers nationwide used the standards, which were co-authored by UCLA Historian Gary Nash, there are no legally enforceable national requirements for which topics in American history must be taught. Content decisions are made locally, at the state and school district levels, and it’s almost impossible to enforce what teachers are talking about in the classroom.

Reflecting on the National History Standards controversy more than 25 years later, Nash points out that the “traditional history” that critics championed back then is “U.S. history with women largely absent from the story, [and] African Americans reduced to a political issue where northerners and southerners fought about state rights.”

One reason K-12 history education controversies continue to crop up is because of the “unanswered question about what history class is supposed to be for,” argues Adam Laats, historian and author of The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education. “Is the point of history class to introduce young Americans to their heritage of heroes, the glories of American history? Or is history class supposed to make young people into critical examiners of their society, a true civic education that teaches American young people to question every bit of received wisdom and be ready to change what needs changing?”

Sure enough, with the National History Standards controversy still in relatively recent memory, the AP U.S. History curriculum came up for similar debate in several states in the last decade. And now the 1619 Project picks up the baton.

Critics worry that teaching the complicated pasts of the Founding Fathers, like the fact that they enslaved men and women, “will make kids hate America, but the joke is kids hate being lied to,” argues Marshall. “They get cynical when you tell them about George Washington and the cherry tree and then they read a book and realize there was a lot more to him than that.”

Most Americans concur, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll: 71% of registered voters agreed with the statement that “it makes the U.S. stronger when we acknowledge the country’s historical flaws.”

As for Nash, he’s part of that majority. What critics call revisionist history is a sign of a healthy democracy, in his view. “Why in a democratic society shouldn’t we be looking at history, warts and all? If we show only a smiley-face history we’re just mimicking what kids learn in authoritarian regimes,” he says. “As long as historical research is still valued, there will always be revisions to history.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com