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America Is Failing in the Present While Conservatives Try to Rewrite the Past

8 minute read
Williams is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a public policy think tank in New York City and Washington, DC. The views expressed here are his alone.

“What do you mean I need to wear a mask outdoors today?” my kid asked.

I pointed at the front yard. “See that haze? It’s from a bunch of wildfires up north. The air’s not safe to breathe today.”

“Ugh.” they spluttered. “America.”

Their sibling, listening in from the couch, yelled, “No. Ugh—humans.”

My kids are typical for their cohort. By almost any measure, today’s young Americans are pessimists. Polls show that they have a jaded view of the country, its leaders, its economy, and its public institutions.

Conservative political leaders have noticed. They allege that U.S. public schools cultivate American students’ pessimism by offering them a too-critical version of our common history. If kids learn about the enslaved humans held by America’s marble-statued founding fathers, if they learn the full breadth of our country’s cruelties against Native Americans—the thinking goes—they will correspondingly lose faith in the promise of American democracy’s future.

This isn’t just rhetoric: conservative political leaders across the country are actively trying to ban curricula they believe undermines young Americans’ patriotism from public school classrooms. PEN America’s database of “educational gag orders” from the past two years includes hundreds of laws, executive orders, and proposed bills aiming to narrow how much children know about the sins of America’s past.

To be sure, public schools should prepare children to participate actively and willingly in U.S. civic life, and that requires helping them recognize genuine accomplishments of U.S. democratic institutions. But that project is less about the past than it is about the present. See, as my kids age, I’ve found it relatively straightforward to talk them through things like the gap between Thomas Jefferson’s professed ideals and his enslavement of humans. But I’ve found it comparatively impossible to explain present-day American incoherence on gun violence, climate change, and so much more.

It’s worth asking: how much propaganda about the American past would it take to overwhelm children’s honest experiences of the American present? How shiny must we polish our old glories to get kids to look past the fact that they cannot safely breathe outdoors today?

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See, the real problem is not that U.S. kids are being “a-wokened” by radical school curricula that teach them to hate America. The real problem is that young Americans are experiencing cascading national crises that their country seems unable to confront. Their cynicism has been hard earned, and it begins with circumstances: they’ve lived through a catastrophic global pandemic, a violent and tawdry transition of power in 2021, increasingly visible evidence of brutal—even deadly—racial injustice from police, escalating environmental crises, and a metronomic march of school shootings.

But their gloomy view of the country is unquestionably deepened by bearing daily witness to the U.S.’ collective failure to respond. Mass shootings happen regularly in the United States—and nowhere else. The policy solutions to this problem are relatively simple—we need tighter restrictions on more lethal weaponry like assault rifles, fewer guns in general, and a much more comprehensive and accessible mental health system. Our leaders know these solutions. Many recite them—and summarily introduce bills in Congress to pursue them—each time U.S. children are slain on campus.

And yet, our response usually culminates at “thoughts and prayers.” Solutions to the U.S. gun violence epidemic are routinely, predictably blocked by conservatives—those same conservatives, incidentally, who are worried that U.S. children may lose faith in America if they are taught truthful history.

This is just one example of many. The scientific consensus warning about the dire impacts of climate change is decades old. When I was a child in the 1980s and 1990s, the impacts were mostly looming—and thereby invisible to my peers and me. But today’s children are experiencing both the terrifying early waves of what’s coming and conservatives’ utter unwillingness to do anything about this. As supercharged storms batter vulnerable communities and winter snow never quite shows up on the East Coast, kids watch politicians pushing urgently to expand fossil fuel production and otherwise just screwing around.

Silly season never ends. Baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election now permeate U.S. daily political discourse. Conservatives continue their yearslong crusade against the imaginary scourge of voter fraud. Classified documents are turning up in social club bathrooms. George Santos was elected to Congress upon a foundation of falsehoods—and has found conservatives ready to shield him against accountability. The RAND Corporation has concluded that this sort of nonsense has left our country suffering from “truth decay.”

In other words, there’s an immense gulf between the righteous, self-certain, swaggering American nationalist patriotism conservatives cherish—and the flailing, dysfunctional, all-but-delusional country that conservatives daily deliver to U.S. kids. Daily participation in American democracy currently requires an inordinate amount of make-believe. If some of us adults have gotten accustomed to accepting this incoherence as part of the American bargain, our kids are considerably less inspired to play along.

There’s a common thread linking attempted censorship of the American past to our difficulties with improving the American present. It goes like this: nothing undermines the public’s civic faith quite as much as the realization that public institutions haven’t been telling the truth. That’s true when conservatives force schools to hide uncomfortable facts about American slavery, the causes of the Civil War, the genocidal component of Manifest Destiny, and so forth. It’s also true when conservatives insist—in the face of overwhelming evidence—that nothing can be done to make our air breathable or our schools safe from gun violence. In both cases, young Americans are being taught that theirs is a country that responds to difficulties by imagining them away.

Rebuilding their faith in the American experiment will, indeed, require some changes on campus. Again, conservatives are right to recognize U.S. public education’s role in training citizens to be prepared to participate in a democracy. They are also right that this means fostering a shared understanding of the country we all inhabit, a U.S. narrative that links who we were to who we are now—and hints at the country we are on our way to becoming.

But that project is only possible if schools teach students the actual American story they are joining. Conservatives err by conceiving a too-narrow version of the country, a history concerned with defending the primacy and prestige of a handful of—mostly white, mostly male—characters.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Earnest activists like Citizen University’s Eric Liu have been pushing schools towards teaching a more comprehensive American story for the better part of a decade. As Liu put it in a 2015 Democracy Journal article, U.S. schools’ core project is “about raising the collective knowledge of all—and recognizing that the wealthy, white, and powerful also have blind spots and swaths of ignorance so broad as to keep them dangerously isolated from their countrymen.”

That isolation is the pernicious consequence of telling American students a narrow version of our history. Children steeped in tales of states’ rights and “courtly” Confederate generals’ heroism will struggle to make sense of how the legacy of slavery shaped the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Era, and racial politics today. When we hide the realities of our history from kids, we leave them unprepared for the realities of our politics today.

That’s why the cure to young Americans’ cynicism fundamentally requires addressing present challenges. An honest accounting of the past will not singlehandedly produce patriotic young Americans. Kids’ faith in U.S. democracy will hinge squarely upon whether or not democratic institutions deliver real solutions to today’s big problems. No matter how heavily we propagandize about past American glories, we’re not going to fool our kids—who can see American governing institutions failing them right here, right now.

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