History, Deliberation, and Civic Culture
Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the true sense of those words.” This is how the President of the United States characterized “critical race theory” when he capped September’s “White House Conference on American History” with a tirade against “decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” The explicit pathway and destination of the conference and his speech were straightforward. “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country.” The proposed mechanism for redemption? A “national commission to promote patriotic education.”
The president’s diatribe would hardly have surprised anyone paying attention to the preceding presentations—admittedly, not a way I’d advise aspiring students of history to spend their time. The content of the “conference” itself was largely an attack on the oft-alleged left-wing takeover of history education in the nation’s schools. The motley crew gathered in the Rotunda of the National Archives included a handful of historians, along with others whose expertise in this area was apparent from neither their biographies nor their commentary. Other than the historian who calmly plugged his recent book, the speakers competed with one another for a kind of prize that scholarly societies don’t award: who could launch the wildest attack on the teaching of American history. Their task was made easier by a penchant for caricature and an aptitude for hyperbole, notable in references to the dangers of “deconstructionist cherry-picking histories” or “absurdly simplistic explanations like class struggle and systemic racism.”
The AHA issued a statement within a week of this spectacle, deploring “the use of history and history education . . . to divide the American people, rather than use our discipline to heal the divisions that are central to our heritage.” (This statement is printed in full on page 6 of this issue.) Good history exposes divisions, searches for their origins, and traces their evolution, impact, and implications. Historical exploration in the classroom and beyond can indeed engender and exacerbate conflict, as people learn who has done what to whom, and how persistent modes of subordination have perpetuated inequality. But such exposure is essential for any true movement toward national unity. Wounds kept hidden will not heal. We hire civil engineers to find cracks in our infrastructure and investigate their causes, not to hide both causes and cracks. Yes, we must (as the president decrees) teach the “truth about our country.” Unity and common purpose require sound infrastructure; neither will stand on a cotton-candy web of celebratory myth.
Whether we look to critical race theory—which obsessively occupied the president’s Twitter feed before his stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center abruptly diverted his attention—or to another conceptual framework that allows us to dig into our common past and locate cracks in the concrete, equating a mode of inquiry with a heinous crime should induce not only a private shudder but a public disavowal. No reasonable definition of patriotism can accommodate this despicable metaphor.
We work hard to build arguments on contextualized evidence and recognizable patterns.
As those who know me will testify, I’m happy to argue with anyone about the assumptions, ideas, priorities, and theories that are supposedly “being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and family.” That’s what historians do (argue, not rip apart families, despite the problems we sometimes cause at the dinner table). Still, we work quite hard to build our arguments on contextualized evidence and recognizable patterns, not wild accusations that wield a single brush to depict—or conceal—a vast and diverse landscape.
Two weeks after this event, an executive order escalated the attack on honest history by targeting employers across the United States attempting to heal divisions through learning. The order prohibits the broaching of “divisive concepts” in employee training sessions carried out within the federal government or by federal contractors and grantees. A memo issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) later that week had a helpful suggestion for federal agencies: that they comb through training materials using “keyword searches” for particular terms, from “unconscious bias” and “intersectionality” all the way to “systemic racism.” Thoughtful people can disagree about these ideas, and about the merits of the various training sessions and federal grants targeted by the executive order and the OMB’s memo. Still, I suspect that few providers of diversity training consider the United States “an irredeemably racist and sexist country.” The very purpose of these sessions is to enable and encourage change—surely an impossible ask of an irredeemable (hence immutable) people.
The assumptions articulated in the executive order are clear: like history classrooms, diversity training is a site of anti-American indoctrination. No doubt there are classrooms, training sessions, and other educational venues that discourage disagreement. I am not defending and will not defend these, whatever their location on a political spectrum. But to single out a particular set of “divisive concepts” reveals that the issue at hand is content, not principle. This is not about encouraging the kind of anguished but civil deliberation essential to civic culture. Faced with the idea that racism and white supremacy might be embedded in the infrastructures of the nation itself, the White House and its ideological brethren would foreclose conversation and stifle informed and rational debate on the very idea of division, while at the same time stoking it by mobilizing history education as fuel for a renewed culture war. The roots and branches of racism are to them largely a regrettable aspect of an unfortunate, if exceptionally virtuous, past.
We are in the midst of a set of interlocking national crises.
I write this in early October, as a contagious, sometimes fatal disease spreads through the same White House that sponsored this conference and issued the executive order. It is possible that by the time this is published, the disease will have had an impact that renders this critique inappropriate or in poor taste. I hope that is not the case. But we are in the midst of a set of interlocking national crises that make it difficult to separate a pandemic from racial injustice, an economic crisis, threats to democratic processes, even wildfires.
The work of historians has made it abundantly clear that denying the pervasive impact of well-documented, systemic racism in the United States has been and continues to be detrimental to the health of the body politic. And though I am reluctant to invoke the kind of medical imagery that my (wonderful) editors tend to cut, the pandemic makes it difficult not to see these issues in terms of national health. At the risk of combining (and muddying) metaphors: it doesn’t matter how much one loves a relative who suffers from cancer. That person will not thrive until the cancer’s etiology is understood and documented. How did it get there? How does it survive and spread? Put in terms of the public sphere, these painful and usually private matters become historical questions. Teaching students, visitors to historic sites, and the millions of Americans who otherwise engage with history to love our country by celebrating its “greatness” will not help them to understand—much less commit to curing—the cancer of racism. Nor will it reveal the cracks hidden inside even the most beautiful and superficially functional infrastructure.
We cannot cure a disease by pretending it does not exist, any more than we would rebuild our country’s infrastructure by pretending not to see its cracks.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. Portions of this essay are adapted with permission from his article “Trump Is Afraid of Honest History” (New York Daily News online, October 1, 2020).
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