Teaching the History Wars
For more than a century, academics, policymakers, politicians, and pundits have waged the seemingly endless “history wars” over what students should learn about our nation’s past. But students themselves have been largely absent from these debates. While William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers criticized textbook publishers in the 1920s for their sympathetic portrayals of Benedict Arnold, or Lynne Cheney and Gary B. Nash battled over the National History Standards in the 1990s, most students likely remained unaware that such battles were even happening.
My own anecdotal evidence suggests this is still the case. For the past eight years, I have taught a course on the history wars for first-year undergraduates. At Denison University, located outside Columbus, Ohio, first-year seminars serve primarily as an introduction to college-level writing, but instructors choose the class’s focus. I thought the history wars would be an engaging topic for students to read and think about as they wrestled with genre, argument, revision, and other elements of first-year composition.
It turned out to be much more. Teaching the history wars, I’ve discovered, is a fantastic way to introduce students both to the contingent and contested nature of historical practice and to current efforts to restrict the history they and their peers can learn.
Because most of my students have never heard of the history wars (every year a few think they’ve registered for a class on wars in history), my first task is always to explain what they are. We start with some introductory readings. I’ve had great success with Alia Wong’s “History Class and the Fictions about Race in America” and Michael Conway’s “The Problem with History Classes,” both published in 2015 in the Atlantic; David W. Blight’s “The Fog of History Wars” (New Yorker, 2021); and the introduction to Sam Wineburg’s Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2018). My simple goal is to help students understand that the past is contested terrain. There is no “one true story,” both knowable and unchanging, of what happened long ago—hence the seemingly endless battles over what students should learn.
My simple goal is to help students understand that the past is contested terrain.
To reinforce this idea, we turn to textbooks. In 20 years of teaching, I’ve found comparing textbooks is the most direct and effective way to show students the contingent and contested nature of the past. And textbook exercises can be adapted for different grade levels and integrated into lessons on related content.
I use Kyle Ward’s History in the Making: An Absorbing Look at How American History Has Changed in the Telling over the Last 200 Years (New Press, 2007) to identify both topics and specific excerpts. My students read chapters of Ward’s book, but I also dig up some of the originals. Many textbooks out of copyright are available open access on HathiTrust, and more recent ones have been digitized by the Internet Archive. I also haul in a box of old textbooks I’ve found online for a few dollars each; students love digging through them and sharing what they find. Slavery, for instance, is always a conversation starter. We compare short passages from books published in 1889, 1933, 1974, and 1995, discussing how and why treatments of slavery have changed over time and what a textbook’s publication date can tell us.
This exercise never fails to open students’ eyes. “I always thought history was one singular story,” Mark reflected. “I didn’t realize it was so chaotic and messy.” Another student came to the class thinking “everyone learned a similar history, so finding out just how different they are was super fascinating.” And they’re even more shocked to learn how widely current textbooks can vary. We read a 2020 New York Times article comparing different versions of the same book used in California and Texas and discuss how politics and state standards shape textbook content. “How can the same book look so different with so many little changes?” Carrie exclaimed. “You’re learning different versions of history depending on where you live. That’s bizarre.”
We devote the remaining units of the class to discussing specific skirmishes. In the past, I’ve used the 1990s-era controversies over the National History Standards and the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit, the debates over social studies standards and textbooks waged in Texas throughout the 2010s, and the 2014–15 revisions to the AP US History framework. In fall 2022, we focused on the 1619 Project and the spread of educational gag orders, including “divisive concepts” bills. (I’m grateful to my fall 2022 students for allowing me to share their experiences. The syllabus for this iteration of the course is available on my website.)
My approach to these units follows the same general pattern: an introduction to the issue, commentary from both sides of the debate, lots of in-class discussion and informal writing to help students understand others’ views and develop their own, and a capstone assignment such as an op-ed or position paper. Our best discussions often center on students’ reflections about their own experiences, not just in school but at museums, historic sites and public monuments, and other public history spaces.
Students can read a proposed bill or policy statement, formulate a response, and contact their representatives to share their views.
Given the dramatic spread of educational gag orders in the last few years, I adjusted the most recent syllabus to spend more time on this final unit. I shared with them a copy of HB 616, a bill proposed in April 2022 to eliminate “any divisive or inherently racist concepts” from K–12 curricula in Ohio. It would have banned the teaching of critical race theory, intersectional theory, and the 1619 Project; eliminated learning outcomes related to diversity, equity, and inclusion; and prohibited any DEI-related training or professional development. I wanted to give students a tangible sense of the current history wars and help them see what’s at stake in the struggle. It worked; they quickly grasped not only the extent to which a bill like this would limit what they and their peers could learn but also its dangerous imprecision with regard to scope and enforcement.
Other phenomena that often emerge in this class did so more urgently last fall. Students always develop a new appreciation for their previous history and social studies teachers and the struggles they face, like trying to cover a long list of state-mandated content or coaching students to score highly on standardized tests and AP exams. But having to navigate restrictive and punitive gag orders inspired a new level of sympathy. “Lawmakers are so separated from classrooms, and these laws are being put into place without talking to teachers,” Kate observed. Louis agreed: “[Gag orders] take a lot of power away from our teachers, but they’re the professionals in this. Like, you don’t tell a plumber how to fix your pipes.”
The perspectives of international students—especially those from countries where the state has long restricted what its citizens learn in school—also resonated in new ways. “My education was in a world where gag orders like this already exist,” one student explained. “We only learn about Vietnam as an amazing, strong country, and then my friends and I find things about our dark past on the internet and we don’t know if they’re true. I just wish we could study these things in school so we could have a better understanding.” I can feel the impact in the room of a statement like this as students realize that gag orders are already a way of life in some countries.
Over the last several weeks of the semester, we used the CRT Forward Tracking Project and PEN America’s Index of Educational Gag Orders to identify and track legislation, school board resolutions, and executive orders. I taught them how to use Google to search for local news coverage of and reactions to gag orders. I brought in a member of the Ohio State Board of Education to talk about how measures like these work in practice. And I showed them how organizations like the AHA have fought back against efforts to restrict what students learn.
For their final project, students researched a gag order—several chose one from their home state—and wrote a position paper explaining their views. (They were not required to oppose the order, but all of them did.) Many articulated thoughtful, impassioned, well-informed positions, and I encouraged them to send their papers to appropriate state and local officials. This is another task that can be scaled and adapted for different contexts. Students can read a proposed bill or policy statement, formulate a response, and contact their representatives to share their views.
According to surveys by both the AHA and More in Common in 2021, a majority of Americans believe schools should teach difficult histories of racism and other “divisive” topics. Many, if not most, of our students likely agree—or would, if they understood what gag orders are and the threats they pose. As teachers, we can bring this issue to students’ attention. We can show them what’s happening across the country and in their own communities. We can model historical thinking and civic engagement simultaneously—not to “indoctrinate” students but to foster the kind of independent thinking many proponents of restrictive legislation claim to promote.
The landscape in 2023 is not encouraging. Legislators continue to propose educational gag orders, and more of these bills are targeting and impacting higher education. I am teaching History Wars again this fall, and my list of bookmarked articles grows daily.
But I take heart from my students’ end-of-semester reflections last December. They left the class not only with a better understanding of history and its complexities but with a clearer sense of how public education works, how state and local government works, and how politics impacts their lives. “After doing this research . . . I feel very adamant against these bills,” one student told me, “and it has made me want to help get rid of them.”
Megan Threlkeld is the Michael G. and Barbara W. Rahal Professor of History at Denison University. She tweets @MeganThrelkeld
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