A Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill into the Arkansas State Legislature to ban the works of Howard Zinn in school curricula and course materials. This is just the latest of a long string of incidents of conservatives trying to change how history is taught, sometimes successfully. In order to evaluate the potential impact of such efforts, we should take a moment to consider what we believe is the purpose of our emerging citizens studying history in school. Is it to teach them how to critically evaluate historical events so they can use that knowledge to interpret current events and build a better world? Or is to infuse them with a love of their country and a proud understanding of American exceptionalism? Both of those choices sound pretty good to me, but as they are often in conflict with one another, it is incumbent on us to choose only one of them as a touchstone for making decisions about curricula and instruction. And here we find the fundamental disagreement between the left and the right when it comes to teaching history.
Conservatives pride themselves as being free thinkers, but if you examine their ideology, you’ll find that a great deal of it is based in a slavish deference to authority. The Bible says homosexuality is wrong. The framers wanted us to have unlimited access to guns. A cop shot a kid? The kid must have been asking for it. Always trust the invisible hand of the free market. Jesus, Take the Wheel. And so on. For the past eight years, this suspension of free will to the sovereign did not extend to our Democratic president, but in the past few months, conservatives have rediscovered their obedience to the chief executive. Under this ideology, we don’t want citizens to question the authority of the state; we just want them to love Big Brother. Lest you think I’m exaggerating out of some kind of misguided partisan zeal, I present this 2014 clip from Fox News about this same social studies debate, followed by a commentary by Gretchen Carlson where she clearly articulates this mindset:
If, as Phil Graham suggested, the news is the first draft of history, then Fox News is the first draft of Republican history. Carlson’s approach to teaching social studies mirrors pretty accurately the network’s approach to journalism. Facts take a backseat to spin, and point of view reigns supreme over truth. Check out this clip, also from 2014, about a then-new report on torture. Nobody in this clip denies the truth of the report; they just don’t think we should be talking about it. Andrea Tantaros is particularly bothered by the fact that the report highlights “how we’re not awesome.” Really:
The Republican sense of entitlement to create the news, as well as history, is nothing new. In a 2004 New York Times Magazine article, “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” Ron Suskind quotes an unnamed senior advisor to President Bush, now widely believed to be Karl Rove:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Remember how Republicans screamed about President Obama giving a back-to-school address to children? Yet, when they’re in power, they have no problem asserting the right to define reality like the most oppressive regimes around the world. President Trump started doing this right out of the gate. He reserves the right to tweet out some absurd nonsense – like the idea that millions of illegal voters came out to vote for Hillary Clinton, thus denying him the popular vote – and to demand that it be taken as unquestionable fact. Take a look at Sean Spicer’s first stint as White House Press Secretary, clearly sent out by the boss to insist that the inauguration attendance numbers were not what they were:
This explains why Republicans have such a terrible relationship with science. Science is all about asking questions and overthrowing the establishment when the facts justify it. We don’t believe in evolution and global climate change because they support our political interests; we believe in them because of the overwhelming evidence in their favor. The Republican power structure wants to dictate what’s true and what’s not. But science doesn’t work that way, and neither does history… unless we allow them to.
That’s why it’s so important to speak out now about the changes they want to make to the way history is taught in Arkansas, and around the country. Zinn would have been the first to admit that history has a point of view, and his history in particular. But nobody is questioning the validity of Zinn’s research, only the perspective he chooses to take. It doesn’t fit in with the conservative view of patriotism, which is an unwavering insistence on American superiority and infallibility. But I would argue that Zinn’s writings are very patriotic; he just chooses to celebrate a different aspect of American history. He highlights how groups of people have come together throughout history to resist the power structure and effect change. No wonder they want him banned.
It’s important for students to have exposure to the truths of American history, even the unpleasant ones. You can’t understand the facts about society today without an understanding of how we got here. You can’t have an opinion about Standing Rock without knowing about the genocide of the Native Americans and their subsequently troubled history. You can’t intelligently discuss Black Lives Matter without an understanding of slavery and the civil rights movement. You can’t truly contextualize the treatment of Muslims in America post-9/11 without an understanding of how the Japanese internment camps came about and were later judged. The most unpleasant moments of history turn out to be our most teachable moments. We can still love America, warts and all, by celebrating, as Zinn does, our potential for growth and change. What a low opinion of America it must take to believe that students won’t love it if they have all of the information. So when administration officials, such as Ben Carson or Betsy DeVos, make statements that demonstrate a shocking misunderstanding of American history, it may be less about their ignorance and more about their arrogance. But Anderson Cooper demonstrates the dangers of allowing conservatives to just make up the version of history they want to present:
I do realize that I’m taking a very partisan tone in an essay that’s supposed to be about how to best teach history. But I really do see this as a partisan battle, and even more so now that we have a president who not only creates his own reality space, but seems to be taking about a third of the country along with him. Teaching critical thinking in social studies has never been more important. Ignorance breeds hate, and hate is a powerful weapon in dividing us. One side is trying to start a dialogue; the other side is trying to shut it down. We have to teach students how to question authority, how to find credible information about the issues, and how to make their voices heard in a way that matters. This does not mean liberal indoctrination. I’m perfectly happy to support my students in researching and debating the conservative side of the issues. Reasonable people can disagree, and classroom debates should mirror the real discussions happening across the country. But if your opinions aren’t informed by historical perspective and you only react based on your emotions and prejudices, then I’m not really all that interested in debating you.
Without a clear understanding of the past, you cannot fully comprehend the present or work to build a better future.