So Much for Burying the Dark Side of Virginia History

Should this be our framework for learning American history and civics?

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has posted a new set of proposed goals for the teaching of civics, geography, and economics — the first major changes to the History and Social Science Standards of Learning since the existing standards were adopted in 2015.

Critics have accused the Youngkin administration of wanting to ban the teaching of the more unsavory aspects of Virginia history such as slavery, racism and segregation. The charges were leveled without any evidence and in the face of repeated declarations to the contrary by Youngkin administration officials, but Virginia’s legacy media has allowed them to pass unchallenged.

If Governor Youngkin is bent upon whitewashing Virginia and U.S. history, it’s not apparent from this overview to be presented to the Virginia Board of Education November 17. Consider these proposed changes to learning goals enumerated in that document:

  • Adding more specific and thorough treatment of the issue of slavery, particularly by requiring more content in earlier grades;
  • Adding more specific and thorough treatment of the issue of segregation, particularly by requiring more content in earlier grades;
  • Adding more specific and thorough treatment of the Reconstruction era;
  • Adding more clear and thorough treatment of the issue of the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia;
  • Requiring the examination of important Supreme Court cases like Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu v. U.S., Buck v. Bell, Loving v. Virginia and others;
  • Further examining the critical role of the Founding Fathers and the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the U.S. Constitution;
  • Further explaining the importance of Women’s Suffrage and key events in history that led to the Nineteenth Amendment.

The devil is not so much in the details, which Virginia school children undoubtedly will learn, but in how the issues of slavery, racism, segregation and women’s rights are framed.

One approach — we might call it Charles Beard approach, or, updated, the 1619 approach — treats U.S. history as a parade of unrelenting horribles and atrocities. The founding of the nation was illegitimate, Whites are irredeemably racist, and the United States has made meager progress toward equality and justice over the past 250 years.

A different approach would stress how the American colonies inherited a set of institutions, values and attitudes passed down from the feudal era. Context is crucial. In mother England, as in every kingdom, empire, satrapy, and chiefdom across the world, the strong preyed upon the weak. Rulers devised hierarchical institutions and ideologies that preserved their dominance. The vast majority of mankind existed in conditions of servitude that differed only in the degree of severity and immiseration. Holland and, more consequentially, Britain were the first nations to emerge from the medieval mire with strong representative institutions that shared power more broadly across society. In the Enlightenment, Europeans were the first to mount an intellectual challenge to the ancien regime and the worldview that undergirded it. And the American colonies represented the greatest leap forward in putting those principles into practice, imperfectly at first, but always navigating toward the beacon that “all men are created equal” and entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” One of the great themes of American history is the expansion of the circle of empathy and the long struggle to apply those principles universally.

But there’s a lot more to American history than the mitigation of oppression. Following in the footsteps of England’s industrial revolution, America adopted a market-based economic model that unleashed the greatest prosperity seen in the history of the world. The story of technological innovation and material progress, though little talked about these days, is also a fundamental part of the American story. Wealth creation cannot be taken for granted. Virginia children should be acquainted with the values and institutions that make it possible.

Here’s an idea that might be novel to both sides of the culture wars: it’s OK to teach students that differing perspectives exist, and it’s OK for them to apply different frameworks of analysis to U.S. history and current affairs. Our goal should be to equip children to think for themselves and reach their own informed judgments, rather than tell them what to think.