Teaching History the Right Way

by James A. Bacon

Broadly speaking, there are two interpretive frameworks for viewing the history of the United States.

The traditional framework sees the glass as half full: the U.S. was founded on the ideal that all men were entitled to equal rights that provided for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Although those ideals applied mainly to White males at the time, the country has led the world in evolving from monarchies, empires, and systems of servitude toward a society in which everyone, including women and racial minorities, enjoys something approaching equal rights. The work may not be finished — it may never be — but great progress has been made.

An alternative and increasingly common framework sees the glass as mostly empty: the U.S. was founded in the sin of slavery and patriarchy. The story of the country is a recounting of varying forms of oppression by White heterosexual males towards marginalized groups. Only the outer forms of oppression have changed. American society remains grievously unjust.

One is pragmatic; the other is dogmatic. One judges the U.S. by contrasting the present to the past; the other judges the U.S. by comparing the present to a utopian ideal that has never existed.

Those worldviews are contending for dominance in America today, and nowhere is the conflict more evident than in Virginia’s public schools. That’s why the Youngkin administration’s efforts to overhaul the History and Social Studies standards for the Standards of Learning have been so contentious.

There has been much misinformation about the proposed standards, the final version of which has been submitted to the Board of Education for approval, such as the demonstrably false but endlessly repeated claim that the Youngkin administration intended to stop teaching about difficult subjects such as slavery, segregation and racism.

The “guiding principles” of the new standards state clearly:

The standards provide an unflinching and fact-based coverage of the world, United States and Virginia history. Students will study the horrors of war and genocide including the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing campaigns that occurred throughout history and continue today. They will better understand the abhorrent treatment of Native Americans, the stain of slavery, segregation and racism, in the United States and around the world, and the inhumanity and deprivations of communist regimes.

But students also will learn about humanity’s great achievements: from Greek and Roman engineering, architecture and art, to the European Enlightenment, the founding of the nation, and the defeat of fascism and communism. In sum, states the document, “students will have an in-depth understanding of good and bad in the world, United States and Virginia.”

But don’t think that the controversy will end. To some, only the bad is worth teaching. Anything else will be tarred as a “whitewash” or an apology for White supremacy.

To be sure, the foundational principles for History and Social Sciences learning standards will warm the cockles of conservative hearts (quoting verbatim):

  • Individual liberty and representative government are cornerstones of the American way of life;
  • The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are remarkable documents that provide the freedoms and framework for out constitutional republic;
  • We aspire to live up to the Founders’ ideals for a society that recognizes that all individuals are created equal;
  • From thirteen diverse colonies to a unified nation, “E Pluribus Unum” — “Out of Many, One” — has always been our strength. Immigrants from around the world continue to come to our shores seeking freedom and opportunity to build a better life and have contributed to our communities and added to the rich history of achievement in our country.
  • Free enterprise, property rights and the rule of law enable an economic system that allocates assets through free markets and competition and fosters innovation, opportunity and efficiency.
  • Centralized government planning in the form of socialism or communist political systems is incompatible with democracy and individual freedoms.
  • America is exceptional and not perfect.
  • The rights codified in the United States and Virginia constitutions and the Bill of Rights provide freedoms that place a responsibility on current and future generations of Americans to engage in the political process with civility and fulfill their civic duty.
  • Over the ages, civilizations have grown, prospered and vanished. Every student should understand that our great American Experiment is not guaranteed forever. As Benjamin Franklin warned citizens over 200 years ago, “you have a republic … if you can keep it.”

I agree 100% with these principles. However, I am keenly aware that most are controversial today. I can understand why those with left-of-center beliefs would be concerned that the Youngkin administration intends to replace woke dogma with conservative dogma.

While younger students should be taught basic facts and concepts, older students should be taught that there are different ways to interpret history as well as different ways to view current events. They should learn the thinking of the founding fathers and their intellectual heirs as well as that of the enemies of the American project, from the slaveholder critique of industrial society, to the labor-movement critique, to the Marxist critique, and, yes, even the woke critique. Students should be exposed to many currents of thought and encouraged to think for themselves.

In evaluating the History and Social Science standards, it is important to understand that the foundational principles enunciated above are just that: principles. They inspired the construction of the standards. But they are not the standards themselves.

In the actual standards, students will be asked to compare different political and economic systems such as capitalism, communism, Marxism, socialism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism. While they will learn about America’s progress toward equal rights, they also will learn how “slavery is the antithesis of freedom.”

The Standards are not Eurocentric. They cover Asian empires, pre-colonial African kingdoms and indigenous American societies. They are not a whitewash. Students will learn about the Ku Klux Klan, the Tulsa Race Massacre, the maltreatment of indigenous peoples and the internment of Japanese Americans. But the Standards also highlight human achievement as well as human depravity, and they do show a 250-year progression. If you think something is wrong with that, then nothing short of the 1619 Project will likely satisfy you.