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Ed. Magazine

The Greatest Battle in History

America is once again asking the question: Who gets to decide how we teach the history of our country’s past?
Illustration of students in a classroom
Illustrations: Hokyoung Kim

Social studies teachers have always had to keep tabs on the news, tying current events to their history and civics lessons. But in a trend that crescendoed this past summer as educators prepared for their third pandemic school year, the news hasn’t just been part of their lessons — their lessons have been part of the news.

The recent drumbeat of headlines about social studies started in 2019, with the release of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, an exploration of the centrality of slavery to American history, named for the year that the British colonists brought the first enslaved Africans to Virginia. The project — which was launched with searing commentary from Nikole Hannah-Jones that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize — included curricular material that was adopted by schools across the country. Almost immediately, then-President Donald Trump publicized his opposition to the project. His administration announced its own history initiative: the 1776 Project. Then the pandemic happened, and, alongside it, a widespread, multiracial reckoning about racism in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd. Many educators became even hungrier for material that would help students trace the winding path from where the nation came from to the world they experience today. But the backlash was already primed. As of early November, 2021, Chalkbeat and Ed Week reported that 28 states have debated some sort of policy limiting how educators discuss race in the classroom, ranging from bans on the 1619 Project to prohibitions on discussing unconscious bias or “white privilege.” Twelve states have enacted them. Some policies mention critical race theory; some do not. They all aim to curtail how teachers can teach about the history of racism in the United States.

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Despite fear-mongering headlines about critical race theory, actual lessons about it aren’t documented on the K–12 level. The theory is usually taught on the graduate level, including at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where Adjunct Lecturer Daren Graves, Ed.D.’06, has co-taught a course on it for years with fellow Ed School Adjunct Lecturer Kimberly Troung, Ed.M.’04. (Full disclosure: I took the course in fall 2017.) Graves has met the headlines about critical race theory with some bemusement. He notes that the theory, first articulated by scholars at Harvard Law School as a way to understand the role of race and racism in American institutions, is now being conflated with any discussion of race.

Critical race theory is a growing field, he says, and one that can offer a useful framework for teachers, helping them discern both what and how they teach. But it’s not the dogma more sensationalistic articles or broadcast commentaries make it out to be.

“It’s not a curriculum,” Graves says. “It can give analytical tools to see how race is real, how it is operating. It gives you tools to think about, Is racism happening and why and how? It helps us think about whose voices are being elevated or not.”

In some ways, he says, the vocal detractors of critical race theory in the K–12 classroom don’t really seem to oppose the theory itself. They oppose students discussing how racism operates today, and why. That opposition has put history and social studies educators and what they teach in the middle of a nationwide debate over the country’s past, which itself is a debate over the nation’s future.

Who Decides: Teaching the History of Race and Racism

History is inherently political, and so is its study, says Keffrelyn Brown, Ed.M.’99, a professor of cultural studies in education at the University of Texas, Austin. “I don’t think that any knowledge, especially any curriculum knowledge, is neutral,” she says. In the 1900s, Catholic Americans complained that curriculum at public schools was overly influenced by Protestantism; more recently, in the 1990s, local school board meetings and op-ed pages hosted debates over multiculturalism in schools, or broadening curriculum to focus on cultures beyond Europe. In J. Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground, which focuses on school desegregation in Boston, Lukas describes how the education writer and historian Jonathan Kozol was fired from a Boston elementary school in the mid-1960s for teaching students Langston Hughes’ "Ballad of the Landlord," which details police violence against the Black narrator. Kozol was told to stick to poems that “accentuate the positive.”

Brown points out that deciding which facts to focus on and what materials to teach with will change depending on who is in power, as will language and word choice. In 2012, Brown co-authored an article in the Harvard Education Review on the representation of racial violence in Texas textbooks, which she and her partners analyzed through the lens of critical race theory. They found that the textbooks did include historical incidences of racism. Lynchings were mentioned; violence against Black people was discussed. But it was rarely called racism, and it was usually portrayed as the direct result of individual actions — not the consequence of larger systems. Brown refers to this as the “men doing bad things” phenomenon. “The way that racism, so to speak, existed was something that was in the past; something that was not sort of deeply connected to the country itself or the fabric of democracy; ... that it was an aberration.”

Several states’ new policies about how to discuss racism in school specifically take aim at explorations of systemic racism, or the idea that racist ideology was a force in the nation’s founding. But the overlap between racism and the founding of the United States isn’t really a matter of interpretation, but of facts. In a September 2020 Atlantic article, Clint Smith, Ph.D.’20, points out that the centrality of slavery is spelled out in primary documents. He writes, “Teaching the actual history of slavery does not necessitate skewing, omitting, or lying about what happened in this country; it takes only an exploration of the primary source documents to give one a sense of what it was and the legacy that it has left.”

Smith writes that acknowledging this legacy has implications for how we interpret present- day conditions and political agendas — and perhaps the implications for the present day are the beating heart of the debate over what students should learn.

“If students don’t learn about the history of slavery, then they might believe that the Electoral College is a benign institution predicated on establishing democratic fairness for Americans across the country,” Smith writes. “They might grow up to believe that the enormous wealth gap between Black and white Americans is simply a result of one group working harder than another. They might think that our prison system looks the way it does because Black people are inherently more violent.” Similarly, learning about the history of redlining or school segregation raises questions about the government’s role in housing and education today, with answers just as hotly debated as how history should be taught.

When Students See Themselves in History

The framing of history not only has implications for how students understand the United States’ past and present. It also has the potential to shape how they understand themselves. A popular skit by the comedian Bo Burnham skewers the common treatment of Black history in American classrooms as confined to a limited discussion of just a few key figures, like George Washington Carver. “White guys get a lot of s***, and it’s not fair, because we’ve done a lot of things, you know?” sings Burnham. “We invented a lot of stuff. White guys invented ... everything but peanut butter. That’s what I was taught in school. Everything but peanut butter. Doesn’t sound right, but the American educational system having a bias? No way, Joseph.” In his new book Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Assistant Professor Jarvis Givens quotes Woodson, a historian and founder of Black History Month, on the psychological implications of such a white-centered narrative: “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies,” Woodson wrote.

Brent Bette, a current Ed.M. student in school leadership, knows firsthand how empowering it was to find someone he identified with in the history books. As a child in rural Connecticut, he became hooked on history, particularly inspired by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — like him, an only child— and like him and most of the prominent figures he learned about in history classes, a white male. When Bette became a history teacher himself, he wanted to give his students of color the opportunity to connect to the material in the same way.

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“It kind of hit me after the first month or so: They’re not seeing themselves in this. So how can I engage them better?” He began making the conscious effort to go beyond the figures highlighted in textbooks.

Henry Turner is a principal at Newton North High School in Newton, Massachusetts. He’s focused on a more inclusive history for his teachers, and on bringing in discussions about the realities of race to all subjects as a principal — something he felt with even more urgency after a 2016 incident in which white students at his school were filmed driving through the school parking lot, waving a Confederate flag. A history that celebrates the racial identity of all students and acknowledges the realities of the barriers posed by racism helps all students, Turner says.

“When we support the students who are the most marginalized in our schools, it’s good for the students who are the most empowered in our schools,” he says.

In part informed by the work of Ed School Professor Danielle Allen, Bette, now transitioning from the classroom to a new role as an assistant principal in Lenox, Massachusetts, has emphasized including more people of color in history lessons and providing richer context about their resistance to oppression. However, that involves acknowledging the existence of racial oppression. Lawmakers behind the policies limiting how to talk about race have said they mean to protect students from discussions that will sow division. The Tennessee law make lesson plans illegal if students feel “discomfort,” “guilt,” or “anguish.” The implicit, and perhaps ironic, subtext is that the law is meant to protect white students from discomfort or guilt borne from acknowledging racism and any white privilege. (Ascribing privilege to any racial group or sex is also forbidden by the Tennessee law.) But Graves, also a developmental psychologist, argues that discomfort is not a bad thing; if anything, it’s part of learning. He says that race identity formation, or students’ perceptions of themselves based on their race, is happening in schools whether or not race and racism are discussed in the context of history.

And if white students are uncomfortable when they’re presented with new historical information or questions about race, it’s not necessarily because they’re overcome with guilt. Brown says that part of the reason students are often uncomfortable when they confront racism in a historical context is because they haven’t been exposed to it before. They feel they’ve been lied to — something she sees often with her undergraduate students at the University of Texas.

“The reason that people feel bad, if, indeed, they feel bad when they learn about [racism in history], is because they haven’t learned about it,” she says. “Because they’ve gone through life assuming that this doesn’t exist or not knowing that it exists, [they become] very frustrated or upset once they learn a more realistic and fuller picture of our history.”

Leading a Complex Conversation in the Classroom

Ultimately, educators say that excising uncomfortable conversations about race and racism is an impossible goal. Whether or not the curriculum includes materials about the embeddedness of racism in American life, students are going to ask about it. Kaycie Bennett, Ed.M.’20, is a middle school social studies teacher in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. Florida’s state board of education passed a policy this past summer prohibiting teachers from suggesting “that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.” But Bennett says that students will inevitably want to grapple with hard questions about race and society. Last school year, events like the 2020 presidential election, Capitol riots, and the Derek Chauvin trial meant that students were probing serious questions about the role of racism in public institutions and life on their own, and wanted to discuss them in class.

“I think sometimes that policymakers assume that the teacher controls everything that happens in the classroom, which is never true,” she says. “It’s a living community. The students bring in their own backgrounds, their own interests and opinions.”

The inevitability of conversations about racism today are exactly why states should be helping teachers prepare for such discussions, rather than forbidding them, Graves says. “Whether we like it or not, race is happening in schools. Racism is happening in and around school. Kids are forming racial identities in school, whether it’s happening intentionally or not.”

Before moving to Florida, Bennett spent a year teaching in Massachusetts, where her school used the 1619 Project in their curriculum. In Florida, those materials are forbidden. But, she says, that wouldn’t keep her from talking about slavery or bringing in similar perspectives into her classroom. “There are other resources that can be used as a substitute,” she says. While the subject matter is inherently political, Bennett says her job is to present students with facts and different viewpoints, and to create a welcoming learning environment. Her job is not, she says, to get them to agree with one another or to subscribe to a single thesis or theory about American history. In one of the most diverse school districts in the nation, her students come from families of different national, cultural, racial, and political origins.

Child in book stacks illustration

“Definitely, there is more disagreement and heterogeneous opinion when it comes to politics than what you would find in a lot of other places in the country. It’s not something that I experienced teaching in Massachusetts. It’s not something that I saw in my own education in Louisiana,” she says. That’s all the more reason to help students learn how to have conversations about contentious issues that touch on race. “The community has been defined and students feel safe to whatever extent I can make that happen.”

Bette says that learning to have conversations about thorny parts of American history and present-day events is a critical skill — and one that many adults don’t have. He says that in addition to allowing teachers the flexibility to use a range of materials in history and social studies classrooms, they also need support from administrators to facilitate difficult conversations.

“I actually think that they have these conversations much more easily than adults can. Some [conversations] are going to be hard and some are going to be difficult, [but] it is a much more meaningful way to approach this than just trying to put a curriculum together. I think that’s only the first level of this,” he says. “You need to understand diversity in a real-world aspect, and develop relationships with people that don’t look like you, that don’t come from the same background as you, that don’t share the same history as you. That’s where the real work happens. But I think that’s also where the best strides happen as well.”

Blocking students from conversations about race, in a historical context or otherwise, is just leaving them less equipped for the real world, because our history and our present are inextricable. Race never just shaped the experiences of people of color, Graves says. “For white parents who are worried about their kids’ identities, impacting how they feel about themselves in school, I would argue, welcome to my life, right? Or my childhood or my kids’ childhood, or many people of color’s lives, what they have to contend with on a daily basis.

“I’m not saying that this is about spreading the pain. This is about being stronger and feeling a sense of agency to be able to change our communities for the better moving forward.”

Living History

One possible positive byproduct of all of the controversy around what to teach in social studies and history classes is that people are talking about social studies and history classes.

“What has happened — I don’t think maliciously necessarily — I think we have said ‘science, math, science, math,’ this is where the future is. This is where we have to focus our attention,” Bette says. “I think people have finally woken up to the fact that social science education, talking about the world around you, about the nation, about people who aren’t like you, who share different narratives, is just as important as understanding science and math.”

On the second anniversary of the launch of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones noted on Twitter how controversial the project and the discourse around reframing history has been. “I hoped to force the year 1619 into the national lexicon,” she wrote. “It might be argued that [one] can measure the success of that goal by the intensity of the pushback.”

The energy in the debate over our nation’s history, and how it’s presented in schools, underscores the importance of history and social studies. The stakes of what and how students are taught are high. How students understand the nation’s past will influence how they understand the nation’s present — and, by extension, themselves and their role in it.

Grace Tatter, Ed.M.’18, is an associate producer for NPR’s On Point and a freelance writer.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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