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Historian Discusses The Politics That Shape U.S. History In Schools

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of President Biden's first moves in office last week was to issue an executive order disbanding the 1776 Commission. That's a body set up last year by then-President Trump to promote what he called patriotic education in American schools. In creating the commission, Trump railed against initiatives, such as The New York Times 1619 Project, that placed slavery and the experiences of Black Americans at the center of U.S. historical narratives. Trump said such initiatives, quote, "taught students to hate their own country," unquote. He also claimed the wave of protests last year against racism and police violence were actually the result of decades of what he called a left-wing indoctrination in the schools. Now Biden has disbanded the commission, which predictably sparked a wave of condemnation from conservative and alt-right media outlets. But that caused us to want to spend some time on the broader question the whole episode invites, which is, how should students be taught American history in school?

We called Hasan Kwame Jeffries for this. He's an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University. He also has a TED Talk online titled, Why We Must Confront the Painful Parts of U.S. History. Jeffries says the backlash against the more complete version of history, including painful parts, is in part about promoting a version of history that justifies marginalizing people for political gain.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: The 1619 Project and just the focus on the centrality of slavery justified by white supremacy to the origin and evolution of this nation counters this myth of sort of perpetual progress and this notion of American exceptionalism, and there may have been some issues in the past, but we always get over them and says, no, we are not a perfect union. We may be striving towards it, but we have done a lot to prevent us even from getting there. And so I think this is just as much about sort of the history of the past as it is about the politics of the present and how the politics of the present can use this sort of fabricated history of the past to justify actions that continue to perpetuate inequality.

MARTIN: And Trump's 1776 Commission was part of, I think, a broader attack against things like diversity and inclusion and anti-racism training, which a number of, you know, corporations and institutions have started to adopt, and also pushing back against narratives that lift up the stories of Native Americans and other non-white immigrants. And, you know, the broad argument seems to be that, like we said at the beginning, that this makes people ashamed of the country instead of making it proud of the country. And the argument is that the purpose of education is to make people proud of the country.

And I also have to say that it - there's a broader argument that you often hear from white parents - in fact, there's a story about this recently - that this makes their kids feel bad about being white. And I just wonder, you know, what is your take on that? Is that something that you have observed throughout your career in doing the work that you do? Or is this, you think, a relatively recent phenomenon in response to political moments?

JEFFRIES: Well, certainly, we have always had this version of kind of a pseudo-patriotic history, mythmaking to instill in young people, to instill in Americans this sort of a sense of pride. But it's a false pride if it's not rooted in truth, if it's more nostalgia than actual fact. And the truth is that no child, no one living today, is responsible for enslavement. I mean, that's clear. Nobody's placing that blame on children. No child in school today is even responsible for the mess that we have right now. But they are responsible for the problems of tomorrow and of the future. And there is no way that they will be able to address those problems forthrightly if they don't understand how we got them in the first place. And that's the project of history - not to create patriotism, but to create understanding. And if you teach it right, even the hard stuff will not cause you to dislike the country, to hate the country. It will cause you to take pride in the fact that there were always people who were willing to fight to make it better.

MARTIN: So talk more about - before we - and just, obviously, this is a very deep stem and a very broad topic, and we're not going to get to all of the nuances here. But what do you say to people who think that a 1776 Commission is a good idea, that they do think it's a good idea to sort of inculcate a sense of pride in students and perhaps to not focus on atrocities that we all - that adults know or should know existed, like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II or like, you know, the apartheid system of Jim Crow, you know, in the South - you know, not to mention slavery? You know, how do you make the case as both an educator and as a parent yourself about why students need to learn a more complete version of history without making them feel either traumatized or, I don't know, you put it - sort of bereft with guilt - you know, like, just sort of filled with guilt?

JEFFRIES: Well, it's - as educators, as teachers, our principal charge is to teach the truth. We can't stop teaching the truth or not teach the truth at a certain age and then decide suddenly at a certain grade, like, OK, now we're going to teach you the truth. Like, it doesn't work like that because the students are, like, well, what's true, and what's not true? You know, you told me I was supposed to be celebrating, you know, these great presidents, you know, in the first grade, second grade and third grade. And then we get to the eighth grade, and you want to talk about slavery and them being enslavers and how bad slavery actually was. But then I have this contradiction in my mind, right? Like, wait; these were good people, but now they're enslavers? So what is - where do I stand?

And in the end, I think that's what we have to do, always in age-appropriate ways. But we can't miseducate. And when we don't teach the truth, those hard histories, then we are, in fact, miseducating, and the students know it. And so whether they are white or Black or Latino or Asian, it doesn't matter. When students understand that they're not being told the truth, they will either do one of two things. They will reject what they're being taught, or they won't believe what you have to say when you do finally teach them the truth.

MARTIN: That is Hasan Kwame Jeffries. He is an associate professor at The Ohio State University. You can watch his TED Talk online where he talks about some of these issues. It's called, Why We Must Confront the Painful Parts of U.S. History.

Professor Jeffries, thanks so much for talking with us today.

JEFFRIES: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.