As a Harvard professor of moral philosophy in the early 20th century, George Santayana memorably noted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (“Reason in Common Sense,” 1905). In other words, the study of history ought to drive our public policy decisions. This brings me to the current debate concerning how our public schools teach history regarding race, racism, and white privilege.
Historians are always framing and reframing the past. While the facts remain the same, the interpretation of those facts does not: This is the nature of historical writing. As diplomat and U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to like to say, paraphrasing a former secretary of defense, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.”
Americans recently marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa, Okla., massacre, when on May 31, 1921, white mobs murdered hundreds of Black citizens and burned their Greenwood community, known as Black Wall Street, to the ground. Although it was one of the worst race riots to take place in the U.S., very few Americans knew anything about it.
To commemorate the moment, President Biden noted, in a speech in Tulsa, that “we can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know.” We need, in short, to study all our history, not only the good but also the bad, not only the high points but also the low ones. Biden was the first president to visit the site.
To great controversy, the New York Times in August 2019 published Pulitzer prizewinning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project, designed to “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the U.S.’s national narrative.” The project’s name derives from the year the first slaves arrived aboard ship in Port Comfort in the Virginia colony, the introduction of the slave trade that eventually brought over 12.5 million enslaved people to this country.
A key debatable issue was the assertion in the 1619 Project that the nation was not founded in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence from Britain, but 1619, and the arrival of that ship, interestingly named the White Lion. When some school districts began to incorporate the facts of slavery, racism, Jim Crow, and discrimination into their curricula, the Trump administration responded with its own “version” of the facts: Last fall, it created “the 1776 Commission” to combat “anti-American historical revisionism,” “critical race theorists,” “cancel culture adherents,” and “flag-burning mobs” by promoting “patriotic education.”
Critical race theory developed in the 1970s, primarily in law schools to underscore the role of law in shaping racial segregation and discrimination in American life. The commission, which released one report just a few days before Trump left office, argued that the teaching of race and racism in American history was tantamount to “communism,” and that teachers should focus only on positive stories of the past.
The commission has since been canceled, but the states reacted. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem made this clear in her State of the State address this year: We need to exclude from the curriculum many parts of America’s sordid past, like the mistreatment, even killing, of minorities. The curriculum should teach students “all that makes America unique,” and that it should explain “why the U.S. is the most special nation in the history of the world.” Noem also mentioned “the left’s indoctrination” of students from kindergarten through college graduation, without being specific.
The same is currently occurring elsewhere. In Texas, students for years have taken an oath each morning: “I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God.” And now, many legislators want to downplay references to slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination, even though both are fundamental to the state’s creation. Idaho plans to halt funding of education of any district that teaches these facts.
Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chimed in: “Families did not ask for this divisive nonsense. Voters did not vote for it. Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil.” But reviewing the facts of American history does not indicate anything about America as an “inherently evil” nation.
The Biden administration has recently emphasized the importance of equity in American life and society, which involves a renewed focus on civics education and the teaching of history. “It is critical that the teaching of American history and civics creates learning experiences that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students.” And a true understanding of our past involves a nuanced investigation of a complex history.
So, who owns history? We all do. But we must start with the facts, because without the facts, the interpretation of the past has no foundation, no meaning. Our true, patriotic duty to our children is for them to learn everything possible, the good and the bad, about how we have arrived at the third decade of the 21st century, all of it, without leaving anything out.
Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, is preparing a second edition of his book, “American Constitutional History: A Brief Introduction.”