Considering History: The Real Threat Facing American Education

James Loewen, who passed away this week, helps us see how powerful political forces are challenging educators’ rights to teach the full, nuanced truths about our history and nation.

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This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present. 

At the heart of the hit new Netflix series The Chair (spoilers for the show’s second episode in the link) is a representation of the much talked-about phenomenon known as “cancel culture.” In one of the show’s motivating incidents, a beloved English professor, Jay Duplass’s Bill Dobson, makes a well-intentioned but silly choice in his classroom, and a group of students takes the gesture out of context and uses it to start a campaign to get Dobson fired. The moment echoes many narratives around cancel culture, particularly the idea that a single choice, even a relatively harmless one, can end someone’s entire career and even life.

Certainly social media and the internet have made it possible for outrage and scandals to explode far more quickly and fully than ever before, and careers and lives can indeed be destructively affected. But by far the most consistent and aggressive attempts to “cancel” teachers and limit educational conversations in 2021 America come not from “woke” young people, but from powerful political forces challenging educators’ rights to teach the full, nuanced truths about our history and nation. And a wonderful educator who passed away this past week, James Loewen, helps us see how those forces represent a longstanding threat to American education.

Loewen began his career in the late 1960s teaching at Mississippi’s Tougaloo College, a historically black college that had been founded after the Civil War. In the beginning of his ground-breaking book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995), Loewen notes his initial shock and frustration at finding out the inaccurate and racist histories of Reconstruction (and many other subjects) that his Black students (and by extension all students) were being taught in Mississippi schools. To counter that trend, Loewen worked with a group of scholars and students from Tougaloo and nearby Millsaps college to author a new history textbook, Mississippi: Conflict and Change (1974), for use in the state’s public schools. The text engaged directly with difficult histories such as the lynching epidemic, using photographs and other documentary evidence to detail such elements of Mississippi and American history.

That textbook won the 1976 Lillian Smith Book Award for Best Southern Nonfiction, and then it was rejected by the Mississippi Textbook Purchasing Board for being “too controversial” and “too focused on racial matters.” Loewen took the Board to court, arguing in his lawsuit, Loewen v. Turnipseed (1980), that he had the Constitutional right to have his textbook considered alongside others for use in the state’s schools. Textbook board member John Turnipseed argued of histories like the lynching epidemic that “that all happened so long ago. Why dwell on it now?” But U.S. District Court Judge Orma Smith agreed with Loewen, ruling that “the rejection of the book was unjustified” and that the text had to be afforded a place among the options that teachers could order and use in their classes. The American Library Association defines Loewen’s victory as a pivotal one in the battle for the “right to read freely.”

While that victory made it possible for more accurate textbooks like Loewen’s to be used in schools, what he found in his research for Lies My Teacher Told Me was that even into the 1980s and 1990s, far too many textbooks continued to present a whitewashed, simplified, and often blatantly inaccurate version of American history. As he wrote, such texts “perpetuate what might be called a Disney version of history,” and “students develop no understanding of causality in history.” Moreover, many of these texts, especially those produced by the Texas textbook industry, which for decades has exercised an outsized influence on the entire nation, had remained fundamentally static, failing to incorporate the kinds of research that Loewen and other historians and educators have done to expand our understanding of history.

When scholars and educators have challenged those simplistic texts, they have consistently confronted groups who oppose their proposed changes. When the College Board released a new “curriculum framework” for AP U.S. History (and many other AP classes) in 2014, one that worked to help teachers and students engage with diverse American histories, identities, and communities, the Republican National Committee attacked the document as a “radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” For example, the RNC complained that rather than seeing Manifest Destiny as “a belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent,” the framework depicted this narrative as “built on a belief in white racial superiority.” In states like Tennessee, legislators pushed the state Board of Education to reject the new framework entirely, calling it a “revisionist interpretation of historical facts.”

This year, state legislatures around the country have taken up that battle once again, and more aggressively than ever. Spurred by a conservative backlash to the New York Times’ 1619 Project and “Critical Race Theory,” legislatures in at least 28 states have passed laws restricting what public school educators can teach on subjects such as racism, bias, the histories of particular racial and ethnic groups, and more. Many of these laws, such as the one signed by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds in June, overtly affect all levels of education, including higher education, making it illegal for teachers at any type of public institution to present “divisive topics” such as “that the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systematically racist or sexist” or “that any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.”

Teachers have already begun to face real, destructive consequences under these restrictive laws. In Tennessee, Matthew Hawn, who had been a tenured teacher with the Sullivan County School District since 2008, was fired for assigning an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates and a spoken word poem called “White Privilege” to students in his Contemporary Issues class. In Texas, numerous social studies teachers have spoken out about the changes they have had to make in their syllabi and courses in order to ensure that they comply with the state’s new “critical race theory” law. “The message we’re getting,” Austin teacher Caroline Pinkston notes in the Texas Tribune article, “is we don’t trust you to handle conversations about race in the classroom, and we’re going to have another thing for you to worry about, and micromanage you on.”

Such laws and efforts reflect a real “cancel culture” in American education, canceling the careers of educators like Matthew Hawn, and canceling conversations and classes about fundamental historical and contemporary topics like race and racism. That threat of cancellation is not new, as educators and historians like James Loewen know all too well. But as we begin this fraught and fragile new school year, we must also confront the resurgence of such anti-educational forces.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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