The Future of History in the U.S. Education System

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Critical Race Theory has once again become a highly contested topic in the U.S. Over the past few months, some states have been attempting to restrict any form of it from public school systems. In 2020, former President Donald Trump instructed federal agencies to end racial sensitivity training and eliminated federal funding to any school districts that included it as part of their curriculum, calling it “divisive, un-American propaganda”1. President Joe Biden has recently overturned that decision bringing the argument back into the spotlight. It is also telling that those who reject the removal of Confederate statues in the U.S. are also now against teaching the dark moments of our history, the very reason they say those statues should remain, to learn from our mistakes. Like most ideas, critical race theory has its issues. But, to understand those problems, we must first clarify what it is and what it is not.

CRT (Critical Race Theory) is an idea in academia that has existed since the 1970s, focusing on two common proponents. The first is that societal or institutional racism exists and maintains its assertive power through the legal system. The second, and possibly most important, component of CRT is that citizens and academics can transform this relationship between law and racial power, achieving racial emancipation more broadly in the U.S. CRT is not an all-encompassing catch-all to stopping systemic injustices or to achieving perfect harmony within the confines of legal systems in the U.S. It is not idealistic, like the tenants of Marxism that are incompatible with a free society, but rather it forces people into uncomfortable conversations about race in the U.S. and the role of the legal system in upholding those inequities. This brings us to the most important part of this discussion, which is why CRT needs to exist within our education system. History is nuanced, difficult, and above all it should often make people uncomfortable.

Recently, Louisiana attempted to pass legislation banning CRT within the public school systems in their state. The measure failed with a 7-7 vote. Fellow conservative colleague, Rep. Stephanie Hilferty of New Orleans cornered state Rep. Ray Garofalo on the merits of his proposed measure. Garofalo stated, “If you’re having a discussion on whatever the case may be, on slavery, then you can talk about everything dealing with slavery, the good, the bad, the ugly, the whole..”. Hilferty fired back with the response, “There’s no good to slavery though.”2 While this argument quickly became a talking point for both conservative and liberal media outlets, it’s important to note the Hilferty was correct in her epistemological questioning of Garofalo’s ideas and his proposed legislation. Garofalo fell back on the continuous conservative propaganda that we should teach history as facts. This is a flawed assumption, and a failed understanding at how historians study, compile and disseminate history. Facts alone are often unimportant in and of themselves, much like raw data or statistics that are uninterpreted and unanalyzed. History is not a compilation of facts, but an interpretation of certain facts in a contextual framework. We conduct historiography, or the study of history, by learning what we know and what we have learned, to analyze, interpret, and reflect on topics of importance. This is the very argument that holds up CRT validity. History is constructed and contingent on who we empower with its dissemination and retelling.

One of the most frequent dog whistles I have heard in conservative narratives about CRT in public schools is that educators and curriculums should stay apolitical. The translation of the phrase, “don’t make it political”, is the same for both political and ideological spectrums. It means, “I want you to teach revisionist history that doesn’t make people uncomfortable and exclude anything we recognize as counterfactual.” Nearly everything is political, and that is unavoidable. If a particular topic affects people’s lives, past or present, then it is fair game for political discourse. For both political parties, it becomes dangerous to exclude or limit free discussion regarding complex topics. Disregarding these discussions, like ones about race, gender, or sexuality and their role in legislation, rejects critical thinking skills that need to be developed in classrooms. As a historian, I have been a firm believer in not teaching facts alone, but context. A specific date or event may have no real bearing on why a topic is important. A collective framework, like contextual clues in reading, is important. We study the events that came before, those that happened during, and the aftermath of certain events, to give us a better understanding of why something occurred and how we can see warning signs for the same types of scenarios. Our knowledge is often retained longer by contextual analysis of events, not dates and figures. We remember the “why”, not just “when”. 

Including CRT ideas in public curriculum does not make children hate America, as so many conservative have claimed. In doing so, they are misrepresenting the main tenants of the theory. Teaching children about how race has defined our institutions (housing, legal, educational, economical), allows us to show how far we’ve come and by proxy, how much remains to be done. The founding fathers did not conceptualize our country as a perfect system, but one that has the capacity and ability to change and conform to the will of the people. Government can and has made monumental errors in the liberties and rights of certain classes of citizens in this country. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers, “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Those external controls are being exerted by those who support and condone CRT, as they should. Supporting such a disruptive idea is healthy for democracy and for our institutions. Stagnation, or acceptance of the status quo, is often the death blow for a nation. Supporting CRT and the discussion of race on the effects of this country do the opposite of what conservative pundits perpetuate. It does not teach citizens to hate their country, but respect and acknowledge its diversity and push for equitable change in the systems.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers

CRT is not without its pitfalls though. Some have argued that those who suggest the system is structurally unfair, may see allegations of cheating or advantage in certain races who succeed in such a system, like Jewish and Asian citizens. But, there is also a rebuttal of these types of claims from those that say we must note the difference between criticizing an unfair system and criticizing individuals who perform well inside that system, much like one can support the troops without supporting the reasons they are at war. CRT is not a new idea or hinged on Marxist ideology as conservative talking heads would have people believe. In fact, the resurgence of the most recent curriculum changes including CRT have been as a direct result of The 1619 Project that has been monumental in shifting conversations about the lasting impact of slavery in the U.S. 

Understanding what CRT teaches is fundamental in our conversations moving forward. The Organization of American Historians released a statement regarding the matter, “Critical race theory provides a lens through which we can examine and understand systemic racism and its many consequences. The history we teach must investigate the core conflict between a nation founded on radical notions of liberty, freedom and equality and a nation built on slavery, exploitation and exclusion.”

Our history and the legal system developed during those times are not detached, remaining in the past. They are part of one continuously blossoming tree. The tree is the foundation of our country, with its malleability to change and provide a more equal system for all. But, there are parasitic vines upon it we must acknowledge and trim in order to make the tree healthier. CRT is part of that acknowledgement and its principles do not teach hate, but instead arms students with knowledge and understanding. Some political figures in the U.S. see this knowledge as the most dangerous weapon and the war has already begun.

If your local school board or state representatives have proposed measures blocking CRT in their curriculums, become active and speak up. Use the links below to find your representative’s contact information or a quick google search to learn who your local school board members are. Together, we can protect our past and our future. 

Find My U.S. House of Congress Representative


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