The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives want to control what kids learn, but it may backfire

Conservatives want to make students patriotic. Instead, they exacerbate historical illiteracy.

A crowd gathers on the fourth floor rotunda of the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee for a “Stop the Black Attack” rally on Jan. 25. (Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat/AP)
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When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) blocked the first draft of an Advanced Placement African American studies course, he insisted he did not want to eliminate Black history, but only to control it. It might seem that his campaign has succeeded: The College Board announced a new watered-down curriculum that transformed resistance figures such as Frederick Douglass into “Black Conservatives,” even as they insisted the changes had nothing to do with political blowback.

Yet history tells us these efforts to use Black history to teach a heroic story of White America probably won’t succeed in the long run. For more than a century, conservatives have tried to use history classes to infuse students with, in the words of one 1920s activist, “a patriotic and unswerving loyalty to our United States.” They’ve done this by insisting on a curriculum that twists and distorts the United States’ racial history, turning centuries of struggle and oppression into patriotic tales of American heroism. They fear that a more accurate narrative might diminish students’ love of country.

The results have been poor. It has always been hard enough for students to learn basic facts about America’s past. By making it unacceptable to teach the truth of America’s racial history — even when the historical facts are unambiguous — conservatives have managed to ensure that students learn even less.

As historians like Bethany Bell have pointed out, White Southerners tried to control history textbooks in the former Confederacy beginning almost as soon as the Civil War ended. In the 1920s, White conservatives in organizations such as the American Legion and the Ku Klux Klan expanded this campaign across the entire country. Leaders of both groups were aghast at the content of modern history textbooks, such as David Muzzey’s “An American History” (1917), which emphasized the importance of the first importation of enslaved Africans in 1619 and the “Horrors of the Slave Trade.” Mortified conservatives accused Muzzey of focusing too much on the centrality of conflict in America’s past. They charged him with fomenting “class hatred” and racial division.

States such as Wisconsin, Oregon, New York and New Jersey passed laws or considered bills to ban books like Muzzey’s. The 1923 New Jersey bill stated that no textbook could be adopted that “belittles … noted American patriots” such as the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. If a book “questions the worthiness of their motives” it was not fit for students. In the eyes of conservatives in organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, American Legion and Ku Klux Klan, such questioning was anathema, a treasonous attack on America’s uniquely heroic past.

The right didn’t only try to block and remove objectionable textbooks. They also produced one of their own, one that they hoped would “portray,” in the words of one ambitious conservative, “in colorful outline the heroic incidents” of U.S. history. Leaders of the American Legion contracted with Charles F. Horne, an English professor at City College of New York, to write this kind of American history textbook, one that aimed to inculcate the proper patriotism in students.

Horne had an ambitious vision. His book endeavored to tell a heroic story of America that could unify White people north and south. It included Black history and difficult topics such as slavery and genocide — but in a skewed way. The “horrors” of the slave ships were acknowledged as “unspeakable,” but overall, Horne wrote, slavery was a benefit for Africans and a burden for White leaders. As he put it, “The blight of slavery fell less upon their race than on their masters.”

To politicians hoping to capitalize on conservative angst about modern history textbooks, Horne’s book was a smashing success. In the words of Oregon’s Klan-backed Gov. Walter Pierce, “It is the finest history of early America that we have ever had.”

Other readers, however, disagreed. One critic called it nothing but the “old moth-eaten, discredited, and dangerous” history, “the placing of the seal of unquestioning historical approval upon the thoughts and deeds of one’s ancestors.”

Horne’s book didn’t only horrify liberals. Even its backers in the American Legion noted that the book was plagued with “misleading statements … [and] inaccuracies.” In 1925, the Legion withdrew its support and the book languished as a conservative never-ran.

The gap in assessments of Horne’s book stemmed from a divergence of goals. Its champions weren’t concerned with providing the most accurate account of the past. Instead, they wanted a version that would leave students with an uncritical love of the United States.

But as they continued to push for history education that might achieve this goal, they did not recognize that their efforts were only leaving students confused about the past. The evidence showed that students did not retain much from their history classes. One 1915 survey from Texas, for example, showed that students could barely identify the key terms of U.S. history. At the low end, students knew about one in five key terms; even the best students still only identified just under half. Similarly, a 1922 survey from Indiana found a slightly better range of scores, but the top grade was still just under 60 percent. By the 1960s, the average score on a national history test administered by the Cooperative Test Service was only about 55 percent.

Moreover, conservative efforts to minimize the ugly, racist chapters of America’s past seemed also to minimize student learning. Questions about racial topics proved more challenging for students to answer. When scholar Dale Whittington combined the results from multiple student surveys between 1933 and 1944, she found that 81 percent of top students could identify Alexander Hamilton and 60 percent of “A” students could handle questions about the Bill of Rights. But only 46 percent of the highest achieving students knew about the Emancipation Proclamation.

Certainly, there were many reasons for students’ lack of knowledge of school history. But conservative efforts to inject a stunted version of Black history into classrooms played a role — even when they didn’t affect curriculum. As one survey of teachers found in 1941, teachers tended to shy away from any topic considered politically divisive, even if there was no controversy among scholars. As one California teacher told the pollsters, “Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers.”

History education remained skewed with regard to topics of race and racism throughout most of the 20th century. In the 1940s, textbooks by Harold Rugg were burned in bonfires after critics charged they taught children too much about conflict and racial animosity. By the 1970s, conservative activists in organizations such as the Heritage Foundation led boycotts of textbooks that included Black militant writers such as George Jackson and Eldridge Cleaver.

This conservative pressure encouraged publishers to shy away from addressing painful racial topics. And students’ comprehension about the past has continued to reflect it. In recent surveys, only 8 percent of high school seniors could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and only 10 percent of eighth-graders could explain the reasons for the Confederacy’s defeat.

Despite the signs that their version of history education has left students ill-informed about the past, conservatives keep pushing for it. In the waning days of the Trump administration, the 1776 Commission, a hastily assembled group headed by Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, released a report that hoped to convince students that their country has always been “an example to be admired and emulated by nations of the world that wish to steer their government toward greater liberty and justice.”

Like its 20th-century predecessors, the 1776 Commission’s report included a deeply distorted version of Black history. It conceded that racial slavery was a “brutal, humiliating fact.” But happily, just as we oppose slavery now, the report argued — in stark contradiction to historical facts — the Founding Fathers “condemned it then.” It was only the Founders’ heroism that “started the new nation on a path that would lead to the end of slavery.”

These objectively false statements, like DeSantis’s grandstanding, are not merely blocking students from learning Black history. They are a brash grab for control of it, one that negates the true story of struggle and inequality and turns it into something that proves the fundamental heroism of White leaders. But the data about historical comprehension indicates that this patently saccharine version of the past probably will do little more than confuse students and leave them with a poor understanding of the past.