The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘Peanuts’ attempt to teach U.S. history offers lessons for today

A 1980s animated miniseries can help solve our curriculum wars in 2021

Charles Schulz displays a sketch of his character Snoopy in his office in 2000. (Benmargot/AP)

Americans are at war with one another about what schools should teach children about the country’s history. On one side are those who see major historical initiatives like the New York Times’s “1619 Project” as a long-overdue corrective to a whitewashed U.S. history. Opposing them are those who view such programs and “critical race theory,” the latest poorly understood but oft-attacked boogeyman, as an attempt to undermine valued American traditions and sow deeper racial strife and animosity. The fight has engulfed government at every level, from school board to Congress.

This is hardly the first time that Americans have sparred over their past. In fact, fighting over our past is a signature American trait.

The United States was formed from a hodgepodge of people, cultures, languages and beliefs. In the Constitution, the founders institutionalized argument as a central principle of the nation. Americans fought the Civil War in 1861 over two competing versions of their past, signified by the fact that both North and South championed George Washington as their national hero. Since the civil rights era of the mid-20th century, Americans have continued this fight, especially in the realm of public schooling.

At the root of this ongoing battle is a shared belief that what we teach children about our past has immense consequences for where we might go in the future.

Nearly 35 years ago, one the greatest popular thinkers in modern America grappled with these questions. Charles Schulz, cartoonist behind the popular and beloved comic strip “Peanuts,” oversaw the production of the first animated television miniseries in U.S. history, “This is America, Charlie Brown.” The ways that Schulz navigated, wrestled with and at times fumbled this task are instructive for our curriculum debates.

“Peanuts” first reached television audiences in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965). After decades of success, CBS looked to expand the reach of its popular “Peanuts” specials beyond holidays. It wanted to take on American history itself. Schulz, an avid reader of history, wrote the scripts from his own studies.

The first episode aired Oct. 21, 1988, and highlighted the pilgrims’ Atlantic crossing on the Mayflower. The program transported the “Peanuts” characters to 1620, complete with period clothing. The characters repeatedly invoked God in prayer and credited him for their good fortune in the journey. The episode also ran into public controversy for its brief usage of the term “savage” to refer to Native Americans in the original script. The American Indian Parents, a Minneapolis civil rights organization that had worked as show consultants, protested to CBS, and the term was removed.

Yet the episode offered a clear statement from CBS and Schulz: American history began with the religious excursions of European Protestants in North America. Not at Jamestown in 1607, and certainly not at the first sale of African captives into chattel slavery in 1619.

This narrative reflected the conservative culture of the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan had invoked the words of one early Puritan leader during his 1984 reelection campaign, calling the United States a “shining city upon a hill.” At the same time, religious conservatives were becoming an increasingly important political force.

Still, the choice was not without controversy. The Los Angeles Times panned the episode, writing, “ ‘This is America, Charlie Brown’ is a well-intentioned effort to present history and humor that delivers little of either.” The Black newspaper New York Amsterdam News put a spotlight on the stunning lack of diversity in the cast. “This is America?” it asked incredulously. It was disappointed that Schulz did not “let Franklin, the little African American pal of Chuck’s, beat the drum” of American history. Furthermore, there was no exploration of the long-term fallout from declining European relations with Native Americans.

The next episode, “The Birth of the Constitution,” was more of the same. As the “Peanuts” gang watched, the founders fought about the details of a new government to preserve the gains of the revolution. Linus worried throughout the episode that the tense deliberations might collapse and destroy any prospects of unity. It was a celebration of debate, of compromise and of constitutionalism.

The story encouraged Americans to consider how they might sacrifice their own extreme positions to find workable compromises for the good of the nation. Once again, however, Schulz ignored the darker details of the history that did not advance his positive message. The most egregious exclusion: the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise, which protected the interest of Southern states in slavery and expanded slavery’s influence in the new American republic. Excluding this clause was a missed opportunity. Including it might have produced a more nuanced message that while compromise could be good, it could also require moral trade-offs.

The series began to turn a corner by its fourth episode, set on the International Space Station. Here Franklin made his first appearance and female characters like Peppermint Patty took a leading role. Peering down at the planet below, Sally Brown marveled at the unbroken landscape. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have maps with no boundaries?” she marveled. This call for internationalism in the late days of the Cold War would have been unmistakable for American viewers.

The following episodes began to present a more complex picture of U.S. history — some good, some bad. An episode on the Transcontinental Railroad explored the significance of both American westward expansion and technological innovation. Schulz was careful to highlight the immense contributions of Asian immigrant workers to the project. He did not, however, discuss low wages or social discrimination. Rather than documenting the sufferings and abuses of Asian Americans, Schulz emphasized that these workers were “the best workers the railroad officials had ever seen.”

In another episode, Charlie Brown and Linus traveled back in time to meet Abraham Lincoln as he prepared to deliver the Gettysburg Address. Yet Schulz reverted to the flaws of the early episodes, with Lincoln making no mention of slavery’s central significance in causing the Civil War. Instead, the segment focused on the great sacrifices made to maintain political unity in the United States.

The final episode was Franklin’s moment to shine at last. It aired May 23, 1989. In this episode, titled “The Music and Heroes of America,” Franklin discussed the history of Black America. Gospel and blues music had its origins in slavery, “where people were owned like property,” Franklin told the other “Peanuts” characters. The segment went so far as to point out that slavery in the United States dated all the way back to Jamestown in 1620. (More recent scholarship has discovered that it actually was 1619.) The scenes surrounding Franklin as he narrated could have easily passed for an animated version of the television series “Roots,” which originally aired more than a decade earlier in 1977.

The narrative did not stop there. Franklin, joined by some of the female characters, discussed the challenges of segregation and championed the vision of such Black leaders as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. They celebrated the efforts of desegregation leaders like Dwight D. Eisenhower (Schulz’s personal hero) and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Though the 1960s had been a “turbulent” time, the segment concluded with a vision of children of different races standing together in pride.

“This is America, Charlie Brown” evolved over the course of the series. Schulz’s version of history was aimed largely at White audiences and often limited by this narrow perspective. It elected to highlight the aspirational aspects of the U.S. past more often than its violence. The program’s strongest moments came when Schulz and producers listened to criticism from minority groups and commentators and responded to suggested correctives.

By the end of the miniseries, Schulz finally dared to go into the more tragic elements of U.S. history. These elements did not undermine the virtues of American history, as some claim it will today. Instead, this consideration enriched the story of the United States, bringing in more voices and perspectives and showing a flawed nation willing to argue, debate and work through differences to create a more unified people.

“This is America, Charlie Brown” was far from perfect. But in the age of Reagan, it demonstrated a rather remarkable capacity for egalitarianism and self-reflection. Facing our nation’s shortcomings is not a sign of weakness or self-loathing, Charles Schulz had come to believe. It was necessary for growth and unity. This is America, Charlie Brown.