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The Real Battle for the Soul of America: Historical Narratives in Public Schools

Across the country, parents sit in socially distanced auditoriums facing wooden podiums bearing the seal of their respective school district. A single microphone stand is mounted in the middle of the room, a democratic vessel through which parents can direct their anger, support, gratitude, or fear at school board members lined up in front of them. These rooms in town halls around America are once again becoming venues for partisan conflict, reigniting old debates about the country’s character. These fights have reverberations beyond policy issues; they are about control over a national narrative.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, both the Trump and Biden campaigns employed rhetoric of the nation's "soul." President Biden positioned the election as a “battle for the soul of America." In response, the Trump campaign ran an ad urging donors to contribute to “save America’s soul.” These evocations of a national psyche indicate a broader shift in partisan politics away from attempts to control policy decisions and toward a fractured country seeking to redefine itself upon opposing views of history. In George Orwell’s 1984, there is an oft-quoted phrase: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” In a practical sense, the version of American history we teach and the dominant narrative surrounding the birth and life of this country will ring in the ears of generations as they construct future policy. Conservative and liberal thinkers recognize this universal truth and have produced extensive accounts of their preferred national narrative. The New York Times’ 1619 Project is a recent example of left-wing efforts to take control of this national narrative and redefine US history “truthfully,” centering slavery and black voices and stripping the 1776 national origin myth of its red, white and blue cloak of star-spangled freedom. In response, the Trump administration unveiled the 1776 commission, an attempt to cement the conventional founding story rooted in the “fundamental truths of human liberty proclaimed on July 4, 1776.” The explicit purpose of producing this official account is the “restoration of American education” with the founding principles in mind.

Political debates surrounding history education are decidedly not a product of our time. For as long as there has been history, the debate around its teaching followed. Covering the civil war, for example, has long been a point of contention resulting in many Southern curricula tainted with ‘lost cause’ mythology. Most US history teachers, however, especially at the elementary level teach a “standard American history myth” that reveres the Pilgrims as founders and the constitution as a “glorious liberty document.” It has been critiqued by voices on the left as a sanitized and reductionist account that reinforces hegemonic power structures, omitting honest discussions of slavery’s ripple effects in favor of stylized chestnut trees and inspiring stories of Honest Abe. The summer of unrest in 2020 and the conversations about race that followed gave renewed impetus to the revision of this narrative. In the wake of reignited support for the Black Lives Matter movement, many schools around the country reexamined how, if at all, they approach the topic of race. Some schools began enacting changes to their curricula inspired by Black Lives Matter.

Similarly, over the last twenty years, many public schools changed their policies and practices when it comes to accommodating LGBTQ+ students. Both tendencies mark a generally liberal shift in school districts around the country. While mainstream conservative media arguably exaggerate the effects of these changes, a fear of political indoctrination of students has created an ongoing media frenzy surrounding the politics of race and gender in public schools. Into this dry haystack of partisan school politics arrived as the burning matchstick of COVID-19, resulting in the perfect storm of viral videos of outraged parents shouting over each other about mask and vaccine mandates, school closures, critical race theory, and parental rights. We are in the midst of a Republican crackdown on K-12 education. It is not simply an isolated campaign strategy for the midterms but a new chapter in the culture war over the American narrative.

Four distinct policy tools implemented on two fronts shape how the story of America is taught in schools. On a local (i.e. individual school board) level, newly-politicized and remarkably well-funded campaigns promise to change curricula and ban “provocative” books. On a state level, legislative proposals limit the scope of race and gender discussion in schools and propagate the expansion of a network of (largely conservative) charter schools, a move long advocated for by school-choice libertarians. In the current news media ecosystem, it’s hard to go a day without reading a headline pertaining to one of the aforementioned ways in which public school education is being politicized. Florida’s controversial 'Don’t Say Gay' bill, South Dakota’s executive order signed just this week, limiting the teaching of “divisive concepts” such as Critical Race Theory, or school board races in Wisconsin and Missouri, dominated by candidates campaigning against CRT, and books on alternative interpretations of history, are just a few examples of how party politics is changing schools.

Debates over curricula are age-old, but the influx of PAC money into school board elections, the growing number of books banned from libraries, the strict limits on classroom-appropriate materials, and the polarization of public education through ideologically motivated charter schools all mark a novel and alarming trend away from honest historical reflection and toward educational echo chambers. This rapture is more than an ailment to be dealt with in twenty years: it’s also a symptom. The polarization in America that gave us our geographical and digital echo chambers, partisan news media, and ideologically driven entertainment is yet again manifesting itself in schools, leaving its marks of division on the hearts and minds of young people. Americans' only baseline for productive conversation is a shared national reality rooted in a common history. If the differing and warped perceptions of America are cemented by alternative versions of history taught in public schools, how are we to have a basis for disagreement? Whether America in 2022 is a product of 1776, 1619, or a combination of the two, the battle for the prevailing narrative is implanting the seeds of political division in generations to come and slowly grinding away the very soul politicians are rushing to protect.


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