By Robert Maranto, University of Arkansas

We cannot withdraw policy from public schools, because decisions about what to teach and what to leave aside are inherently political. Social studies programs seem the most political of all, because they lack the precision of mathematics and combine history and heritage.

Although often married, the history and heritage differ. Like all tribes, the people of the United States have a common heritage, legends inspire us to continue our nation. In contrast, the realm of history is a Western invention seeking to portray what happened, the warts and everything. Heritage is Mason Weems’ myth that young George Washington confessed to cutting down the cherry tree because he couldn’t lie. Arguably the story with a bit of a legacy is Washington’s evolving malaise and eventual rejection of slavery.


These definitions are important because the United States is a multicultural democracy where heritage influences the stories schools teach. As Jonathan Zimmerman observes in his classic America from whom? Cultural wars in public schools, in the 1920s, Italians and Norwegians argued over whether Christopher Columbus or Leif Eriksson would discover America. The Germans polished their American credentials by inserting the historically unimportant but identifiable German Molly Pitcher into textbooks; African Americans added Crispus Attucks. Marginalized groups thus intermarried with the American heritage taught in schools.

In contrast, the early 20th-century southern white activists who promulgated the lost cause myths undermined both history and American heritage, creating a new southern legacy through whitening Southern textbooks. the Confederate cause. As Zimmerman details, the United Daughters of the Confederacy held student essay contests to defend slavery. One laureate described slavery as “the happiest period in the existence of negroes”. Zimmerman writes that “Confederate groups have often questioned the entire concept of objectivity in history” by insisting that their lived experience offered unique perspectives that northern scholars with their so-called objective historical methods did not. could never find out.

It should all sound familiar today. After suffering their own Appomattox with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Marxists have become the new Confederates, supplanting scholarship with lived experiences, stories and now tweets. As detailed by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay in Cynical theories: how the activist scholarship did it all about race, gender and identity – and why it hurts everyone, over the past few decades, left-wing academics (and now journalists) have replaced class politics with identity politics, embracing postmodern rejection of universal truths. Consequently, it would be a mistake in the teaching of slavery to rely too much on biased sources such as the New York Times‘s 1619 Project.

Some say American schools ignore slavery. This statement was probably correct – in 1970. My children, one a high school student and the other a recent graduate, agreed that our Arkansas public schools covered slavery and Jim Crow between six and eight times in 12 years. – much more than they covered the founding of the United States, the Constitution or the Second World War; indeed, the latter only appeared once or twice, counting a Holocaust unit. My children also observed, however, that their schools’ treatment of slavery, like their coverage of history in general, was superficial. As one of my children put it, “They teach you that slavery is bad, but not much else. (This may characterize Arkansas standards in general. A recent Fordham Institute report called them “poor,” observing that, “strangely”, the subject of secession is not addressed in the historical standard of state of Arkansas and that “the lack of direct references to slavery As far as our local teachers covered slavery, it was mainly through political history, as a key cause of compromise. of Missouri, the Compromise of 1850 and the Civil War, suggesting that state standards may have little to do with what goes on in the classroom. Meanwhile, Jim Crow is taught primarily through a local matter, integration of Little Rock Central. In all fairness, as the Fordham Institute report makes clear, the coverage of slavery and history generally lacks depth in most states, not just in the South.

So what to do? You can’t beat something for nothing, so at the elementary level, schools could adopt the relatively specific basic knowledge programs, developed by ED Hirsch, in which knowledge builds on knowledge. To a much greater extent than is the case with typical curriculum approaches of education consultants, Core Knowledge focuses less on amorphous ‘skills’ and more on facts, which forms the basis for more knowledge and development. ‘interpretations. As Hirsch writes in The schools we need and why we don’t Them, psychological research shows that “the ability to learn something new depends on the ability to adapt the new thing to what is already known”. The more we already know, the easier it is to learn new information; therefore, better curricula can help. The quality of teachers is also important. At the secondary level, where I do field research, educators joke that all social science teachers have the same first name – “Coach” – suggesting the need to hire. well informed teachers, not those for whom teaching is a secondary priority and whose primary expertise is athletics. Meanwhile, when educators teach the property of human beings, as they should for that matter, they should be teaching in the context that slavery was not uniquely American but existed in countries of all countries. great religious traditions and on all inhabited continents. (Basic knowledge does this.) When teachers discuss slavery, they should include discussions about which countries ended slavery, when, and why, perhaps using visual aids such as slavery. cards to help convey information.

Educators could also argue more broadly that almost all countries once had (and some still do) slavery, but only America can claim the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the rebuilding of Europe and the Japan after WWII, and an indispensable role in overcoming the twin evils of fascism and communism. These are the only ones American contributions that should define our nation for today’s schoolchildren and tomorrow’s citizens.