No, the pushback against divisive concepts is not opposition to teaching ‘true history’

Questioning the inclusion of ideological agendas in K-12 education is not opposition to fact-based history, as teachers’ unions and activists claim. In fact, making such a claim is a distraction from the way in which divisive concepts have actually replaced teaching fact-based history.

Labeling the supposed opposition as just trying to stymie “honest history” and oppose a “full and honest curriculum” resonates, writes Frederick Hess with the American Enterprise Institute, especially “with moderates, who tend to recoil from any intimation that they’re siding with racist, populist know-nothings.” But it is a strawman.

American slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement are, quite appropriately, among the most extensively covered topics in American history classes today. There’s broad bipartisan support for this state of affairs. For good or ill, issues of race and diversity dominate much teacher training and most education convenings. In fact, the talk of “true history” is a venal canard, wielded by activists, academics, and pundits who are far less invested in history that is true than that which they think feels true. 

Take the recently revised Minnesota K-12 social studies standards, which American Experiment has covered extensively. We and many others have raised concerns about the addition of “critical” or “liberated” ethnic studies as a fifth strand, which is driven by themes of group identity based on race, life as a power struggle between oppressors and victims, and American history as a shameful story of domination, marginalization and injustice, and include standards directly named “resistance” and “identity.”

Rhode Island’s Department of Education has recently adopted social studies standards that shortchange students, requiring students to examine “historical events through the lenses of identity, power, and resistance” but contain a significant number of historical errors, as National Association of Scholars David Randall expertly points out in this report.

Questioning the inclusion of ideology that has replaced the basic factual knowledge students need to be informed citizens is quite different from opposing “fact-based history.”

In fact, those wielding the “true history” canard end up giving “the impression that they just don’t care that much about factual accuracy, at least when it doesn’t comport with their larger agenda,” continues Hess.

Take Ibram X. Kendi, an “anti-racism” activist and author who has previously stated that Critical Race Theory was “foundational” to his work. Hess points out how “this staggeringly influential historian managed to get two historical facts wrong in the space of 19 words” in his September 2020 cover story for The Atlantic on the motto of the United States.

Kendi’s little historical fiction was just one of many he uses to “document” the white supremacy of American institutions. Kendi, of course, famously holds that every single action, idea, thought, and policy is either racist or anti-racist, which is why the niceties of the historical record matter less than how Kendi and his acolytes choose to construe them.

Or the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which a number of historians found had inaccuracies, half-truths, and distortions. Hess points out that even the World Socialist Web Site concluded that the project was “a politically motivated falsification of history.”

But it’s not just the politicized material or lack of historical content that is concerning. There is also an apparent refusal to acknowledge improvement, even though challenges remain. Hess writes:

For all our challenges related to race, for instance, part of the story is also how things have improved over the past 60 or 70 years. Support for school desegregation is today essentially unanimous, up massively over the past half-century. Nearly all U.S. adults say they approve of interracial marriage today; in 1951, the comparable figure was 4 percent. In 1965, there were just five black members of the House of Representatives; today, there are 59 (roughly reflecting the black share of the U.S. population). The point is not “things are swell” but that such facts are an important part of the story. And, yet, those celebrating “fact-based history” generally don’t deem them worthy of inclusion in their curricula and model lessons.

When it comes to economics, those insisting on “true history” are remarkably selective in their truth. By any reasonable measure, Americans at all income strata have vastly more access to affordable goods and services than they did just a few decades ago. Even a family of modest means in 2023 has access to transport, communications, health care, plumbing, food, and entertainment that would’ve exceeded the wildest dreams of a Renaissance monarch or an early 20th century robber baron. That reality, and understanding the economic arrangements, behaviors, and policies that made it possible, are part of “teaching the truth.” Yet the disciples of Kendi, et al., ignore all this, instead caricaturing American capitalism as a mustache-twirling villain bent on racist oppression. 

Efforts to politicize classrooms are no longer confined to anecdotes, as Stanley Kurtz details out in the National Review. “When America’s story goes, America goes with it. And right now, we are going, going…state by state by state.”