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For Historians, the Best and Worst of Times

In September 2022, Marvin Dunn, an emeritus professor of psychology at Florida International University, was at his property near Rosewood, a Reconstruction-era Black town subjected to a violent ethnic cleansing in 1923. Dunn, who is by one account the only Black landowner left in Rosewood, now devotes his time to public history efforts like the “Teach the Truth” tours, in which he takes students and others to significant sites of Florida’s Black history. That September day, Dunn was overseeing renovations that would allow him to stage events commemorating the centennial of the Rosewood Massacre — a subject long relegated to the margins of conversations about the state’s history. 

After a brief exchange with a white neighbor in a truck, the neighbor, David Emanuel, became enraged and drove his truck directly at the group while yelling racial slurs. While awaiting trial on assault and hate crime charges months later, Emanuel provocatively displayed Confederate symbols. After his sentencing (to a year and a day in prison) this fall, he told supporters that he planned to sell his property, saying “I’m not living across from a Rosewood memorial that thousands of Black people are going to come to.”  

Dunn recounted the episode during an American Historical Association webinar last summer, dramatizing in starker terms the recent experiences of many historians and educators who have found themselves caught between appreciative and hostile factions of the public. 

Dunn’s emergent second career as a public historian is just one example of a growing connection many scholars have been forging with a public eager to make sense of conflicts in the present. Historian David Waldstreicher, who has written about the tensions between historical scholarship and social conflict in the present, told HNN that the present moment has heightened longstanding tensions “exacerbated by the politicization of everything” and “the more deeply felt connection between interpretations of the past and the present.” Waldstreicher also noted that after a generation of scholars in a diversifying academic profession worked to make historical study of racism, gender and sexuality more prominent, shifting pedagogies and recent protest movements have pushed those issues, and the ways Americans learn about them, to the center of public debate. 

Certainly, invocations of the past have become more common in public conversations about present concerns. As cultural critic Jay Caspian Kang recently noted, “history has become the lingua franca of online political conversation.” But not everybody has welcomed this efflorescence of public history, whether it’s taking place in the opinion pages or in the streets. Indeed, in Dunn’s home state of Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has made a reactionary counterattack on so-called “woke” history a pillar of his national political ambitions. Historian Tera Hunter recently argued that the state’s Stop WOKE Act and revisions to state social studies standards are part of a backlash against a mandate, established in 1994 but sporadically enforced since, to teach African American history in the state’s public schools in recognition of the state’s diversity. Hunter sees a larger ideological effort at work: to stop “identifying people from the past with actual racism in a way that might offend people today,” a posture that presumes white Floridian students today feel such a natural kinship with white Floridians one, two, or even three centuries ago that they can be psychologically distressed to learn about acts of collective violence and exploitation those earlier people committed.

It’s easy to get lost in the particulars of state standards while rolling one’s eyes at declarations about the benefits of slavery for the enslaved, or the mutuality of racist violence during Jim Crow. But it’s important to focus on the political projects driving these campaigns to shape how history is taught and discussed in public schools, where most Americans receive their first, and sometimes last, formal education in the subject.

Jeremy Young, a historian at PEN America who has been one of the closest trackers of educational content restrictions, tells HNN that legislators in 45 states have introduced at least 309 “gag order” bills since 2021 restricting what topics can be discussed in public school classrooms. Thirty such bills in 17 states are now law. Young warns that these bills are designed to produce “a broad chilling effect that, more often than not, makes teachers simply avoid all lessons on race, gender, and identity.” Stop WOKE and similar legislation, Young argues, undemocratically “undermines the involvement of most parents in their children's education by handing power to a small group of activists,” while also devaluing the expertise of educators, and effectively banning concepts and ideas “that teachers absolutely must teach in order to present their subject matter.”

While the latest efforts to regulate history classrooms have garnered headlines, they aren’t especially novel. Historian of education Adam Laats sees today’s school conflicts as a contemporary iteration of a “hundred-year conservative campaign to claim all the basic symbols of Americanism: family, freedom, and patriotism.” Rallying under this banner, Laats said, activists “assume they deserve the right to unilaterally control their local public schools,” under the premise that “public schools should embody all the vague qualities that supposedly once made America great and could presumably Make America Great Again.” 

It bears noting, of course, that activists in sympathy with contemporary social justice movements are also pushing on schools and curriculum from the other direction. During periods of social conflict and demographic change, says Laats, “the right to guide public education has always been seen by all sides as an unmistakable badge of full citizenship,” and assertions of those rights, which today are expressed through addressing racism in the curriculum or protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ students, reflect “an unwillingness to accept status as second-class Americans.”

Education scholar Jack Schneider sees a more insidious effort at work. He says it’s not about prescribing what history lessons are taught as much as it is about breaking down and privatizing public education institutions. Because public schools are actually fairly popular, he says, this agenda can only advance if political activists can sow mistrust of, and alienation from, the idea of common public schools. “If you’re looking for a way to drive a wedge between people, it makes sense to start with the history/social studies classroom.” Over the course of a decade, he argues, the nation’s 13,000 school districts provide “a quarter-million opportunities to cherry-pick something and say ‘See? Look what’s going on in our schools.’”

What is the role for professional scholars in this climate? With political entrepreneurs seeking to score points by stoking outrage about the curriculum, how can historians help shape the content of education and potentially sustain national conversations — as opposed to arguments — about the past? 

Many historians, perhaps unsurprisingly, have made their way into the public square through debunking and mythbusting. But historian Johann Neem recently made the provocative argument that historians have chosen to handle popular histories like the “1619 Project” with kid gloves, while selectively debunking the myths preferred by the political right. Neem warns that the profession collectively risks disaster by trading its most valuable currencies — expertise, respect for evidence, and critical distance — for influence in partisan or ideological fights. Schneider, too, warns that the forces seeking to undermine common public schools stand to benefit from ideological sorting. “If we end up with red schools and blue schools, that will be the death knell for public education.” 

Historians and scholars whose work depends on the infrastructure of higher education, Waldstreicher contends, also need to recognize that fights over ideas and fights over institutions are connected. “One response to the actual work that historians of the United States especially have been doing in recent years has been deliberate misinformation and mythmaking, as well as disinvestment from higher education.” The latter may prove more dire in the long run, and it remains unclear whether scholars can help prevent it by avoiding controversy.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently cautioned humanities academics about the risks they face by alienating wealthy university donors or Republican state legislators who control the purse strings. His caution could be read either as a call for circumspection or a veiled threat to accept political interference with academic matters. George Leef of the North Carolina-based James G. Martin Center was much blunter in the National Review, charging that “the Left now owns much of the academy, employing hordes of people who aren’t really scholars, but propagandists for its opposition to the foundations of our civilization,” and calling to “renew” academic history by establishing alternative donor-funded academic centers “to compete with the radical, illiberal establishment of the history departments” and, as suggested by new model legislation cosponsored by the Martin Center, to potentially replace them.  

As an editor who is now inviting historians and scholars to make the revived History News Network a platform for purposeful connections between past and present, I can’t help agreeing with Waldstreicher’s reply to my question about the state of the history profession and its engagement with the public. “It’s better and worse than ever,” he told me. Historians, Waldstreicher says, may experience that paradoxically, “we are more appreciated than ever and under attack. Appreciated because relevant, suspect because effective and even dangerous.” Not every scholar will want to enter this fray. But HNN is here to support those who choose to do so bravely and intelligently.