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The Fog of History Wars

Once again, Americans find themselves at war over their history—what it is, who owns it, how it should be interpreted and taught. In April, the Department of Education called for a renewed stress, in the classroom, on the “unbearable human costs of systemic racism” and the “consequences of slavery.” In response, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a formal letter, demanding more “patriotism” in history and calling the Democrats’ plan “divisive nonsense.” Like all great questions of national memory, the latest history war has to play out in politics, whether we like it or not. This is especially true as we limp, wounded, from the battlefields of the Trump era, when facts were nearly rendered irrelevant.

History wars follow patterns. The subjects at their core usually carry visceral meaning for large swaths of the public. The disputes quickly invoke curricula, creeping into school boards and state legislatures with increasing stakes. The combatants then employ a kind of existential rhetoric, with all sides declaring surrender unacceptable. Political teams are chosen, and the media both fuels and thrives on the contestation. Authorities, whether in academia, libraries, or museums, try to fight for up-to-date research and interpretation. The politics of knowledge and the emotional attachments to country threaten to sweep up nearly all before them. Finally, someone declares victory, whether by creating or removing a monument, cancelling or curating an exhibit, or writing a book about a triumph of historical engagement. “Good” history can be both a result and a casualty of these wars.

Some of these battles never quite end. (The endurance of the Lost Cause ideology, which argues that the South fought not for slavery but for sovereignty, is one example.) But the broader problem is that, in the realm of public history, no settled law governs. Should the discipline forge effective citizens? Should it be a source of patriotism? Should it thrive on analysis and argument, or be an art that emotionally moves us? Should it seek to understand a whole society, or be content to uncover that society’s myriad parts? The answer to all of these questions is essentially yes. But this is where the history wars, old and new, merely begin. We call them wars because they matter; nations have risen and fallen on the success of their stories.

Two recent history wars offer cautionary tales. One arrived in the mid-nineties, when a debate flared in the media over the National Standards for History. The Standards were a colossal project: the country’s first attempt at establishing a nationally recognized set of criteria for how history should be taught. Initially funded by the George H. W. Bush Administration, the venture took around three years and two million dollars to complete, and involved every relevant constituency, including parents, teachers, school administrators, curriculum specialists, librarians, educational organizations, and professional historians. Yet, when the Standards were published, in 1994, a big-tent effort transformed into a ferocious political fight. Many historians entered the public arena for the first time during this debate, and droves of us have never left.

Generally, historians were no match for the right-wing assault on the Standards, which one conservative think-tank writer likened to propaganda “developed in the councils of the Bolshevik and Nazi parties and successfully deployed on the youth of the Third Reich and the Soviet empire.” Lynne Cheney, then a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, blasted the Standards in the Wall Street Journal as “politically correct” and full of “politicized history.” (A few years earlier, as the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Cheney had granted five hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars to help fund the project.) Radio host Rush Limbaugh accused historians of depicting America as “inherently evil,” and contended that the Standards should be “flushed down the sewer of multiculturalism.” The media swarmed to get Cheney debating celebrated historians such as Joyce Appleby, Eric Foner, and Gary B. Nash, who was one of the Standards’ lead authors. Critics often complained that the criteria too frequently mentioned Harriet Tubman, at the cost of eliding figures such as George Washington.

If such critics had read the Standards carefully, they would have known that the suggestions were merely guidelines, and fully voluntary for school districts. But the Senate, caving in to vicious op-eds and conspiracy theories about cabals of liberal academic historians, voted to repudiate the project, claiming that it showed insufficient respect to American patriotic ideals. The debate left an important legacy. As Nash and his co-authors wrote in “History on Trial,” a 1997 book on the controversy, curricula are often mere “artifacts” of their time, and necessarily vulnerable to “prevailing political attitudes” and “competing versions of the collective memory.” Nations have histories, and someone must write and teach them, but the Standards remain a warning to all those who try.

Read entire article at The New Yorker