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Why Does American History Feel Like Ancient History to High School Students?

An argument for returning the recent past, and the history of modern conservatism, to classrooms.

Interior of a college classroom at Williamstown, Massachusetts, by John L. Lovell, c. 1860. [The J. Paul Getty Museum.]

Ask a high school student how Donald Trump once again clinched the nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for the presidency. There’s a good chance that the answer they give won’t be very satisfying. They likely won’t be able to tell you how Trump’s first presidency built upon the momentum of the Tea Party or was powered by a decades-long coalition between activist groups like the Federalist Society and white Evangelical voters. Most high schoolers won’t be able to explain these phenomena for the simple reason that many, if not most, American schools do not teach the history of modern conservatism. 

Today’s high school seniors were born in the waning years of the last Bush administration, five years after September 11. Since most Americans do not earn college degrees, this spring will be many of those students’ last opportunity to learn about the past in a methodical way from a trained teacher. In the fall, many of them will vote in their first election. They deserve to understand the social, political, and activist traditions shaping their country. For high schoolers born after the creation of YouTube, that might require adding lessons that discuss historical events that took place after the birth of the internet.

As a professor who trains future social studies teachers, I don’t want educators to be students’ moral arbiters. I want them to honestly open the past to their students and lead classrooms where students can review the facts and decide for themselves. I’d like to see students debate whether Donald Trump’s presidency was a turning point in the Republican Party or a continuation of longstanding conservative principles, or whether conservative media leads or follows its base. There is plenty of relevant material for teachers to bring to the classroom; scholars Nicole Hemmer, Adam Laats, Rick Perlstein, and Kim Phillips-Fein are leading a reconsideration of the history and historiography of the Right. The lack of a national curriculum means that individual states and districts have a lot of autonomy to set what students ought to learn and how. Some state standards completely avoid the contemporary Right. In Florida, the state’s 2021 Next Generation Sunshine State Standards do not require students to learn about any conservative individual after Richard Nixon, who was impeached more than 50 years ago. The most recent right-wing organization Florida’s standards mention by name is the 1920s Ku Klux Klan. Pennsylvania’s standards, in place since 2002, end their mandated coverage even earlier. The last conservative politician its standards name is Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

For comparison, I am 36 years old, which means that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 35 years before I graduated high school. My teachers in the early aughts covered his life because the story of America would be incomprehensible without that knowledge. Ronald Reagan’s presidency ended 35 years ago. Despite the identical chronological distance, many high schoolers today are not required to ever learn about him. This is not because Florida and Pennsylvania don’t teach modern history. Pennsylvania makes space to recommend instruction on the legacies of both Cal Ripken Jr. and Sammy Sosa, and Florida suggests that teachers cover the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and the economic sanctions placed on Syria following its 2011 civil war.

Texas and Tennessee include Billy Graham and Condoleezza Rice in their standards, respectively, but the curriculum effaces their conservativism. Graham is on a generic list of “political and social leaders” alongside Andrew Carnegie and Thurgood Marshall, while Rice is cited as an example of “the increasing role of women and minorities.” In Michigan, the state recommends that teachers cover 29 figures and events from the civil rights era, including Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Orval Faubus, the governor who used the Arkansas National Guard to maintain school segregation, is the only one who can be called a conservative. New York and California tell teachers to cover “movements for equality” after World War II. New York lists nine options and California offers seven. All are left-leaning. 

State history standards are not scripted plans that dictate what each teacher within a state should do on a given day. Rather, they are statements of value, claims about what matters, and what stories we tell. Social studies scholars devote a lot of attention to the way that schooling shapes and responds to national narratives. For instance, some have pointed out that schools tend to emphasize Martin Luther King’s nonviolence while ignoring his movement toward antiwar, socialist, and Black Power causes at the end of his life, and argue that this portrayal fashions an unapproachable ideal of the perfect protestor. Such lionization can, ironically, tamp down future activism. 

When you leave the specifics out of the past, it becomes much harder for students to relate their own realities to it. The Right has shaped — and continues to shape — the United States. Avoiding that history makes it impossible to understand the present.


Necessary though it may be, writing the history of the modern Right into curricula would be certain to court controversy. Even a cursory overview of the history of social studies curricula shows that making lessons relevant, authentic, and honest has always ignited backlash. In the 1920s and 30s, Harold Rugg, the grandfather of the American history textbook, wrote popular texts that asked students to confront contemporary issues in the United States such as poverty, immigration, and wealth inequality. A campaign spearheaded by the founder of Forbes magazine and the American Legion successfully tarred the texts as leftist propaganda, leading to many schools to stop buying Rugg’s books. After the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, civil rights activists sought to “Brown” textbooks by removing outright lies and racist caricatures from textbooks. The campaign against these changes, which included doing away with special “mint julep” versions of textbooks for white audiences that perpetuated the myth of “happy slaves,” was furious and widespread. In one notable instance in 1974, Reverend Martin Horan led a group in West Virginia that planted bombs in schools and attacked school board members to prevent the adoption of a new, purportedly more liberal, textbook. 

History curricula remain at the frontline of battles over culture today. In 2020, with protestors mourning George Floyd still in the streets, President Trump established the 1776 Commission as a rejoinder to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project. Last year, Florida’s new standards for a Black History course again emphasized “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” In March Arkansas compelled schools to stop using resources from places like the Library of Congress, Brown University, and Yale because they used the term “Latinx.” That history of backlash might dissuade the teachers, administrators, and functionaries who write curricula from addressing the modern Right, but these reactions also show that controversy cannot be avoided. A more honest accounting of American history depends on a public willing to demand that the full story be told.


When the Right is kept from view, what story about political history is left to tell? Some conservatives might argue that deemphasizing right-wing figures and groups is an expression of left-wing bias. That the teachers, professors, and politicians who write standards don’t want students to grow up to emulate Reagan, Graham, Rice, or any other right-wing heroes. But red states like Texas, Tennessee, and Florida are not any more likely to require teaching about modern conservatives. That might be because focusing only on left-leaning activism allows textbooks to tell the story of an American trajectory toward equality without having to delve into the complicated truth that every activist movement has faced opposition. At the same time, erasing the history of conservative activism can help convey the implicit message that the Right stands for order while the Left rouses rabble, or that conservative power is somehow a given. If conservative politicians wanted to be scrutinized, high schoolers would be writing essays on the history of the Make America Great Again movement. But the groups of conservative parents mobilized by Moms for Liberty and their ilk are not asking for more coverage. They aren’t demanding that high schoolers consider whether the violence of the Oklahoma City Bombing or the Proud Boys should prompt a reconsideration of William F. Buckley’s rejection of the John Birch Society. Such historical questions could be written into curricula, but they aren’t because there is no constituency demanding that these events be taught. 

In central New York, I try to prepare the teachers I support to address the modern world, but when they introduce discussions about contemporary politics, they hear some students call Democrats “baby killers” and say that the ideal country would be a “Trumplandia” where LGBTQ people were banned. Just like the phrase “Make America Great Again,” those students’ comments are statements of identity, claims about the past, and assertions about the future all rolled into one. I want the teachers I train to be prepared to encounter those statements, to unpack them, and to help students understand where those frames and phrases come from. In most cases, however, new teachers freeze. They pretend not to hear these comments because they don’t know what parents will say or whether principals will support their teachers. Educators will continue avoiding this content unless parents, community members, school boards, and administrators volubly and consistently insist that events nearer to the present be part of history curricula. 

So, ask a high schooler about history. Tell their teachers and principals that you want them to do the necessary and brave work of teaching the recent past. That won’t make the curriculum more political. Public schooling is always the product of politics. What it will do is make history class more relevant and more likely to prepare students for the political world they are already living in.