Debunking the ‘True History’ Canard

Books piled up in a classroom for students taking AP African-American Studies at Overland High School on November 1, 2022 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/Denver Post/Getty Images)

In the latest battle in the K-12 education culture wars, over the College Board’s new AP African American Studies course, progressive activists and teachers union officials are furiously insisting that they’re merely defending “true history” against right-wing censors. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said Republicans “are trying to gag” teachers to stymie “honest history.” National Education Association president Becky Pringle argued that Republicans oppose “a full and honest curriculum.” The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin accused Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of mounting a “full-blown white supremacist” attack on “fact-based history.”  

Such talk can resonate with moderates, who tend to recoil from any intimation that they’re siding with racist, populist know-nothings. And, as someone who’s trained social studies teachers, penned books on social studies and civics education, and once taught high school history, I get it. That’s why I had my high schoolers read Marx, Lao-tse, and Frantz Fanon, as well as Adam Smith and the Federalist Papers. Students should encounter the fullness of history, with all its complications and in all its dimensions. 

But the supposed opposition to “fact-based history” 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. 

Mistaking academic fashion for history.

Take AP African American Studies, where critics raised concerns about such units as Intersectionality and Activism, Black Queer Studies, Post-Racial Racism and Colorblindness, Movement for Black Lives, and the Reparations Movement. Whatever one’s take on these esoteric schema, questioning their inclusion in a high school course is something quite different from opposing “fact-based history.” 

When the College Board issued a revised course framework in early February—the course is in its pilot phase–it sensibly pared back these units while augmenting the substantive history with new coverage of topics like Black Political Gains, Demographic and Religious Diversity in the Black Community, and Black Achievement in Science, Medicine and Technology. 

You might think “true history” activists would be just fine with such revisions. Yet the Human Rights Campaign raged at the exclusion of the “names of many black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory.” Whereas progressives had previously deemed concerns about the inclusion of ideological agendas a dishonest dog whistle, they now essentially conceded, “Exposing high schoolers to that stuff was what we meant by ‘true history’!”

‘True history’ frequently isn’t. 

The attempts to repackage high academic fashion as factual history are bad enough, but worse is that advocates give the impression that they just don’t care that much about factual accuracy, at least when it doesn’t comport with their larger agenda.

Perhaps the nation’s most prominent “anti-racist” scholar is Ibram X. Kendi, the MacArthur Genius award winner and bestselling author of How to Be an Anti-Racist. In his September 2020 cover story for The Atlantic, he wrote, “The motto of the United States is E pluribus unum—‘Out of many, one.’ The ‘one’ is the president.” It’s kind of remarkable: This staggeringly influential historian managed to get two historical facts wrong in the space of 19 words. The national motto has in fact been “In God we trust” since 1956. More notably, the “one” of “E pluribus unum” is not the president but the union of 13 colonies. 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.

Then there’s the New York Times’ celebrated, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which originally explained that its aim was to displace the “mythology” of 1776 “to reframe the country’s history” and posit the 1619 arrival of slave ships “as our true founding.” (Along with a slew of other stealth edits, this passage was quietly scrubbed from The New York Times‘ website in 2020.) The exercise was rife with inaccuracies, including the startling assertion that the American colonies revolted against Great Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue” (rousing even the fustiest of scholars to collectively bark, “What?!”). As five eminent historians wrote to the Times, “If supportable, the allegation would be astounding—yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.” The project also attributed modern accounting practices to antebellum slavery—although such practices actually date back to Italian banking of the late Middle Ages. The whole thing was too much even for the World Socialist Web Site, which concluded that the exercise was “a politically motivated falsification of history.”

More mundane are the Rhode Island Department of Education’s recently adopted social study standards. The standards require that students examine “historical events through the lenses of identity, power, and resistance” and explore “ways that young students can advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights” but, meanwhile, get basic things wrong. They require students to learn about events in the Persian Empire between 700 A.D. and 1200 A.D. The Persian Empire is usually dated from 559 B.C. to 331 B.C., which means Rhode Island missed by more than 1,000 years. The standards confuse the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. They place the Bolshevik Revolution,which started in 1917, before World War I, which started in 1914. Rhode Island’s social studies standards are fairly typical; similar concerns have been raised elsewhere

During the pandemic, ideologues on the San Francisco school committee moved to rename the city’s schools. rather than reopen them. But  the history undergirding the move to memory-hole such “problematic” names as Abraham Lincoln and Dianne Feinstein was often slapdash and, well, untrue. The board moved to strip James Russell Lowell’s name after a board member said Lowell, a 19th-century New England poet, didn’t want black people to vote. (A scholarly biography says otherwise.) The board went after Paul Revere based on a citation taken from a History Channel Top 10 list, which mistook his role in the Revolutionary War’s “Penobscot Expedition” for atrocities committed against the Penobscot Indians. In the midst of this, the school committee chair offered a pretty good summation for how the “true history” crowd approaches history. Dismissing the need to consult historians when evaluating historical figures, he asked:

What would be the point? History is written and documented pretty well across the board. And so, we don’t need to belabor history in that regard. We’re not debating that. There’s no point in debating history in that regard. Either it happened or it didn’t. … And so, based on our criteria, it’s a very straightforward conversation.

What leaps out is the naked contempt for the complexities or stuff of history, and the urge to just get on with the business of making judgments about it.

Sins of omission.

No history can include everything. That’s a given. But those who claim to embrace “true history” are quite selective, and we can learn a great deal by what they choose to omit.

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. 

While the initial framework for the AP African American Studies course featured pioneering academic writers on critical theory, queerness, and reparations, for instance, it could find no room for figures like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Thomas Sowell, or other black dissenters from progressive doctrine. One couldn’t help but recall how, when the Smithsonian African American History and Culture museum opened in 2016, there was no mention or display of Clarence Thomas—arguably the second-most significant black jurist in American history. 

Distinguishing factually suspect polemics from ‘true history.’

While America’s ailments and failings are part of the truth, they’re not the whole truth. And there’s broad agreement on the need to teach robust, inclusive, honest history. But while there’s copious common ground to be found in this debate, the “true history” aficionados seem determined not to find it.

The lion’s share of Americans think schools should teach about racism and slavery. Among both Republicans and Democrats, more than 4 out of 5 adults agree that social studies textbooks should delve into the slave ownership of many Founding Fathers, the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, and the federal government’s maltreatment of Native Americans. Seventy-four percent of white Americans and 75 percent of black Americans think students should learn “that the dispute over slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War.”

This winter, More in Common reported that more than 90 percent of Republicans say that Americans have a responsibility to learn from the mistakes of our past and more than 70 percent of Republicans think schools should teach the specific history of black, Hispanic, and Native Americans alongside our shared national history. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of Democrats say that all students should learn how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution advanced freedom and equality, and more than 80 percent that students should not be made to feel guilty or personally responsible for the errors of prior generations.

The potential for constructive agreement is why it’s disingenuous and so destructive when AFT’s Weingarten says, “While some are banning AP African American Studies, we’re working to help ensure that students have access to stories about people like Rosa Parks.” Of course, kids need to learn about Rosa Parks. Florida’s Stop WOKE law specifically stipulates that students study “the civil rights movement” and “the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping.” The debate isn’t about whether to teach what happened in Montgomery, Selma, or Birmingham.

While progressive ideologues might wish to have high schoolers read critical race theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Kendi, the “truth” is that their works aren’t designed to introduce K-12 students to history. Rather, they’re better understood as sophisticated arguments about history. (Indeed, the 1619 Project won its award for commentary, not history). The proper place for these interpretive polemics is higher education, after students have been given enough grounding in the actual stuff of history that they can assess the claims for themselves. These just aren’t particularly useful resources for students who are first encountering this history … unless the point is to stamp upon them a particular way to think about it.

But one gets the idea that this is very much the point. After all, Kendi wrote Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. His oft-stated aim is to convince students that they’re racist members of a racist nation. And that’s the “true history” lens through which so many in the progressive camp today view studying the subject. 

I’ll defend the right of the Crenshaws and Kendis to make their case in their bestselling books, big-dollar speeches, and college classes. But, when it comes to the efforts to repackage their factually suspect polemics as the stuff of “true history” in America’s schools—well, that’s another thing entirely. And people of goodwill, left and right, should be unafraid to say so.

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