August 15, 2021
Yes, tell the truth about our failures, but also teach kids about our successes and the promise of American life, which is as radiant as ever.
School boards across the nation have learned firsthand the old saying: Never get between a mother bear and her cub. Or rather, never let a politicized curriculum come between a mom and her children.
The voices of angry parents at school-board meetings across the country are unmistakable signs of a crisis in American education. These concerned parents are waking up to the growing influence in our schools of destructive ideas, such as the demand that our young people learn to divide the world between oppressors and victims, rather than embracing the noble ideals of individual dignity, opportunity, and responsibility.
Parents are appalled by the reduction of American history to an endless exercise in identity politics and moral accusation. They fear that the study of the American past — rather than providing the young with a sense of something larger than themselves — has become something deeply negative: a way of separating us from our past and a weapon used to sow shame and resentment, and even hatred and despair, in the hearts of tomorrow’s citizens.
This is a recipe for disaster. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Good, honest curriculum is not only possible; it’s come to pass.
Yes, the proper study of American history should be truthful. But being truthful about America doesn’t just mean telling the truth about our failures. It also means telling the truth about our successes. It means telling the truth about the promise of American life, which is as radiant as ever.
Such a program of study should convey both the boldness of America’s founding and the immense challenge of fully realizing it. It should teach the young that the good things we enjoy required suffering and labor, the blood and sweat of those who came before. They deserve our gratitude. They deserve to be known by us.
It also should expand our hearts and minds, helping us imagine what it is like to live in a world very different from our own. It should deepen our sense of life’s moral complexity, as we wrestle with the fact that even our heroes have had terrible flaws. Above all else, it should shape young Americans into informed citizens, patriots who believe that an appreciation of the past can illuminate our path forward. The study of history should seek to draw us together in respectful unity, rather than harden our divisions into implacable enmity.
The great majority of teachers still seek to do these good things. Their task has become increasingly difficult, however, owing to the ill-considered directives coming down from their superiors, and the unbalanced textbooks and supplementary materials they are constrained to work with.
Fortunately, help is on the way, in the form of emerging curricular resources that will make their work both easier and more rewarding. And, because the need is so great, there’s little doubt many such efforts are in the making. May a thousand such flowers bloom! Indeed, several of these programs are available now or will be completed soon, and they deserve special attention. This month, Hillsdale College launched its ambitious 1776 Curriculum. The Hillsdale curriculum recognizes the American story as an ongoing quest to live up to the principles set forward in the Declaration of Independence. Rich with original documents and historic speeches, it guides students toward fundamental questions of what it means to live a good life and build a virtuous and flourishing society. Free to download, with materials for testing and student evaluation, it will be invaluable to teachers in all grades and settings, including homeschoolers.
Equally impressive, but with a different focus, is the curriculum developed by 1776 Unites, the creation of Robert L. Woodson Sr., the renowned African-American community activist. Disturbed by the ideological politicization of our study of the past, and especially by the damaging lessons that young people take away from it, Woodson has developed a downloadable high-school curriculum that highlights stories celebrating black achievement, rejecting victimhood culture, and showcasing black Americans who prospered by embracing the nation’s founding ideals.
Finally, there is the comprehensive curriculum being produced by American Achievement Testing, which has employed a team of distinguished historians to devise fresh and original materials based on the best historical scholarship. As with the other two curricula, AAT’s materials seek to find a balance between criticism and appreciation, while providing teachers with detailed instructional support for the presentation of complex historical concepts.
A good American-history curriculum will not seek to sanitize our nation’s story. But it will maintain a search for balance, for the whole truth about America, and a dedication to the needs of the next generation of citizens. Without a shared memory built upon a solid foundation of common knowledge, we will cease to be a country. We won’t be able to pass on the factual lessons to our children or continue the honorable and essential effort of realizing an ever-more perfect and self-governing union.
Thomas Jefferson warned many years ago that we cannot ignore the need for such education if we are to continue enjoying the blessings of liberty and self-government. The time for change is now, and thankfully, the tools are at hand. There are reasons to be hopeful.
Wilfred M. McClay is a professor at Hillsdale College and author of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. Kathleen O’Toole is assistant provost of K–12 education at Hillsdale College and a former K–12 headmaster.