Last year, former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon also called on right-wing Americans to capture schools. “The way to save the nation is very simple: it goes through the school boards,” Bannon proclaimed. But Bannon made no mention of God or religion; instead, he warned against critical race theory and the 1619 Project.
This is the biggest change in our school wars over the past two decades: they have become secular. The Conservatives have attacked public education since its inception. But they used to castigate the schools for eroding God and country, as they say. Now they are leaving God out of the equation, focusing their anger on how schools teach American history and identity. They have led campaigns to ban the teaching of critical race theory, lessons on gender norms, and anything that appears to threaten traditional conceptions of the nation.
It would be a healthy thing for our democracy if schools used this time to deliberate about our different visions of America. But the current GOP campaign aims to stifle that debate, not provoke it. Witness the avalanche of state measures banning instruction on “divisive issues,” especially race and gender. These laws seek to impose a singular narrative of the United States, because — unfortunately — we no longer have one in common.
And it’s new too. Previous conflicts over the story in schools were generally about who was part of the story, not its larger arc and purpose. Our textbooks portrayed America as a land of freedom and progress, but they denigrated — or, quite simply, excluded — women and racial minorities. These groups have therefore fought tooth and nail to win a role in the great national narrative.
But most of them have also resisted any questioning of this story, lest it diminish their own contribution to it.
In the 1920s, for example, immigrant groups joined forces with Protestant patriotic societies to block critical interpretations of the American Revolution. In the universities, a new generation of historians argued that the Revolution was not simply a game of morality between evil Redcoats and freedom-loving colonists. Some British statesmen supported American independence, many Americans rejected it, and the same nation based on freedom and equality continued to enslave millions of black people.
But if students encountered this complexity, Polish immigrants worried they might think less of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish nobleman who helped the American cause. Ethnic Germans feared that their own Revolutionary War heroes Baron DeKalb and Molly Pitcher (born, according to the Germans, Maria Ludwig) would not seem so heroic. African Americans rallied to defend Crispus Attucks, the first person to die during the Revolution. And American Jews wanted to protect the good name of Haym Salomon, the Philadelphia merchant who helped finance it.
The history curriculum sparked controversy in the civil rights era – when black protesters fought to remove racist defenses of slavery from schoolbooks – and in the 1990s, when a proposed set of standards of national history raised the hedgehogs of conservative luminaries like William Bennett and Lynne Cheney. But the standards, which gave renewed attention to women and racial minorities, fit right in with the traditional story of freedom and progress. “Can there be a more powerful, cohesive, democratic and inspiring grand narrative than the struggles of groups who have suffered discrimination?” asked the leaders of the standardization effort. Indeed, a teacher who helped write the standards added, Thomas Jefferson himself would have been proud of the project.
When the tension over the story erupted, in short, we brought new actors into the old story. But America’s battles over religion could not be settled in the same additive way, one by one. Either human beings evolved from apes or they didn’t; either Jesus was the Messiah or he was not. Most schools conducted prayers and scriptural readings from the Protestant Bible, sparking furious objections from Catholics and non-Christians alike. Others hosted “free time” classes, which theoretically left families the choice of their own denominational education.
Much of this activity ended in the early 1960s, when the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading. Conservative Christians have worked to hold them back, devising sports team prayers and other activities to “hack” religion (a soccer metaphor, of course) in schools.
But they were fighting a losing battle. Since 2000, church membership and attendance have fallen sharply. Meanwhile, Orthodox believers were increasingly abandoning public schools for Christian academies or simply teaching their children at home. Scattered communities are still struggling for religion, like the Washington state school district which said a football coach couldn’t pray on the field after games. (Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that it could.) Overall, however, the religious wars in our schools have cooled considerably.
Yet our battles over history now blaze like never before. Over the past two decades, historians and activists have raised new questions about America’s larger purpose and meaning. Instead of just bringing new actors into the same triumphant story, they asked if the story was a triumph – and for whom. It’s not just a question of what Jefferson would have liked. Rather, it’s about whether we should love Jefferson, a man who enslaved human beings and fathered children by one.
Such challenges have drawn a predictable outcry from Republicans, especially after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Claiming – wrongly – that Obama was born in another country, the Tea Party movement and others Conservatives rallied to defend “American exceptionalism” in schools. In practice, that often meant purging textbooks of material on slavery, Native American displacement, and anything else that seemed to put the nation in a negative light.
All these tensions exploded under the presidency of Donald Trump. The 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and the 2020 police killing of George Floyd — along with Trump’s own racist rhetoric — have sparked even more debate about the nation’s past. The 1619 Project was not simply a request to include minority voices in the American story of freedom and progress. Instead, as its name suggests, it rooted this narrative in slavery and oppression. Trump responded with his own 1776 flag-waving commission, which President Biden disbanded upon taking office.
But the struggle for history continues, not just in local debates at school board meetings — as Bannon urged — but in state houses. The new laws restricting instruction on race and gender in schools have all been sponsored by Republicans, who – rightly – feel the American history they grew up with is under scrutiny like never before.
And so was another story, that of religion and nation that liberals used to tell: as the country secularized, Americans would become more tolerant and united. But the opposite happened. We split into mutually hostile political camps, which became quasi-religions in their own right.
The real question is whether either team would be okay with their faith being criticized in the schools. How many Americans would agree to present documents from the 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission to our students, and let them decide which story they prefer? American history is far muddier than both sides will admit. It combines the lofty ideals that the right wants to put forward and the oppressive reality that the left insists on including. Good history teaching involves both perspectives and, most importantly, requires students to make sense of them. That doesn’t mean we should give “equal time” to Holocaust denial or other blatantly false claims. But we must recognize that equally reasonable people use the same facts to arrive at different points of view about our common past.
We cannot celebrate America for valuing individual freedom of thought and then telling each individual what to think. Healing our fractured nation will require allowing our future citizens to tell the story for themselves.
This essay is the first in the Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, providing historical context to the controversies surrounding free expression in education today.