‘History as doctrine is always dangerous’

At times disagree with Jill Lepore because she makes conclusions with the finality of a file snapping shut. This tendency is of course ideal for a writer working on a textbook. Writing for The New Yorker article is to my eyes unassailable: a history of American resentment of public education stretching back to the Scopes trial and the beginning of the twentieth century. A rebuke to market forces, public education puts the rich family and the farmer’s children side by side—theoretically. Local and state boards may set curricula, but the intention is for the young to absorb a consensus-approved range of subjects which collectively tell a story about how we want our children to become adults. From the levels of algebra offered in ninth grade and the Willa Cather and Toni Morrison novels taught in English class to the national myths we tell ourselves, the curriculum and the pedagogy around which it coheres molds a citizenry.

Well, this, as Lepore notes, is precisely the problem. Americans keep their children out of public schools because they don’t believe in a community of interests. This is never said aloud. Americans put their children in charter and private schools, many say, because they prefer, to use the vaporous catch-all term, their “quality.”

I believe them. Liberals and conservatives alike aver it: a bipartisan phenomenon at last! What they will not admit is how “quality” comprises exclusion as much as it does the availability of gifted programs: what kind of child will the school keep away from their children? The obsession with ensuring their child attends a place whose screening processes match the parents’ suppressed prejudices even blinds them from noticing the excellence of the public elementary and secondary schools in their own neighborhoods, for ever since the little known and quietly disastrous Supreme Court decision San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez,funding for public education has relied on local property taxes; the higher the value of your home, the higher the property tax assessed, hence the more money goes to neighborhood schools. Education, the majority wrote, is not an inherent right.

A historian who framed her book These Truths (2018) on Jeffersonian ideals from which our legislatures, courts, and presidents (starting with Jefferson) recoiled, Lepore will haven one of that malarkey. She writes:

But across the past century, behind parents’ rights, lies another unbroken strain: some Americans’ fierce resistance to the truth that, just as all human beings share common ancestors biologically, all Americans have common ancestors historically. A few parents around the country may not like their children learning that they belong to a much bigger family—whether it’s a human family or an American family—but the idea of public education is dedicated to the cultivation of that bigger sense of covenant, toleration, and obligation. In the end, no matter what advocates of parents’ rights say, and however much political power they might gain, public schools don’t have a choice; they’ve got to teach, as American history, the history not only of the enslaved Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 and the English families who sailed to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620, but also that of the Algonquian peoples, who were already present in both places, alongside the ongoing stories of all other Indigenous peoples, and those who came afterward—the Dutch, German, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Cambodian, Guatemalan, Japanese, Sikh, Hmong, Tunisian, Afghan, everyone. That’s why parents don’t have a right to choose the version of American history they like best, a story of only their own family’s origins. Instead, the state has an obligation to welcome children into that entire history, their entire inheritance.

The boogieman called Critical Race Theory™ is the conservative attempt to shrivel the notion of public education. It isn’t that American can never be wrong; it’s that white straight America should never have to apologize. “Parental rights” for the sake of keeping “indoctrination” out of schools doesn’t come with human-sized mirrors; when I’ve confronted parental rights supporters with the line, “Well, good, no indoctrination of heterosexual marriage and heterosexual reproduction then!”—well, I react to the horror on their dear little faces as I would to a gin and tonic on a July afternoon.

To be a minority is to watch your back for the blade your relatives and neighbors were kind enough not to think you, personally, deserved it.

One thought on “‘History as doctrine is always dangerous’

  1. I’m 61 years old & I WAS taught about the Native Americans who were already here (particularly the Iroquois, since I grew up in NY) & the Africans who were brought here in 1619 & not only the Puritans but also the Englishmen who came here before them & settled (or tried to settle) Virginia AND the French, the Spanish & the Dutch, not to mention the Vikings, who all came to the New World & made their mark. WHY IS THIS SUCH A PROBLEM TO TEACH IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY?

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