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A truly ‘patriotic education’ requires critical analysis of US history

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As Republicans continue their attacks on the teaching of “divisive concepts,” they have trained their sights on timeworn targets: universities, professors and schools of education.

Consider Republican Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, whose campaign website describes a vicious cycle in which people on the left “take hundreds of billions of American tax dollars and send it to universities” that propagate the supposed central tenet of critical race theory: that “America is an evil, racist nation.” According to Vance, “Those universities then train teachers who bring that indoctrination into our elementary and high schools.”

Since critical race theory is far more nuanced and has far less influence on the nation’s decentralized K–12 curricula than Vance suggests, Americans could simply ignore the right’s attempt to capitalize on voters’ anxieties about their children’s education. But to ignore the charge means missing an opportunity.

The need to cultivate teachers and students who are brave — and patriotic — enough to think critically about the nation’s past could not be more urgent. Without independent thinkers who care enough about the nation’s well-being to wrestle with, rather than retreat from, its complex history, the country is ill-prepared to tackle current and future challenges. A society, after all, can’t solve problems whose existence it refuses to acknowledge. 

That’s why Americans must reclaim patriotic education from the right. Universities have a key role to play here. Universities can train teachers who are uniquely positioned to do exactly what Republicans say they want to do: develop patriotic citizens. I know, because it’s how I and countless other professors teach.

I’m a historian whose published work explores how school policies institutionalized white supremacy. Vance probably had people like me in mind when he recently celebrated Richard Nixon’s proclamation that “the professors are the enemy.” He and other Republicans might also shudder to learn that my colleagues and I teach a course on the History of American Education to more than 200 students each year, a significant portion of whom are future teachers. In fact, unlike many teacher certification programs, my university requires prospective teachers to take our course or another like it.

On the first day of class, I clarify that history is not simply what happened in the past; it is a debate about how and why events unfolded in the ways that they did and the consequences of those events. Specifically, I emphasize that history involves the interpretation of the past based upon factual evidence.

I discourage students from relying strictly on my lectures as the source for their evidence-based interpretations of the past. Instead, I ask them to weigh the interpretations they encounter in lectures and assigned readings alongside firsthand accounts from educators, reformers, parents and students.

Throughout the semester, students grapple with the educational visions of luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, Frederick Douglass, and John Dewey. They also encounter the educational aspirations of lesser-known figures such as Priscilla Mason, who chastised “despotic man” for denying equal opportunity to women in her 1793 graduation speech at the Young Ladies Academy of Philadelphia; Peter Pitchlynn, the inaugural superintendent of the public school system that the Choctaw Nation established in 1842; and Septima Clark, a Black public school teacher and activist from South Carolina who profoundly influenced the Civil Rights Movement.

This past semester, students analyzed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s (R) executive order barring school districts from requiring masks. They also examined Black students’ accounts of the expanding police presence in desegregating schools.

When students consider these sources, I encourage them to pay as much attention to the questions that they raise as they do to the answers they appear to provide.

The best classes end with more questions than answers: When does governmental power over education preserve liberty, and when does it suppress liberty? Why have some emphasized the university’s responsibility to prepare students for jobs, while others, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, emphasized its capacity “to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life?” What is the purpose of education, and how can people in a democratic society determine the ends it should serve as well as the means for achieving those ends? 

Do I put my fingers on the scale? Absolutely. I make sure students know that the Civil War was about slavery, that the land the United States seized from Indigenous people provided the financial basis for state school funds and that state-sponsored segregation and exclusion undermined educational opportunity in the South, North, and West. 

I have no interest in indoctrinating students. I instead want to provide them with a factual basis for interpreting what diverse Americans wanted from education at different moments in time, who got what they wanted, who didn’t and why. 

Republicans such as Vance want professors and K–12 teachers to provide “honest, patriotic accounts of American history.” In the spirit of Mason, Dewey and Clark, who valued independent thought and the critical appraisal of the relationship between the nation’s practices and professed values, I aim to do just that. I hope my students go on to teach a similarly honest and patriotic version of American history in their K–12 classrooms. 

Throughout history, totalitarian regimes have provided chilling evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s contention that “those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” Their reliance on censorship and disinformation has also affirmed Jefferson’s assertion that “the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.” 

Unfortunately, Republicans who oppose the teaching of “divisive concepts” have little interest in illuminating minds. They want, in Vance’s own words, “to force” schools to provide uncritical exaltations of the nation’s past. 

Such an approach is neither honest nor patriotic. It is authoritarian, and it would prepare students to follow rather than lead, to obey rather than think for themselves and to ignore all that might make America great.

Walter C. Stern is an assistant professor of educational policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of “Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City, 1764–1960.”

Tags Academic disciplines Critical race theory Education in the United States Educational psychology Ron DeSantis

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