Until I read a story by Jill Lepore in the March 21, 2022 issues of The New Yorker, "The Parent Trap: How school fights, from evolution to anti-racism, pit parents against the state," I failed to understand some key points about the current controversy over teaching American history in public schools.
Quite a few conservative states are passing so-called parents-rights bills that allow parents more leeway than they've enjoyed before to complain about teaching regarding slavery, systemic racism, and such that goes against the grain of a view of American history that papers over these subjects in favor of a rosier picture of the values our country was founded on.
What Lepore does in her story is put this current debate into a broader context of how people have objected to other subjects taught in schools, notably evolution. She writes:
When anti-evolutionists condemned "evolution," they meant something as vague and confused as what people mean today, when they condemn "critical race theory."
Anti-evolutionists weren't simply objecting to Darwin, whose theory of evolution had been taught for more than half a century. They were objecting to the whole Progressive package, including its philosophy of human betterment, its model of democratic citizenship, and its insistence on the interest of the state in free and equal public education as a public good that prevails over the private interests of parents.
There is no such thing as the history of the United States. Rather, there are many histories, each with their own viewpoint. History always involves interpretation. But there are worse histories and better histories.
Lepore quotes a 1943 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a West Virginia law requiring schoolchildren to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance: "Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard."
Lepore adds a comment: "History isn't a pledge; it's an argument."
I really liked this passage from the story where Lepore argues that schools should teach not just white American history, or Black American history, but the history of all those who have made our country a wonderful admixture of nationalities and cultures.
A century ago, parents who objected to evolution were rejecting the entire Progressive package. Today's parents' rights groups, like Moms for Liberty, are objecting to a twenty-first-century Progressive package.
They're balking at compulsory vaccination and masking, and some of them do seem to want to destroy public education. They're also annoyed at the vein of high-handedness, moral crusading, and snobbery that stretches from old-fashioned Progressivism to the modern kind, laced with the same contempt for the rural poor and the devoutly religious.
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, Afghani, 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.