Education

The Culture Wars Come for the American Historical Association

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Today’s historians prize emotion over evidence and fiction over fact.

On June 16, I received an email from the American Historical Association (AHA), of which I am a member, trumpeting its “firm opposition” to anti–critical race theory legislation nationwide. Amid our culture of near-omnipresent virtue signaling, wherein businesses and organizations rush to embrace the woke cause du jour, I could have been forgiven for paying this instance no mind.

It turned out to be worth a closer look. The message noted that the AHA had authored a statement, joined by the American Association of University Professors, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and PEN America, bemoaning “Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History.” It has since been co-signed by 130 organizations and counting, many of which represent institutions of higher education.

The statement is a tour de force in presenting both disingenuous arguments and fake narratives.

These bills, the statement reads, intend “to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States.” If that were the aim of the legislation, we all should share their outrage.

Yet state governments are not trying to expunge racism from history textbooks. Consider the bill that was recently proposed in Texas. At no point does it mandate that public schools drop the history of racism in America from their curricula. Any class on American history worth taking can and should cover the transatlantic slave trade, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow, as well as emancipation and the civil-rights movement. Slavery and racism are indelible sins of our country’s past. On that you’ll find universal agreement, within the AHA and any other educational organization.

The trouble is that the torrent of critical race theory being foisted on schoolchildren goes far beyond giving them proper history lessons. It indoctrinates them in the notion that invisible systems of racial oppression infuse all parts of American life whereby a nebulous group of those deemed white subjugates a nebulous group of those deemed nonwhite. Take it from a mother in Virginia who survived Maoist China: Critical race theory, she says, is “the American version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.” Rather than conduct an empirical examination of inequality of outcome, critical race theory dishonestly attributes all racial disparities to racial discrimination.

The Texas bill is a remedy to the madness. It isn’t “watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts,’” as the statement charges. Instead it rightly prevents schools from teaching students that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” and that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex,” among other abhorrent ideas. Does the AHA want our kids to be taught as much?

The statement also contends that state governments are “hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking” by transferring “responsibility for the evaluation of a curriculum and subject matter from educators to elected officials.” In other words: Let an unelected coterie of activists decide what schoolchildren should learn, not those accountable to voters. Should the American people, 58 percent of whom have an unfavorable view of critical race theory, according to a recent Economist/YouGov poll, want this stuff in public schools, then they can remove officials who want it out.

The statement’s rank virtue signaling won’t shock those of us familiar with the historical profession. A 2016 study by Econ Journal Watch found that among history professors at U.S. universities, Democrats outnumber Republicans 33.5 to 1 — the most skewed ratio of any field in the study. It must have made sense to the AHA, virtually all of whose members are left-of-center, to issue the statement at a time when silence is violence.

As Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal has noted, the state bans are a reaction to an educational diktat that race be the central topic of class discussions. Scholars of American history know that you cannot study it without studying racial prejudice. But to say it is the defining feature of America is profoundly ahistorical.

A few historians have been brave enough to challenge the discipline’s ever-growing wokeness. Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Sean Wilentz, and others have called out the 1619 Project’s Nikole Hannah-Jones for factual errors. Sadly they’re a dying breed. If the AHA’s statement is any indication, historians today prize emotion over evidence and fiction over fact.

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