They’re changing the history books! They’re restricting books in the libraries! Trying to control the narrative! Distorting the facts!
Same as it ever was.
Historians are up in arms over a wave of current attempts to change what is conveyed as history. But before we get carried away by panic, alarm, and exclamation points, we should revisit the “history” of attempts to quash history. This has happened a lot. It might even be categorized as a “neverending story.”
The New Wave of Old Censorship
At the American Historical Association conference that I attended last week, there were a number of sessions devoted to considerations the wave of recent efforts to restrict how history is taught and ban books. Flyers were left on the chairs urging support for the wording of a resolution to be adopted by the powers-that-be. I’m not quite an academic, but the one thing I’ve learned is that academics are great at sitting in meetings and adopting resolutions.
I don’t suggest that this is merely an exercise or that an alarm need not sound. There is a new wave of censorship underway. It comes from two main sources, namely the same old bigots who spawn themselves under new names, like Moms for Liberty, along with political actors trying to give themselves a platform to run for office. Bigotry always seems to be driven by a small group of very loud bullies. The Washington Post ran an analysis in 2023 that showed that hundreds of the challenges in libraries were made by just 11 people. Many of these challenges were aimed at LGBTQ books, very very recently added to said libraries, but other challenges were for any book that suggested racism and sexism existed. It’s a new trend, to claim that others are haters because they don’t like your intolerance and bigotry.
Legislation seems to be concentrated in a few key locations. Texas and Florida are large states where governors have been driving forward legislation to change how history has been taught. Florida has passed a number of laws, first limiting education and books about LGBTQ people and, more recently, attempting to quash teaching about race and gender. The Stop WOKE Act, passed in 2022, prohibited teaching that individuals are responsible for other’s past actions based on race, sex, or national origin. The Act was found unconstitutional in its application to employers, and its higher education section is under injunction, although appeals will proceed. The governor behind the Florida laws just came in a distant second in the Republican Iowa caucuses, so it’s easy to see that these moves which purport to address education are really a move to prop up a political campaign. These are large states controlled by a couple of people with political agendas. This is not necessarily a trend; it’s also not new.
A Study in Contrasts
Book bans and the arguments over textbooks have their own long history. Megan Threlkeld, a professor at Denison University in Ohio, even teaches a class about the wars over U.S. history. She notes that students often aren’t even aware that textbooks have varied over time, let alone aware that they vary even now.
“You’re learning different versions of history depending on where you live. That’s bizarre”….“I always thought history was one singular story,…I didn’t realize it was so chaotic and messy.”Student comments on learning about different versions of history.
Here, for example, is a textbook currently in use in both Texas and California. Those who approved the state standards had different opinions about what words to include (courtesy of a New York Times 2020 analysis):
Step back only a few decades, and you wade deep into the “history wars.” Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and wife of a Vice President, ignited a culture war in 1994 by attacking the national history standards that had just been developed. Cheney objected to how the new version of U.S. history would paint a “grim and gloomy” portrait, instead of the shining city on the hill view, which glorified the Founding Fathers.
Step back further. In 1974, new textbooks for Kanawha County, West Virginia began, for the first time, to address the ideas of multiculturalism and social equality/social justice. Before they were implemented, a group of primarily Christian conservatives campaigned against the ideas of learning. They objected to children learning about Malcolm X, Allen Ginsberg, or the Oedipus complex. A successful large-scale boycott of the schools was called, but in addition, violence ensued: bombs were planted, an elementary school attacked with dynamite, school buses shot at, and rocks thrown at the homes of those who did not boycott. As one student put it, “They’re shooting at people because they don’t want to see violence in books.” But it is always a question of whose violence, isn’t it? Who gets to hold the gun, and who gets to control what is said about those who hold the guns?
Neither Winners Nor Losers Satisfied with the Story
America is not the only country wrestling with who and how stories are told. Japan has for decades struggled with the depiction of its imperial past and role in World War II. A complex group of textbook authors, government-sponsored ministries for education, and think-tank groups is still grappling with how to frame criticism of past administrations, describe invasions of other countries, and address war crimes, sex slavery, and other acts of aggression. How does any tribe depict its own shameful acts? As one of the educators told us in a session on how history can make people better citizens:
Everyone sees themselves as an amateur historian, by which they mean interested in where they came from. They are often appalled when historians tell them the full picture.Prof. Alan Taylor, University of Virginia
Narratives about U.S. history can’t avoid slavery, but what is said about its practice has always–especially in textbooks–been subject to word choice and interpretation. The view of the Civil War as a “lost cause” was a prominent narrative in textbooks until very recently, and it continues to be pushed in some places. May, in fact, never be abandoned. On the flip side, one of the most prominent recent biographies used in U. S. history classes is the story of Ona Judge, a slave who escaped from and was relentlessly pursued by George Washington.
Four Steps Forward, Two Steps Back
If we can take a really long view, we can celebrate how much we have moved forward in our willingness to tell a history with a fuller view of the truth. My history books from the 1970s didn’t address slavery in George Washington’s biography. I learned nothing about indigenous populations, and Christopher Columbus was a shining hero. Since then, textbooks have shifted significantly, and the fights rising again are about the matter of degree.
Only 200 years ago, a drop in the bucket in historical terms, a Scottish historian named Thomas Babbington Macaulay advanced what was then a pretty routine idea:
I have never found [an orientalist] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia….It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England.Minutes in Education on India, Macaulay, 1835.
I don’t care how much ground we’re giving up at the moment with the Stop WOKE Act and other monstrous attempts to curtail knowledge. We’re not going back that far.
The current retrenchment has the feeling of four steps forward, two steps back (three steps back for Florida). We have made progress towards embracing a diverse view of history, but people will keep trying. In Virginia just last year, the superintendent of public instruction tried to override a recommendation created from a consensus of Virginia educators.
Jillian Balow, appointed by a Republican governor, delayed implementation of new material created under a Democratic administration, claiming concern with spelling errors and omission of titles (e.g. James Madison as Father of the Constitution). Then, Balow proposed new standards that included calling indigenous North Americans “the first immigrants” among other things. The educators who had created the standards pushed back hard last February 2023, and, in March, Balow resigned. A revised version that took out the worst of the material was adopted in April 2023. Not everyone was happy. The law says that the standards are subject to review every seven years, so this is just a breather before the next round.
This constant game of Whac-a-mole is tiring. Someone updates a history, which chooses a new emphasis based on information newly discovered and differing cultural attitudes. Those who liked the old emphasis dig in and hold on for dear life. It is trying to put a genie back in a bottle.
To use another mundane example, the coach of my beloved local basketball team was speaking yesterday about playing against a team in Memphis on MLK Day. He talked about strong emotions when driving the team bus by the Lorraine motel where King was assassinated. He talked about the honor of being able to play on such a special day. This was basketball; this was an everyday conversation. To a degree, no one can even see that particular genie or bottle anymore.
Providing historical perspective is not about climbing a mountain only to be toppled from the summit. Instead, these are waves moving like a tide to a shore of human respect. The wave pulls back a bit, but then it goes on still further. MLK himself said that we should be aware of the tide when it begins to ebb, but that is not now. No need to panic, just time to adjust the sails a little, in the face of a blustery wind.