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The Battle for History Education

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Someday, we are going to look back and realize that the early 21st century was both the period when universities stopped hiring history professors and the period where people were literally dying in the streets over interpretations of the past (Charlottesville, specifically). The interpretation of history is a literal battleground that places a huge role in our politics. Other than the battle for Confederate monuments, nowhere is this stronger than in K-12 history standards. See North Carolina.

North Carolina’s state school board on Thursday approved new standards requiring social studies teachers to discuss racism, while some board members slammed the move as “anti-American” in one of many fights playing out across the country about how schools teach history.

The state Board of Education voted 7 to 5 to pass the standards for K-12 schools after months of negotiations over the framing of the policy meant to promote a more inclusive curriculum that acknowledges the experiences of marginalized students.

“History is the study of change,” board member Donna Tipton-Rogers said Wednesday at a meeting. “And by adopting these new social studies standards, we are embracing the essence of what makes the study of history useful and our nation great.”

Several members of the school board have criticized those guidelines as falling within an “anti-democratic” and “anti-capitalist” framework that overemphasizes the nation’s sins in comparison to its victories. Board member Todd Chasteen said lessons about discrimination against minorities should be accompanied by discussions of the dangers of “destructive” forms of government, including fascism and communism.

“Discrimination and oppression must be covered, and it will be,” he said at the meeting. “Yet the last thing I want to do is mislead students to think the U.S. is hopelessly bigoted, irredeemable and much worse than most nations — unless that were true, but I don’t believe it is.”

The last round of controversy over the guidelines centered on a debate about whether they should refer to “gender identity” and call racism and discrimination “systemic.” After officials removed the words “systemic” and “gender,” two board members on Thursday advocated unsuccessfully for restoring them.

Under the new standards, set to take effect in the fall, students will learn about how people have “demonstrated resistance and resilience to inequities, injustice, and discrimination” in the United States and compare competing historical narratives in the context of how they depict different racial groups, women and others.

The study of history is so politically charged because it consists of stories we tell ourselves about today. There are many ways to interpret the past. To admit that racism is systemic or that gender matters in the past means that racism is systemic today and gender matters in the present. And that’s a nation conservatives don’t want.

In conclusion, I await all the retirements in my department over the next decades creating opportunity for Supply Chain Management to hire more faculty to train students how to exploit Bangladeshis for profit.

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