What should Americans know about their country’s history? Which stories should be taught in the classroom, which ones should be omitted and who decides? Such questions inform recent education bills such as Louisiana’s HB564 and Iowa’s HF802, which prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts” and are just two of the latest participants in an often controversial dialogue dating back to foundation of the Republic itself. But while there has been a constant stream of opinion from politicians, pundits and professors on where to find the “historical truth,” it has always been difficult to know exactly how the American public would answer these questions.
Our recent national survey of people’s understanding and uses of the past, the full results of which will be published this summer, gives a voice to the unheard masses. A collaboration between the American Historical Association and Fairleigh Dickinson University, and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the survey of 1,816 Americans reveals the tensions of a nation torn apart by racist violence and political anxieties. However, those same results are grounds for optimism, revealing commonality and paths to follow for a divided nation.
The survey data suggests that the divisions are real when it comes to how we think about our collective past. For example, 69% of respondents self-identify as Democrats that women generally receive too little historical attention, while less than half that number (34%) of Republicans agree. This trend continues for other groups: racial and ethnic minorities, as well as the LGBTQ community, are seen by Democrats as shortened by historians, by a margin of two or even three to one, relative to the views of their Republican counterparts. Meanwhile, Republicans are up to twice as likely as Democrats to say that religious groups, founding fathers, and the military receive inadequate historical consideration. Most surprisingly, 84% of Republicans believe history should celebrate our nation’s past, while 70% of Democrats think history should question it.
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Nor are divisions simply a matter of political affiliation. White respondents are more than twice as likely as people of color to believe that the stories of racial and ethnic minorities receive too much attention. Those with a college degree see men dominate the thoughts of historians nearly twice as much as those of undergraduate respondents. Likewise, age is a factor, with people in the 18-29 age group requiring more attention to LGBTQ history by a 19-point margin, compared to those in the 50-64 age group. The “wars of history” are thus polarizing beyond the party affiliations within which they are typically framed.
However, if the divisions of the survey results are evident, so are the points in common. When asked whether it was acceptable to make students uncomfortable by teaching the harm some people did to others, more than three-quarters of respondents said it was. This breakdown remained largely by age group, university education, gender or geographic location. Similarities have remained stable in political affiliation as well, with 78% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans advocating the opportunity to deal with painful history. (The only outlier here was among Hispanic respondents, where only 58 percent, though still a clear majority, defended themselves by making history students uncomfortable.)
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Perhaps most importantly, our findings offer a possible path out of historical wars by shifting focus from what it is taught in sets of facts How they are taught. To be clear: We strongly support the teaching of peoples’ stories and events that have been omitted from traditional narratives. But we also recognize the impossibility of covering everything and everyone in the past, especially given the conflicting points of view expressed above.
As things stand, two-thirds of our respondents believe the “story” is primarily just a set of facts. Additionally, our interviewees expressed contempt for the fact-centered approach most of them encountered in high school and continued, albeit to a lesser extent, in college. But, although facts form the basis of historical investigation, they are just that: a means to various ends, as opposed to ends themselves. Unsurprisingly, with a staggering ratio of over seven to one, respondents reported a greater interest in the history of learning as a form of inquiry than mastering factual content.
Such inquiry-based pedagogies have been advocated (albeit erratically adopted) for years, with the American Historical Association, selected school curricula, and individual teaching mavericks taking prominent roles in curriculum change. But our investigation indicates that the predominant modes of teaching, not to mention the content, remain in step with the methods that drive students to want to learn more about the past.
History education, like politics, shouldn’t work on the basis of polls. Yet it is worth considering the extent to which Americans are demanding evidence-based techniques that embrace the ambiguities of the past and challenge their understanding of history itself. More than any educational policy based on favoring a particular narrative or point of view, such a realignment has the potential to make the past more accessible and applicable – and more unifying for the American public.
Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present
Pete Burkholder is a professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, NJ. He is a member of the national advisory board of the Society for History Education and of the editorial board of The teaching professor.
Dana Schaffer is deputy director of the American Historical Association. He has overseen numerous public history projects and conferences, is also a member of the board and is chair of the advisory board of National History Day.