The Continuous Role of History in America’s Classroom

Ava Steinberger, Staff Writer

During the recent gubernatorial election in Virginia, many voters expressed concern about Critical Race Theory and whether it was being taught in local schools. Critical Race Theory is the idea that racism is embedded in America’s political and economic institutions and structures. It is studied mostly in universities, but some of the ideas have supposedly filtered down to the kindergarten through 12th grade level, which created the uproar in Virginia. The backlash over Critical Race Theory ties in with the controversy over The 1619 Project, which argues that the real date of America’s founding was not in 1776, but rather in 1619, when the first slaves arrived in Virginia. 

Critical Race Theory and The 1619 Project have sparked a broader debate about how history should be taught in America’s classrooms. Is the point to make kids feel a sense of patriotism, or is it to tell them the truth about the country’s past: the good, the bad, and the ugly?

Donald Morton, who teaches 10th grade American History at Friends, believes that the answer is neither. A history teacher’s role is not necessarily to promote patriotism; there are things about our country’s past that we should be proud of, and there are also things that should trouble us. “You cannot really measure patriotism,” Morton says. “It is so subjective, and what we think about it is irrelevant. The point of teaching history is to get across to students that life, in the context of history, is not random or sporadic. Rather, it is a cohesive narrative. My purpose is to show students that they are part of this larger American narrative and also have them see where they place themselves within that narrative.” 

Scott Clothier, who also teaches 10th grade history at Friends, emphasizes the idea of history as a narrative, as well. But he says that history is not written in ink: the narrative is always incomplete, and our understanding of the past is constantly evolving. Clothier remarks that the goal of anyone who teaches American history should be to “broaden the incomplete narrative”—to give students a deeper understanding of America’s history while also helping them understand that our knowledge of the past is constantly changing. 

But, there is also another argument to be made: that our willingness to face up to the less attractive parts of the past can make us feel an even stronger sense of patriotism. Many countries try to bury or disown elements of the past. A willingness to face up to the truth, no matter how painful that may be, can itself be a source of pride. Writing in Time magazine a few months ago, the American political commentator David French said, “So teach it all. Good and bad. Ugly and beautiful….History lessons should not be designed to create patriots. They should be designed to educate citizens—secure in the knowledge that well-educated citizens are most apt to learn to love their country well.”