Amid the national frenzy—one can hardly call it a debate—in the United States over Critical Race Theory, detailed descriptions of how course curricula are actually changing have been curiously absent. My own experience teaching US history at elite private schools suggests that the growing ascendancy of progressive orthodoxy at such institutions has made a substantial impact. The results—which do not necessarily resemble the extremes that right-wing commentators like to brandish—are complicated, and they are worth examining in depth because these schools are so influential.
When I first taught high school US history, about a decade ago, my colleagues and I started our class in 1607 and continued up to the Reagan presidency. This survey approach to understanding the American past is fast fading. Today’s students seem to have diminished capacity for reading, or maybe schools are less comfortable pushing them to cover as much ground as they used to. Admittedly, without careful planning, the old approach could become a marathon—relentlessly paced, with few opportunities to discuss how the history might pertain to the present. There are good reasons to rearrange the curriculum to permit more in-depth study of fewer topics, but the challenge is to develop a sensible rationale around which to organise the changes.
Many US history teachers now begin their courses with the Revolutionary War era, and with an analysis of the Declaration of Independence in particular. Since the country’s founding document states the ideals of the new republic, it provides a standard against which many subsequent events can be measured, including the drafting of the Constitution. This starting point provides thematic coherence, allowing the teacher to structure the rest of the course around events relevant to the development of freedom, democracy and liberty in the United States.
These revisions risk making the course more topical, particularly if the teacher simply defines the founding principles according to contemporary understandings, rather than investigating with students how popular conceptions of them have evolved. In my experience, this focus tends to make US history more immediately appealing to students interested in social justice—but it may also inadvertently suggest that history’s primary purpose is to serve contemporary political interests and arguments. It becomes harder to engage students in history for its own sake—to acquire the fascination with people who acted out of their own—often completely unfamiliar—interests that is so vital to developing empathy.
Given contemporary concern over American racism, it is not surprising that the topic increasingly occupies the foreground in revised US history courses. The Reconstruction and Jim Crow periods are now studied much more vigorously than they were in the late twentieth century, as they should be. As twentieth-century episodes of racial violence such as the Tulsa Race Massacre receive more attention, I suspect that this trend will grow. While greater emphasis on the development of American racial culture and structural racism is a vital alteration to these classes, it can be pursued to a point at which it becomes myopic. Some revised curricula contain such a pervasive focus on racial issues in US history that they leave little or no room to examine other aspects of American inequality, crowding out, for example, examination of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era except as they pertain to race. Other themes traditionally considered central to the US history curriculum—including religion, economic development and foreign policy—are downplayed or considered only through a racial lens.
The crisp logic of beginning in 1776 also leaves out the entire colonial period, which is no doubt a relief to many teachers who are happy to avoid shepherding students through texts written in old-fashioned English. Without imaginative teaching, it can be difficult to make colonial figures, such as the stiffly moralistic Puritans or the foolhardy aristocrats who settled Jamestown, relatable for teenagers.
Nonetheless, the colonial period is the crucible of American culture. Students can only fully understand the dispossession of indigenous Americans from their lands and the emergence of slavery as a critical feature of the US economy, and hence of its culture, if courses retain some element of colonial history. Excising this period from classes ostensibly redesigned to facilitate more in-depth study of racial inequality is deeply ironic.
Luckily, classes do not need to go back to reviewing the entire colonial era in depth. A brief but intensive foray into the late seventeenth century—an era vital to the development of American race relations—is sufficient. At the same time that the British crown’s policy of benign neglect towards the colonies’ nascent republican institutions allowed them to thrive, two events in that period—King Philip’s War and Bacon’s Rebellion—set the colonies firmly on a path towards racial democracy, rather than a truly pluralistic society. All Americans, not only students, would benefit from learning about them.
The first conflict, King Philip’s War (1675–78), marked the last real threat to permanent European settlement on the East Coast. The two societies at war, indigenous and Puritan, had coexisted since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, but cultural misunderstandings and the unrelenting English appetite for land poisoned the relationship. The Wampanoag sachem, Metacomet, also known as King Philip, led an alliance of tribes to push the English out of New England. Though the uprising came surprisingly close to success, its eventual defeat, along with the death and dispersal of much of the southern New England tribal population, secured the supremacy of the still young colonies and ensured the continued marginalisation of the native population.
Meanwhile, five hundred miles to the south, Bacon’s Rebellion (1675–76) catalysed the development of Virginia as a slave society. Nathaniel Bacon, an iconoclastic member of the Virginia elite, made common cause with poor Virginians who resented Governor William Berkeley’s corruption and, in particular, his resistance to sanctioning their settlement of the frontier. Many of Bacon’s supporters were former indentured servants who did not share the governor’s reluctance to stir up conflict with their indigenous neighbours. Bacon, whose forces included blacks as well as whites, ran Berkeley out of Jamestown, but the rebellion was put down after he unexpectedly died of dysentery. The potential power of disgruntled and landless former indentured servants nonetheless made a deep impression on the Virginian elite. In the rebellion’s aftermath, plantation owners gradually supplanted the colony’s reliance on indentured servitude with a greater reliance on slavery—a change also encouraged by the declining cost of slaves. By 1705, Virginia’s House of Burgesses had passed the Virginia Slave Codes, institutionalising and extending the scattered legislation on slavery that already existed. This was the critical moment, according to historian Eric Foner’s account in his excellent textbook Give Me Liberty!, that “embedded the principle of white supremacy in the law.”
Together, these two events go a long way to explaining the development of American racial democracy. Racism in the United States was not something preordained; it does not, as Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in The 1619 Project, “run in the very DNA of this country”; rather, it developed within a social and economic context that, while similar to that of other Atlantic societies, contained specifically American elements.
Students should not learn about racial democracy only in the context of the drafting of the Constitution, or of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy, by which time it was fully formed. To learn why white male identity became the defining qualifier (along with property ownership) for participation in politics across much of early American society, it is as vital to study the roots of this phenomenon as its later manifestations. Otherwise, students will learn that American racism is fixed—its origins obscure and its status unchanging. This can only contribute to racial pessimism and the conclusion that the pursuit of equality under our current political framework is a fool’s errand.
The pruning and reorganisation of US history curricula makes the story these courses tell to young Americans more germane to contemporary debates, if more selective in its focus. The revisions taking place—and not only at elite schools—provide students with a fuller account of the racism and discrimination that was embedded in the Constitution and that continues to plague US society, albeit in evolving ways. However, teachers need to weigh their modifications carefully to avoid cultivating new blind spots by leaving out consideration of other inequalities and historical themes that are no less essential to the American story. The future surely holds many crises of diverse origin in store; equipping younger generations with a deep but narrow knowledge of US history prepares them poorly to surmount these challenges.