- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 8, 2022

Most Republicans and Democrats agree on basic principles for teaching about race and racism in history classes, even as they misjudged each other’s views, according to a recent survey.

Democrats underestimated Republicans’ commitment to teaching the history of racial injustices and affirming the experiences of minority groups. Republicans underestimated Democrats’ commitment to teaching about the country’s successes and to teaching history as a story of progress, said Dan Vallone, U.S. director of More in Common, a social and civic research nonprofit that released the report.

“Our research suggests that one of the drivers of distrust is the misperceptions all Americans hold in terms of how they think others want to teach history,” Mr. Vallone, U.S. director of More in Common, told The Washington Times.

“It’s likely that if Americans were aware of how much common ground there is about how to teach history, which our report shows clearly exists, they would have higher trust levels in general,” he said.

Established to produce research identifying common ground on hot-button issues, More in Common administered three surveys to 5,500 people between May 12 and Sept. 1. The report, titled “Defusing the History Wars,” includes responses from in-depth interviews with nine respondents and an online focus group.

About 30% of Democrats said they think Republicans want to teach both a shared national history and the group histories of Black, Hispanic and American Indians. In reality, 72% of Republicans said those histories should be taught.

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About 45% of Republicans said they think Democrats want students to learn about the role of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in advancing freedom and equality. But 92% of Democrats said they believe students should learn that.

Most Americans say public schools are not teaching U.S. history fairly and are engaging in partisan “history wars” over racial issues, the report found.

Only 41% of adults who completed surveys agreed with the statement that “most public schools in America are doing their best to teach American history accurately, without an agenda or bias,” More in Common’s report said.

Another 71% said the nation is “divided on the topic of U.S. history,” and roughly half expressed mistrust of elected officials as being politically neutral in designing curriculum, the report found.

Some leading historians said they welcomed the findings.

“This report corroborates the American Historical Association’s confidence that most Americans appreciate our commitment to teaching history with professional integrity,” American Historical Association Executive Director James Grossman said. “To heal the divisions that exist in our nation and communities, we must understand the histories of those divisions.”

The report affirms that it’s impossible to teach a single nationalized account of American history, said Richard M. Gamble, a U.S. history professor at Hillsdale College.

“This doesn’t mean Balkanization,” said Mr. Gamble, who is also a contributing editor at The American Conservative. “It’s a recognition of the fact that we are ‘placed’ human beings, not abstractions. We are the products of concrete experiences, and the teaching of history should emphasize the concrete and the particular.”

Competing narratives of “the American story” were happening in history books even before the Civil War, he added.

“Southerners resented the dominance of Boston and New York and rejected the account of the Puritans as the origin of America’s institutions and character,” Mr. Gamble said. “The Boston-centric account of the War for Independence was particularly controversial. Even Philadelphia resented and mocked the New England habit of claiming the Puritans as the most authentic and formative part of America.”

But Peter Wood, president of the conservative National Association of Scholars, criticized More in Common’s report, saying it exaggerates trivial agreements and minimizes a growing leftist push to depict America’s origins as systemically racist.

“The report is an exercise in airbrushing the real disagreements out of sight. That’s a terrible mistake,” said Mr. Wood, a former associate provost at Boston University. “To the contrary, our nation is indeed faced with a broad, well-focused, highly organized and generously financed attempt to teach a false history of our cultural and political origins.”

According to More in Common, sharp disagreements about how to teach U.S. history occurred only between the 8% of participants the report classified as “progressive activists” and the 6% it described as “devoted conservatives.”

Most Democrats and Republicans did not fall into these two camps, the report found.

Although 43% of Republicans said they think Democrats believe students “should not be made to feel guilty or personally responsible for the errors of prior generations.” About 83% of Democrats said they hold that view.

And 93% of Republicans said civil rights heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks “should be taught as examples of Americans who fought for equality.” About 38% of Democrats said they thought Republicans agreed with this position.

“If you read the headlines, you might imagine that Americans are at war over history instruction. They’re not,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor in the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania. “Most of us want the same thing: an honest account of the nation’s strengths and weaknesses.”

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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