History

Closer Together

Across party lines, Americans actually agree on teaching “divisive concepts.”

A woman holds a sign that says "Judge Character Not Skin Color! No CRT!" as she stands among other protesters
A rally against “critical race theory” at the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Virginia, on June 12. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

How divisive are the “divisive concepts” supposedly being taught in the nation’s schools? If you were to take the media’s word for it, you’d probably answer “very.” This summer and fall, some local and national news outlets have published stories showing concerned citizens with conservative tendencies voicing—even screaming—their vehement disapproval of the teaching of uncomfortable histories in the classroom. Such media coverage harmonizes well with a broader narrative that our country is hopelessly divided along partisan lines. That narrative is reified by dozens of state legislatures proposing (and some passing) laws against the presentation of supposedly distressing educational subject matter, all lumped under the false banner of “critical race theory.”

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But here’s the thing: We’re not actually much divided on this issue! Having recently teamed up with the American Historical Association, secured funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and conducted a survey of the country’s views on and experiences with history (the first such poll carried out since the mid-1990s), I have the data to back up that claim. One key poll item from our survey, administered in the fall of 2020, asked respondents whether it’s acceptable to teach about the harm some people have done to others, even if that subject matter causes learners discomfort. Given all the airtime and column space devoted to the controversies of such curricula, one would expect to find sharp divisions in the responses.

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That didn’t happen. On the contrary, our 1,816 respondents, who replied to roughly 40 questions about the nature of history, history education, and the historical media they favor, supported teaching these types of discomfiting issues by an overwhelming 54-point margin, with 77 percent in favor, and just 23 percent opposed. Those affirmative results largely held for every cross tabulation as well, whether by age, gender, race/ethnicity, region of the country, or education. Even the party affiliation crosstab failed to produce meaningful disparity: 78 percent of self-identified Democrats voiced support for the teaching of painful history, which was only a little more than their Republican peers’ 74 percent. There are plenty of things we Americans worry about when it comes to our children’s education, but according to our survey results, “divisive concepts” is not one of them.

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Nor is the related issue of revisionist history, likewise a bugaboo of those insisting that only a Single and Unalterable Truth be taught to our nation’s schoolchildren, as controversial as you might assume. Questioned about whether our knowledge of the past should change over time, nearly two-thirds in our survey agreed that it should. That is, a decisive majority of respondents agreed with the premise that we modify and adapt the stories we tell about the past—something that professional historians do all the time.

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This is not to gloss over some discrepancies that appeared in the crosstabs on the matter of revisionism. While clear majorities of all age groups expected modifications in historical knowledge, only 48 percent of self-identified Hispanic respondents felt it appropriate, compared with 62 percent of Black respondents and 64 percent of white respondents. Differences along party lines were even more stark: Supermajorities of Democrats (74 percent) and independents (70 percent) accepted the premise of a changing past, whereas slight minorities (48 percent each) of Republicans and those with no party preference felt the same.

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But the parties come into alignment again when you consider the respondents’ common beliefs about why understandings of the past change. No matter their affiliation, at least 58 percent of respondents of all political stripes said that the unearthing of “new facts” was the primary driving force behind the revision of history. Given that two-thirds of our respondents also reported feeling that “history” is little more than the sum total of facts about the past, such an understanding about the root cause for revisionism may not be surprising.

Juxtapose this with professional historians’ understandings of history. At a virtual session of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January, I polled the audience on their preferred definition of “history.” Literally no one felt “history” to be primarily an assembly of raw facts. Rather, an explanation of the past was the go-to answer for most. Those explanations are subject not only to accommodating new facts, but to reanalyzing extant ones and subjecting them to new questions. The mini-poll also underscores just how far apart the public and the professoriate are on the very essence of history, something that hasn’t changed much since the 1990s survey mentioned above.

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The more recent poll results about divisive concepts and revisionism parallel other surveys about supposedly polarizing issues that really aren’t. The GOP-led abortion law in Texas? Not even a majority of Republicans in that state back it, according to a recent NPR poll. But bipartisan support does materialize for expanded gun background checks, imposing higher taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations, and even scientific consensus on climate change, to cite just a few examples. How about COVID vaccine and mask mandates? A Monmouth University survey reveals that most people in red and blue states alike favor them.

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The loudmouths interrupting school board meetings and staging vaccine “freedom” protests don’t represent popular, to say nothing of valid, viewpoints on science and history. The media should take this into consideration when planning coverage. One need only remember the coverage allotted to “intelligent design” adherents back in the first decade of the current millennium to see how irresponsible the impulse for evenhandedness can be. We can now relegate the manufactured controversy over “divisive concepts” to the same dustbin.

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If minority-supported legislation against divisive topics has a goal, it may be to so thoroughly confuse the public about the nature and content of history that people just stop caring about it. Civic engagement collapses as a result. The small minority of our survey respondents who indicated no interest in history were the least likely to participate in community problem-solving, to volunteer, or to contact elected officials, relative to those voicing reasons for being historically engaged. And those saying our understandings of the past should never change were similarly less apt to be involved citizens than those who acknowledged the reality of historical revisionism.

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Partisans of anti-CRT legislation imagine children “damaged” by the teaching of “divisive concepts,” while media outlets with liberal tendencies fret over the vitriol on display in the ubiquitous school board protest videos. But our survey told us some important things about this seemingly combustible situation. First, people are far less divided on “divisive concepts” and historical revisionism than we’ve been led to believe. Second, an American public utterly uninterested in the past, and unengaged in society, is the true nightmare scenario that legislative efforts like Ohio House Bills 322 and 327 might bring to life. We would do well to remember how united we are, and to be on guard against those who actively seek to unravel that unity.

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