Over the last 30 years, the politics that surrounds the teaching of American history has from time to time burst into the mainstream. For U.S. History teachers preparing to work with students in the classroom in the coming weeks, there will be no shortage of political minefields to navigate.
As historian Matthew Karp noted recently in Harper’s magazine, the study of history is a “battleground where we must meet the vast demands of the ever-living now.” Our culture wars are not only about the rough and tumble surface of cultural life. They also deal with the clash over public symbols, discourse, and the enduring myths of society. Though today’s warring political factions are guilty of flattening multidimensional stories, often about race in America, each side believes that they have a hotline to Clio, the muse of History, making the teacher’s job that much more challenging.
As a nation, sitting on knife’s edge, we have been here before. The debate over how to teach, to celebrate, and be critical of American history has been a perennial part of the culture wars.