Across the United States, Republicans are proposing laws restricting what schools can teach about contemporary and historical racism. In some cases, they’re already passing such laws. Some crack down on “critical race theory,” a term whose meaning is increasingly contested in mainstream debate; some specifically target The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which the newspaper describes as intended “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, argue these approaches to teaching history are divisive and overly negative, while historians across the country criticized Trump’s alternative “patriotic education”—a direct response to the Times’ effort—as propaganda. Can the U.S. teach its history in a way that doesn’t collapse into culture war?

Eric Foner, a professor emeritus at Columbia University and one of America’s most prominent historians, argues that teachers are already doing this. Though political battles over American history are nothing new, he says classroom instruction is now generally “better and also more bittersweet” than when he was a student. The “great old white men history of the United States” is being replaced with a more inclusive, accurate view of the past, which includes the lives and narratives of non-white people, as well as a greater accounting of the nation’s flaws, and is “being taught in Alabama as well as in Alaska.” Foner sees the 1619 Project and contemporary anti-racism literature as adding to this mix, though he acknowledges that propagandizing from any perspective harms education. “The biggest problem with the teaching of history today,” he emphasizes, “is there isn’t enough of it.”

Graham Vyse: How do you understand the culture war over the teaching of the 1619 Project, “critical race theory,” and other approaches to anti-racism in American schools?

Eric Foner: This isn’t the first time we’ve had culture wars over history. I participated in the history wars of the 1990s, which arose over so-called National History Standards. One of the high—or maybe low—points of my career was debating Lynne Cheney, who had chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities [and would later serve as the second lady of the United States] on Pat Buchanan’s TV show Crossfire.

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