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How Should We Teach American History?

Is America a nation "based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration," one built on the backs of slaves, or something more complicated?

It is, I fancy, precisely because I consider even a hypothetical willingness to send one’s children to public school, and indeed (if they are small) any school whatever, an unfailing indicator of moral and spiritual turpitude, a denial of their heaven-appointed visitation in a higher state of things (e.g., building stick forts), an incarceration of their souls tantamount to the imprisonment of the divine light in the evil of matter fancifully described by the ancient Gnostic heresiarchs—you get the idea—that I can speak objectively about the current debates over the teaching of so-called “critical race theory.”

My own anti-schooling prejudices are confirmed by a cursory reading of the text of the order recently passed by the Florida Board of Education which states, with rather chilling finality, that teachers “may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” Score another one for us homeschoolers.

Like similar controversies before it—evolution vs. “creationism,” the teaching of mathematics and other subjects in languages other than English—the present argument about CRT has been enclosed by the First Amendment. The mere reference to this august text is meant to inspire in the listener a kind of awed silence, as if the votaries of some hermetic sect had spoken aloud the secret name of its principal superstition, before which all cowen and profane persons should retreat in humble amazement.

To enter into technical questions about the history of First Amendment jurisprudence, its application in classroom settings, and the possibilities of a successful legal challenge to the board’s decision is beyond the scope of this column. Besides, there is a real sense in which it is totally, indeed almost painfully irrelevant. What matters is not whether the ability to assign texts adapted from the New York Times’s 1619 Project is protected by a written constitution that also allows for the dissemination of hardcore pornography and the novels of Cormac McCarthy, but the approbation (or, as the case may be, opprobrium) afforded to these works by respective participants in the debate.

When David French, for example, argues that Florida is denying the First Amendment rights of teachers, what he really means is that while he might personally disapprove of some or indeed even all aspects of CRT as it is actually taught (or, more likely, ham-fistedly intimated) in Florida schools, he still believes that its basic premises and conclusions do not lie outside the range of acceptable opinions which free persons are allowed to hold and to promulgate. The First Amendment, and the earlier Anglophone tradition of unlicensed printing dating back to Milton of which it is only the best known expression, is not and has never been a first-order good; by allowing for the free exchange of ideas and opinions, it is meant to facilitate such debate as is necessary to secure all the other goods proper to a free republic. Anything determined to fall outside that window is, properly speaking, not free speech at all. (I have sometimes thought that it would be a worthwhile venture for someone to print copies of Stanley Fish’s essay “Why There is No Such Thing as Free Speech—and It’s a Good Thing, Too” and drop them at the offices of various publications.)

An interesting test case for this could be drawn, in fact, from language in the same document that also bars Florida’s public school teachers from using their classrooms to promote “denial or minimization of the Holocaust.” So far as I am aware, not a single commentator on either side of the debate has objected to this proscription. And this is the case even though on the plainest reading the a priori commitment to some kind of maximalist value-neutral conception of free expression that does not literally involve physical threats of violence or contribute to the logistics of domestic terrorism should be as jealous of the rights of Floridian pedagogues partial to, say, David Duke as they are fans of Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Mercifully, no one involved in the present debate appears to believe that Holocaust denial falls along the continuum of possible views whose expression in various public forums is necessary to safeguard the animating principles of our no-doubt vital and still flourishing constitutional order. The protests of a hypothetical Florida teacher wishing to teach the writings of Arthur Butz would rightly fall on deaf ears.

Which is why I humbly suggest that instead of attempting to subsume yet another debate—one with distinct moral, social, historiographical, pedagogical, and I daresay religious dimensions—into an avowedly value-neutral legal framework, we should settle this debate the old-fashioned way: that is, by arguing about the merits of specific texts by specific authors, with reference to their historical and even literary merit. (This appears to be what administrators at the University of North Carolina were up to when they denied Hannah-Jones tenure.) Persons inclined to take a position on either side should say that they believe that x ought or ought not be taught for reason y.

Which brings me to the question, which I did not really mean to elide, of my own views. Do I believe that a topic as large and capacious as “American” history can or should be defined in the manner prescribed by the state of Florida? It would be difficult to think of anything more impoverished. “America” as such is too large an idea to be contained by the Declaration, whose supposed principles may or may not be as universal as these state officials suggest.

America in my view is at once an obscure republic founded by Freemasons and other lunatics with the cynical abatement of certain continental powers; a nation that all but exterminated one race, enslaved and brutalized another before undertaking a holocaust of the unborn; a patchwork of several previous overlapping civilizations stitched together into a now-exhausted empire that was nevertheless once the home of two of the greatest statesmen of modern times—Lincoln and Roosevelt—and the birthplace of literally every good thing—tobacco, jazz, football—that modern civilization has offered the world; the most varied and gorgeous landmass on this planet; and almost certainly the only country I would select, if my Creator had given me the choice, to have been born in.

Thankfully, how I go about reconciling these seemingly disparate views, much less transmitting them to the young persons for whose education in divine and historical science alike I am responsible, is my own business.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.



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