Why Care About History Class?

The initial frenzy about critical race theory in schools seems to be giving way to a much more legible fight about what is taught in high school American history classes (Douthat, Snyder). This evolution makes sense as critical race theory — an area of legal and philosophical scholarship that excavates and then debates the relevance of racist motivations within liberal philosophy and jurisprudence — is not taught in high schools while American history is. This also makes sense because complaining about what is taught or not taught in history classes and fighting over what “really happened” is a longstanding hobby of many people on the right and left.

The battle lines for this upcoming debate are presumably going to be about what events should be covered in American history classes and how those events should be characterized. The left will want more of the instructional time dedicated to racial oppression events and want more neutral or contestable events characterized as having racial oppression aspects to them. The right will want less of each.

Stuff like this is perfect fodder for the usual culture war battle formats, which seems to be what a lot of people want to get out of politics. But before jumping in on this, we really should spend some time pondering a basic question here, which is: why should we care?

The average American high school has 180 instructional days per year, with the average class period being around 45 minutes. American history instructional time is thus 135 hours, which is the equivalent of around seventeen 8-hour workdays of time. If you deduct test time and other non-instructional time, the real number is even less.

I assume there is broad agreement about a lot of the events that should go into those hours: Native Americans, the 13 colonies, the revolution, the Articles of Confederation period, the Constitution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the World Wars. This leaves maybe a few dozen hours for people to fight about, with those fights centering around what topics to use those hours on, or how to spend the hours that are used to characterize one of the consensus topics.

Does anyone really think that the final disposition of these few dozen hours actually matters very much? In answering that question, remember:

  1. A lot of kids are fairly checked out at school and aren’t likely to absorb much of anything.
  2. Others are very checked in at school but only as grade-seekers who ace tests but also don’t absorb much of anything.
  3. Genuinely interested people can read about whatever history they want to read about online.
  4. In practice, individual teachers are going to have a lot of discretion over what they decide to say or not say in class, regardless of any curricular mandates.

One of the reasons I really wonder about the utility of all of this is because, when I was in high school, there was a similar epic cultural battle about teaching evolution in schools and about whether schools should also teach about the possibility of “intelligent design,” which was a nominally secular theory that was compatible with religious accounts of God creating everything.

The approach Texas ended up taking, if I recall correctly, was to have evolution in the textbooks but to have some doubting language in the textbook alongside it. This sort of thing was enough to fill up school board meetings across the state, generate endless group letters, and spark protest after protest. But none of it seemed to matter much. The teacher spent a bit of time on evolution. One kid chimed in that he thought evolution was wrong. Very few of the students cared one way or another. And off we went to cell walls or something.

Similarly, my health teacher, who was a wrestling coach, declared at one point that, contrary to the curricular requirements, he was not going to teach about sexual education at all, not even to talk about abstinence or other things that conservatives typically wanted sexual education to be about. So with sexual education, we had a big fight about controversial curriculum but who won or lost the fight didn’t really matter because the teacher just did whatever.

Given all of this, it is hard to imagine that any of these curricular battles matter all that much. Because schooling is public, curricular decisions have to be made by public bodies. That public decision-making process provides a great way for people to blow off steam by litigating their culture war grievances without feeling like they are merely screaming into the void. But it’s hard to see how it’s much more than that.