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Up from cynicism: Let's restore history education

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For intellectual diversity and civic well-being, higher education must recognize the achievements of the U.S. and the West. (iStock by Getty Images)

Suppose a college course on the history of African Americans left out accomplished musicians like Scott Joplin, writers like Zora Neale Hurston, and leaders like Colin Powell, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama, preferring instead to cover only notorious criminals and corrupt politicians.

Naturally, no college would permit such a one-sided presentation of African American history, which would likely be fuelled by a hatred of African Americans.

At any real college or university, professors presenting such outlandishly biased views of African American history would face termination, and rightly so. I would never want my children taken in by such racist stupidity.

So why do many history professors present a similarly negative view of American history?

In the 1990s, the American history standards funded by the U.S. government, written by prominent historians, mentioned McCarthyism 19 times and the Ku Klux Klan 17 times, while noting George Washington once and failing to mention Paul Revere, Thomas Edison, or Albert Einstein.

Historians seemingly viewed McCarthyism and the Klan as more American than George Washington. Those anti-American standards earned bipartisan denunciations from Congress and the Clinton administration. Only history professors considered them objective.

More recently, in 2014, the revised Advanced Placement U.S. History frameworks, again written by historians, largely sidelined the U.S. Constitution, the founding documents, and the separation of powers. The frameworks addressed capitalism’s role creating privilege, but not its roles in innovation and disrupting privilege. They censored out the religious motives behind social movements like abolitionism and civil rights. The Reverend Martin Luther King merits his own day, but not a mention in AP U.S. History. References to the Cold War lacked any clue that we were right to oppose ideologies murdering an estimated 94 million people. (To its credit, the College Board later revised the frameworks.)

Such things happen because history professors lean left, with centrists staying in the closet, scared. As Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern argue in “Groupthink in Academia,” this is not because professors are bad people, but simply because they are people. Surrounded by those we agree with, we become ever more extreme. and reacting to this ludicrous political correctness, many Americans come to reject academic expertise altogether.

Now Congress can help make American history great again. U.S. House and Senate appropriators are considering funding the American History for Freedom Program, providing grants for university and college programs teaching about the ideals of limited government in American and Western Civilization. Unfunded in the Obama years, in the Trump era even many progressives recognize the value of American constitutional government, as compared to systems in which commissars or caudillos jail their opponents.

As progressive law professor Joan Williams writes in White Working Class, we should return to teaching civics, with its “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions: the Constitution and separation of powers, the Bill of Rights’ guarantees of freedom of speech and religion, the presumption of innocence, and trial by jury.”

Williams laments that as “the new social history shifted to social movements and oppressed groups…celebrating our democracy went out of fashion.” This explains why many Americans no longer consider it un-American to call for jailing political opponents, or limiting religious, economic, and press freedoms.

No one denies that our nation and civilization have flaws, but our ideals shouldn’t simply be attacked as often occurs today. For intellectual diversity and civic well-being, higher education must recognize the achievements of the U.S. and the West. Since money talks, funding the American History for Freedom Program is a start.

Robert Maranto (rmaranto@uark.edu) is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and serves on his local school board.

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