Your children are being brainwashed in school. 

That is the message permeating our current discourse about the American public education system. Intense debates on the left and right differ greatly in their prescription for the problems in American education, but both sides at least agree upon their diagnosis of brainwashing.

Whether the issue is that children are being “groomed” into questioning their gender identity, presented a sanitized view of race relations, or guided to despise the founding fathers, the brainwashing is allegedly occurring at the hands of public school teachers — the scapegoats in this scenario.

I myself am a certified teacher, and this was the climate I came into as I began my first professional job at a public school. Worst of all, I am certified to teach the subject which has been the most intense battleground of these culture wars: American history.

But my experience teaching the history of the United States this past year was not one that made me hate this country — it made me love it more than I ever had before.

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I want to debunk a few myths that those who do not work in the field of education sometimes buy into about how history is taught in public schools.

For the most part, public school teachers have a great deal of freedom in how they teach. There are set standards for what is to be taught (in the case of social studies, this is a simple outline of historical events), but there is a great deal of flexibility. Teachers are limited in what they teach, but how they teach is largely up to them.

Next, the oft-discussed “Critical Race Theory,” abbreviated as CRT, is nothing more than a buzzword. I earned my undergraduate degree at a left-leaning liberal arts college in New York, and not once in any of my teaching courses was there any talk of CRT. Likewise, there is no mention of CRT in any state education standards, nor could there be, because the actual CRT is a niche idea present only in legal academia.

Finally, I’ve found that private schools are more likely to have political bias within classroom instruction than public schools. Many private schools lean conservative, leaving out the negative aspects of history such as the violence of slavery. Religious bias encourages claims such as that America is the byproduct of Christian values and that the founding fathers created an ideal Protestant theocracy. Spoiler alert: they didn’t.

Such bias is present on the liberal end of the political spectrum, too. I did fieldwork in a private “alternative school” in Rochester, New York that did not follow state standards, nor did the students have to prepare for a state standardized test designed by professional educators. By not having to follow agreed-upon standards, the alternative school was able to implement a month-long Black Lives Matter unit plan, using official Black Lives Matter resources rife with anti-police messaging — none of which are present in the state standards for teaching social studies in a public school. This was in a ninth grade world history course, whose timeline of content ends around the year 1500.

Are you wondering how a pre-1500 history course can include the 21st-century phrase “Black Lives Matter?” Me, too.

You can only love your country by fully studying it, flaws and all. Living up to the ideals which have provided the most stable system of government of the last 300 years is a worthwhile goal.

Public schools are not your enemy when it comes to how history is taught. By virtue of being owned and funded by taxpayers, there are higher standards when it comes to ensuring equitable education instead of presenting whatever private customers find most palatable to their preexisting beliefs. Public schools are schools for the public, and that means everybody, regardless of their personal beliefs and backgrounds.

To address perceived biases within public social studies education, each respective side of the political spectrum has sought to correct the record through their own projects.

The 1619 Project, presented by the New York Times, endeavored “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.” Being a history major at the time the 1619 Project was being developed, I was excited to read the work being produced. Unfortunately, instead of well-researched academic papers, the project consisted of contemporary poetry, digital artwork, and essays which were often not written by historians. The project even claimed that the chief cause of the American Revolution was the preservation of slavery, which the editors thankfully corrected after public criticism from historians — the people who should be designing educational material.

On the other side of the coin, you have the 1776 Project, which was promoted by the Trump administration. It was developed as a report to promote “patriotic education” in public schools and was intended to extend to national parks as well. The project’s termination was one of the first acts of the Biden administration. Another 1776 Project exists as a political action committee, calls upon supporters to “help overturn the teaching of the 1619 Project,” and has a pop-up on its website encouraging visitors to report any schools teaching CRT. This seems rather pointless, as the number of public schools teaching CRT is zero.

These projects, and others like them, are proposed and promoted by idealogues whose chief goal is the sole promotion of a single perspective on American history, the irony being that their chief goal is the very thing they claim to be fighting against. The way American history is taught is meant to encourage students to think critically, to build a context to better understand the contemporary world, and to be an informed citizen. 

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When I teach American history, I avoid ideologically-driven resources like the plague, preferring to seek inspiration from fellow teachers and historians — you know, the people who actually know about this stuff; who dedicate their lives to presenting an accurate vision of the past. 

Whenever you feel outraged by a claim that your child is being taught the “wrong” version of history, take a moment to consider whether the version is 

  1. Consistent with the academic standards set by your state
  2. Consistent with the broad consensus of historians
  3. Consistent with what is actually being taught in schools, rather than what social media rumors claim is being taught in schools

Don’t get mad for the sake of getting mad when you see something out of context. Pause. Investigate the claim. Think critically. That’s what we teachers are trying to get you to do in the first place.

Teaching the negative aspects of American history is not the same as being anti-American. Teaching the positive aspects of American history is not the same as being a nationalistic zealot. A holistic view of the meaning of the diverse and complicated history of this country is needed to fully understand it and to achieve the ultimate goal of social studies education: to convey not only the events of our national story, but the power of its ideals to promote an informed citizenry in a democratic system.

You can only love your country by fully studying it, flaws and all. Living up to the ideals which have provided the most stable system of government of the last 300 years is a worthwhile goal.

Let’s listen to our teachers and give them the support and resources they need, ones that are high in quality and free from ideologically-driven nonsense. Let’s let our history teachers do what they do best: actually teach history.

After all, that is what they are already doing.

Patrick Donohue is a certified 7-12 social studies teacher from Western New York. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in history with a concentration in American studies.

One thought on “Patrick Donohue: The way we teach American history is fine, actually”

  1. I’m sorry, sir, if you were doing fieldwork during the time of Black Lives Matters, there is no way you have enough experience to make sweeping statements about what is being taught in our schools.

    I’ve been around a great deal longer and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve been following K-12 and higher education for almost 40 years, before you were born, and I could furnish you with hundreds of examples demonstrating the corruption of our educational institutions. Thousands of schools still use Howard Zinn’s book.

    Take off your rose-colored glasses and have a look at the real world. You can start with the Philadelphia School system – be prepared for a big shock.

    But it’s much, much worse than that.

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