While students today learn about Martin Luther King, Jr. , as a civil rights hero, two scholars contend children hear little about King’s deeply held religious beliefs or his role as a minister.
Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images
Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images

Opinion: Make American history great again: free it from progressive domination

Two scholars say we ought to teach West’s virtues and flaws in proper proportion

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. David Randall is director of research at the National Association of Scholars.

In this piece, the pair build on a discussion they had about how Confederate veterans remade the teaching of Civil War history during the Jim Crow era. They saw parallels in how Marxist sympathizers lost when the Berlin Wall fell, yet dominate many of the academic conferences they attend, and have too much influence regarding what is taught and what is left out in the teaching of history.

By Robert Maranto and David Randall

April is a month of history, with the anniversaries of both the start and end of the U.S. Civil War, the 1915 initiation of the Armenian genocide, the 1922 inauguration of Joseph Stalin as Soviet General Secretary, and in 1945 during the Battle of Berlin, the death of Adolph Hitler. 

History matters. How we recall the past shapes how we approach the present and mold the future. That explains why youthful history professor and Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich spent political capital in 1983 rounding up Republican congressional votes to help establish Martin Luther King Day. Gingrich wanted to make sure history books would say that Republicans voted to honor the great civil rights leader.

Other Americans have tried to control history instead of submitting to its verdict. As historian Jonathan Zimmerman chronicles in Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, during the rise of Jim Crow, Confederate veterans successfully lobbied for public schools to cast the Civil War as about constitutional interpretation rather than slavery. As a result, many textbooks portrayed African Americans as better off enslaved, Jefferson Davis as a paragon of virtue, and Abraham Lincoln as a bellicose brute.

Largely false historical narratives helped sustain Jim Crow for decades, but left segregationists intellectually vulnerable. Authoritarians typically turn history into propaganda, but such power is brittle and blind.

Today’s Confederates are progressives seeking to discredit faith, freedom, and the American project itself. Progressives virtually erased religious faith from U.S. history, particularly civil rights history---strange treatment of a movement led by African-American ministers, with support from white ministers, priests, and rabbis.

Martin Luther King, Jr., a preacher and a preacher’s son, invoked his Christian faith in almost every speech or letter he wrote. The Letter from the Birmingham Jail alone by our count mentions God or Jesus 19 times, and various prophets, saints or theologians 13 times. Yet, our children learned about Reverend King numerous times in school, without ever hearing about his day job as a minister.

Progressive historians denounce American foreign policy, rarely portraying their nation positively. Schools teach that the U.S. went to war with Spain in 1898 to forward the interests of sugar companies, but forget to mention that Americans were shocked by Spanish brutality toward the Cuban people. Our kids quite rightly learned about the McCarthyite purges of suspected communists, but not about the actual Soviet spies in sensitive government positions like Alger Hiss, Laurence Duggan, and Harry Dexter White.

Some schools and many colleges use the grossly distorted history of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which portrays the U.S. as having prevented “democratic” revolutions in Iran and Guatemala, but leaves out how America helped prevent Stalinist takeovers in Italy and Greece. Nor are children likely to learn about America’s post-WWII rebuilding of Europe, and that the American-sponsored free trade system has brought most humans out of poverty, for the first time in history.

Our children’s teachers might not know about this either, because progressives dominate history instruction in college and graduate school. Voter registration studies indicate that among academic historians, Democrats may outnumber Republicans by as much as 75-1. Historians are like anyone else: when surrounded by like-minded souls, they tend to grow narrow, even extreme.

Few colleges require students to learn about the real record of Communism, which oppressed minorities, and restricted press, religious, artistic, sexual, economic, and every other form of freedom. Harvard University Press’s Black Book of Communism estimates that Marxist regimes from East Germany to Cuba slaughtered 94 million of their subjects. Yet, some social studies and history teachers teach their students all they themselves know about Marxism—that it opposes the systemic, intersectional oppression of capitalism.

Just as pro-Confederate history textbooks justified racism in the guise of protecting vulnerable white women, today’s progressives deploy the historical grievances of identity politics, allegedly to protect vulnerable minorities. And just as Confederate history weakened the defenders of Jim Crow, progressive history weakens progressives. They cannot recognize the challenges posed by authoritarian Russia and China. We doubt that a young Barack Obama learned about the Soviet Union while at Columbia and Harvard, an omission that left him clueless as president when confronted by former KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin. 

Further, because they use history to attack patriotism and populism rather than to understand those social forces, progressives failed to predict the rise of patriotic populist coalitions in Britain, Italy, Hungary—and the United States.

The left has enfeebled itself by substituting “social justice” for history. We need real history—history teaching the West’s virtues and flaws in proper proportion, and teaching students to respect the Founders who created America, and those who have tended and defended it since. 

Make American history great again: free it from progressive domination. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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