Can common ground be found in teaching history?

[Editor’s note: This is a three-part series from Joshua Peters on the discussion of race and the teaching of American history]

It seems we are at an impasse when it comes to teaching history. From what I gather, the political left wants to teach a granular form of history on matters concerning black suffrage in America from the start of the Atlantic Slave Trade to the American Civil Rights Movement, and the political right has concerns about political indoctrination and students forming negative views about themselves and their country. However, the political left maintains that such concerns are unwarranted. Likewise, the political right contends their interlocutors are playing ignorant of the unintended consequences of suggesting America is indefinitely racist. The political left also rejects this claim. As in most political discourse, both sides think they are correct, and the other side can go pound salt.

It is often the case that both sides hold some elements of truth in their political position. The history of black suffrage in American is part of our history and should be fair game to teach. Additionally, education should not be tailored in such a way that exacerbates unproductive political worldviews about oneself and their country.

Aside, this piece has nothing to do with critical race theory. CRT is not about history, but rather a way to explain current events using history (more accurately, this is what critical theory argues). CRT, in particular, sees events through the lens of race to explain group power struggles. While CRT influences how history is taught via teacher training and classroom discussions and assignments, what I am mentioning at present are just facts about history. (I will revisit CRT in the future as there may be a worthwhile discussion about professor Derrick Bell’s original scholarship on the matter. However, I will preface even for its best argument that CRT is not relevant in today’s America and therefore should not influence education goals.)

Now, back to the discussion at hand. There seems to be an opportunity for compromise on teaching America’s complex history. We can turn to how German history is taught around the Holocaust for what that compromise looks like.

When one thinks about how the Holocaust is taught, an interesting pattern in language emerges. When we teach the Holocaust, we tend to qualify lectures as the moral atrocities of Nazi Germany. Furthermore, we rarely mention the events of the Holocaust without also referring to the Nazi Party under Adolf Hitler. I wager, if you were to ask a person who was responsible for the Holocaust, they would most likely answer “Hitler” or “the Nazis” instead of “Germany.”

Anecdotally, we see the consequence of this way of framing history in journalism. When the News & Observer mentions the Holocaust, they tend to say things like “the Nazis killed millions of Jews” without any reference to Germany. And when Germany is being mentioned in discussions about the Holocaust, the terms ‘Nazi’ and ‘Adolf Hitler’ tend to be disproportionately represented. For example, NBC describes the history of the Holocaust as “state-sponsored mass persecution and murder of millions of people under the Nazi regime and its collaborators…genocide campaign targeted groups believed by Adolf Hitler’s government to be biologically inferior.” Here, it is “under the Nazi regime” or “Adolf Hitler’s government” that is associated with the Holocaust, not Germany. With this brief survey of how the Holocaust is mentioned in relation to those responsible, one can observe a distinct pattern in language.

Empirically, the same pattern of term association emerges when one considers search engine results. Extracting data from Google Trends from 2004 to 2021 for the search terms ‘The Holocaust’, ‘Nazi Germany’, ‘Adolf Hitler’, and the single term ‘Germany’ in the United States, I found ‘The Holocaust’ and ‘Nazi Germany’ were strongly correlated, r(211) = 0.84, p < .0001, r-squared = 0.7025. Where r(df) is the degrees of freedom (which can simply mean the number of months observed), p-value is the probability of a repeated test getting different results, and r-squared indicates that about 70 percent of changes between the number of ‘Nazi Germany’ search terms can be explained by changes in the number of ‘The Holocaust’ search terms. Likewise, ‘The Holocaust’ and ‘Adolf Hitler’ were strongly correlated, r(211) = 0.82, p < .0001, r-squared = 0.6698. In contrast, ‘The Holocaust’ and the single term ‘Germany’ were mildly correlated, r(211) = 0.67, p < .0001, r-squared = 0.4524. These results suggest that search terms for ‘The Holocaust’ tend to have a stronger relationship with the terms ‘Nazi Germany’ and ‘Adolf Hitler’ than the single term ‘Germany.’

This is peculiar, especially when comparing how the history of black suffrage in America is discussed. Whenever we mention slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, or general sentiments about racism, we tend to associate them with America. For instance, we tend to say it was America’s moral failing to see to the wellbeing and freedom of black Americans or America’s failure to respond to morally bankrupt politicians in the southern states. For example, during a Washington Post interview, CNN anchor Don Lemon suggested he doesn’t “feel” that “America sees Black people…as fully human.” Another example of this generality is when articles make claims like “the nation’s racial history.”  Here, it is the way “America sees black people” or “the nation’s racial history” that is associated with black suffrage. We hardly ever provide specificity as to who was responsible for black suffrage in America in the same way that produces a unanimous consensus as that of the terms ‘Nazis’ or ‘Adolf Hitler’ when discussing the Holocaust.

To be clear, I am not comparing black suffrage to the Holocaust. What I am comparing is how these two events in history are taught and subsequently talked about. In the case of black suffrage, we tend to be a lot more general in terms of who is responsible (i.e., a nation). But in the case of the Holocaust, we tend to provide more specificity by denoting the culprit as either the Nazis or Hitler (i.e., political party or person).

It is a legitimate statement to say America failed morally concerning black suffrage. It is reasonable to argue America once espoused beliefs about cultural supremacy that led to the proliferation of racism in parts of the country. However, this kind of generalization in discussing history may no longer be appropriate in modern American society, especially when many Americans lack perspective on what America has achieved for social equality relative to the rest of the world. Therefore, I suggest we modify are the approach to teaching black suffrage in a similar fashion to that of the Holocaust, whereby educators clarify who specifically is responsible. In doing so, the goals of both political parties are achieved. All manner of specificity in history lectures can be explored under more effective lesson plans that do not inappropriately establish negative sentiments about cultural groups and the country as a whole.

Joshua Peters is a philosopher and social critic from Raleigh, NC. His academic background is in western philosophy, STEM, and financial analysis. Joshua studied at North Carolina State University (BS) and UNC Charlotte (MS). He is a graduate of the E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders.