Chapter 1: See the Problem – 1 – See the Problem
You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history.
Meghan Lydon’s mom was confused. Her daughter was graduating from high school and had a peculiar request. A talented performer with a terrific voice, she had starred in theater productions like Fiddler on the Roof
and Hello, Dolly!
She was a funny, outgoing, “pretty mainstream” white student who rarely got lower than an A-minus and played on the tennis team.
Meghan wanted a “not cheap” high school souvenir. “I wanted to keep my Advanced Placement History textbook,” Meghan says, laughing. She had finished the course and aced the test. “We weren’t able to cover everything from the huge textbook in the course that year,” she recalls. “But I really wanted to read the whole thing.” With an amused shrug of her shoulders, her mom agreed.
Unsurprisingly, dinner table conversations in Meghan’s Rhode Island family often included recaps of what she and her siblings were learning in American history class, Meghan’s favorite subject. She had passionate teachers who inspired love of country. The underdog narrative “is so inspiring,” she reflects. “It makes you feel patriotic and prideful because you think, That’s us, we did it!” This attitude delighted her father, the type of dad who was visibly overcome by awe and reverence when visiting the monuments in Washington, D.C. The anything-is-possible-if-you-work-hard-enough American narrative permeated her history class and her family’s belief system. She went to college to major in musical theater with this sense of determination and her high school history textbook, taking nearly enough college history courses to declare a second major.
Meghan is now a twenty-seven-year-old personal trainer (my personal trainer!) and professional actor living in New York City. After an hour of planks and push-ups, we sat in the lounge outside the gym as she shared her story. “I still own that textbook,” she says. “But I think about it differently now.”
Not a One-Off
A shift began in college. In one course, a professor drew upon current events, including a recent viral video in which white fraternity members on a bus were singing a song about lynching black people. “The national response was that this was a horrible, one-off incident, not us as a nation,” Meghan recalls. “I felt that way, too.”
Course assignments required students to read primary sources and study what had happened after slavery. “I realized there was no formal taking of responsibility, just generationally sweeping it under the rug,” she says. With her classmates, she began to connect the dots from the 1800s to this viral video in present times. “There is a pretty clear cultural and historical line between point A and point B.” Reluctantly, she concluded that the “viral video was not a one-off.”
She recalled what she learned in high school about slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the treatment of Native Americans. Slavery was terrible, but a necessary evil for the southern economy. Internment was terrible, but justified by the attack on Pearl Harbor. The treatment of Native Americans was terrible, but more about smallpox than genocide. “The narrative was typically that people didn’t know better, or people were scared, or people had no other option,” she reflects.
Looking back, she notices a few things. “None of it was in the horrific detail as the reality. I don’t remember any first-person accounts,” she recalls. “Also, there was an air of ‘this doesn’t relate to America today.’ The emphasis was ‘and then we fixed it.’ It was very easy to detach yourself from it.”
She pauses, and then says, “In contrast, the pride I felt at the good things was not detached at all. It is as if I was deeply moved by the good things but not as fully moved by the bad things. I guess it is hard to reconcile this idea we have of ourselves as the ‘best country’ with these bad things. That’s what people—and I—am grappling with now.”
Summer of 2020
In the summer of 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained wider visibility, Meghan read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,1
a book that appeared to suddenly materialize on many white people’s nightstands and in book groups. Both influential and controversial, the book prompted thought among many, including Meghan. She recalls thinking, Oh my God, why am I so defensive? Around the same time, she noticed that many of the people she followed on social media were white. “I purposely started seeking out a more diverse group of people to follow,” she says. Then Meghan started seeing startling infographics in her social media feeds. She rattles off a few. One offered “your daily dose of unlearning” (“Martin Luther King Jr. was more radical than we remember”); another looked at the origins of the police; yet another examined the segregated history of the American beach.
She pulls out her phone and opens up Instagram. As she scrolls to the post she is describing to me, I ask about the dozens and dozens of posts that she has saved for easy access.
“I used to just use Instagram for scrolling through posts from friends along with fitness content and recipes. Then I realized I could use it to broaden my perspective,” she explains. She started following a more diverse group of content creators, in the fitness and recipe spaces relevant to her work, as well as the historical topics that have long fascinated her.
Meghan learned of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, in which city officials supplied weapons to white mobs who burned down entire black neighborhoods—killing many, leaving thousands homeless, and destroying a vibrant business community known as “Black Wall Street.” She learned that her home state of Rhode Island played a central role in slavery, particularly at the ports, with economic exploitation through trade and labor. She learned that her new hometown of New York City had enslaved people in almost every other household,2
defying the common northern misconception of slavery as a solely southern institution.
Upsetting revelations kept coming. With each one, the history lover in Meghan felt “embarrassed and guilty,” but she kept scrolling. Using the research skills she had learned in college, she consulted reliable sources to verify the new information and distinguish it from “alternative facts.” To her astonishment, these revelations and more were accurate. “I realized I needed to unlearn and relearn some things,” she told me. “And I realized that progress I took for granted like the civil rights movement was far from a given.”
Meghan’s original sense of inevitable progress exemplifies “hindsight bias.” This mental illusion affects everyone and occurs when past events appear predestined, despite much uncertainty at the time.3
We struggle to imagine an alternate present in which past events had not occurred. One casualty of this quirky mental habit: we underestimate the blood, sweat, and tears that engender social change. With hindsight bias, the present feels inevitable.
While Meghan was flummoxed, she also had an insight. “I realized I could scroll and curate my feed more intentionally. I could save things I really wanted to dig into and come back to them. This could be intellectually stimulating. Honestly, it made Instagram more meaningful to me,” she explained. Her new “textbook”—written from multiple perspectives—had been in her pocket all along.
This realization became more personal while speaking with a group of friends, one of whom was black. Meghan mentioned the American dream and how they were all raised to believe “you could do anything if you worked hard enough.” To her surprise, the friend said, “Oh, I wasn’t raised that way.” Meghan saw the issue immediately. The systemic barriers to the American dream were real for her friend and so many others, even today, even if they worked “hard enough.” This was not just about understanding the past, but also about understanding the present. And she wanted to do both.
I Love This Country
I asked Meghan if she still loved her country. “Absolutely! I definitely love this country. But my love now is shown more through trying to make it better, just like I do with my training clients.” As one of those fitness clients, I am puzzled by the comparison until she reminds me of her pep talks. Taking care of ourselves is an act of love, she exhorts clients. Fixating on perfection or shame leads to the same outcome: doing nothing. When we recognize opportunities to be healthier or stronger, then we move forward. “To me, love is always trying to improve,” she says in a firm voice. “To do that, you have to see the problem.”
In the rest of this chapter, we follow Meghan’s lead to break down what it means to see the problem. We start with how basic psychological principles shape how history is captured, remembered, and documented. Based on the “home team bias,” we reflect on how love of country can both help and hurt our country, what I call the “patriot’s dilemma.” We then explore how that bias manifests in many of our textbooks and classrooms, both in the United States and abroad. Finally, we look at how educators are seeing and tackling the problems both as learners and teachers.
Home Team Bias
It was the end of fall in 1952 and as the leaves turned red and yellow, the football season came to a close. This was a tough way to end a season. All-American Dick Kazmaier, Princeton University’s halfback, had to leave the game with a mild concussion and a broken nose in the second quarter. Jim Miller, Dartmouth College’s quarterback, had to leave the game with a broken leg in the third quarter. Princeton won 13–0. The season was ending in a dramatic fashion.
Accusations of dirty play flew. One Princeton player told the school paper that “Dartmouth was out to get” their star player, while another Princeton player said, “I am completely disgusted… with the Dartmouth brand of football.”4
In contrast, the Dartmouth coach proudly stated, “It was one of the best defensive games a Dartmouth team of mine has ever played.”5
The Dartmouth alumni magazine assured its readers that, except for one instance of unsportsmanlike conduct, the charges of dirty play were “manufacture[d]” by Princeton undergraduates writing for the school paper, and then picked up by national media.
To understand those differing accounts, two psychologists recruited students from both schools to participate in a study a week after the game. They began with a survey of students taking introductory and intermediate psychology courses at both schools. Then the researchers asked the students in fraternities and undergraduate clubs to watch a video of the game. Those students also filled out a survey about whether the game “was clean and fairly played, or… unnecessarily rough and dirty?,” “how many infractions” each team made, and “which team do you feel started the rough play?”
It was as if the Dartmouth and Princeton students had watched two different games. None of the Princeton respondents felt the game was “clean and fair.” In fact, they perceived the Dartmouth team as making twice as many infractions as the Dartmouth study participants perceived. Among the Dartmouth participants, 53 percent felt both schools started the foul play; 2 percent felt Princeton started it; (only) 36 percent felt Dartmouth started it; 9 percent felt it was neither. Among the Princeton students, 11 percent felt both schools started it, while 86 percent felt Dartmouth started it and 3 percent felt it was neither. In other words, only a third of the Dartmouth participants thought it was Dartmouth’s fault, while the vast majority of Princeton participants pointed the finger at Dartmouth. The results were the same, regardless of whether a student had attended the game in-person or not.
In some ways, they did. The researchers played the same video for everyone, but the students saw different things in the video. In a paper titled “They Saw a Game,” Albert H. Hastorf and Hadley Cantril explained, “A person selects those [occurrences] that have some significance for him from his own egocentric position,” which sounds akin to the confirmation bias other researchers would later name, a phenomenon in which people unconsciously see what they want to see.6
While motivations exist to distort the truth, intentional lies do not fully explain these stark differences in perception. This tendency to pay more attention to what confirms our inklings and less attention to what challenges our inklings also occurs unconsciously. If we were to listen to only one group of students, we would fail to grasp the game in its entirety.
Those Princeton and Dartmouth fans were no different than the rest of us. Imagine you just got home from cheering your favorite team to victory. A friend asks you for a recap. You might describe the heartbreaking error, the funny moment in the stands, the clutch play, the no-good refs. You might remember more of your own team’s plays. You might be less forgiving of a lack of sportspersonship from the visiting team than the home team. You might cheer for your team as the good guys and jeer the other team as the bad guys. You might pay extra attention to a couple of the players, whom you once spotted and greeted at a restaurant.
In other words, your home team recap will reflect your natural tendency to know more, notice more, credit more, and forgive more from your own team. This home team bias tendency does not make one evil, just human. When it comes to a football game, our tendency to see the things that confirm our own identity can be simple and straightforward enough. But what about things that are far more fraught, like American history? There the home team might certainly be “American” but it is also all of our other identities we hold, especially those that have been historically meaningful, such as race. Regardless of identity, we do not have to be intentionally biased to be subject to the home team bias.
Once, while Meghan urged me into one more plank and Bruno Mars crooned in the background, I tried to distract her with a summary of the home team bias paper (apparently, Mindy Kaling has good success distracting her trainers, so why not give it a try?!). Meghan responded, “It’s like all we know is America’s greatest hits.”
Meghan’s statement that we overfocus on the greatest hits resonates with my research. With my colleagues Mahzarin Banaji, Max Bazerman, and Mary Kern, I have written about bounded ethicality,7
which I sometimes refer to as the psychology of good people.8
No matter how objective, well trained, and professional we are, we are prone to errors in what we see and perceive, with our minds being pulled toward that which is more consistent with what we already know and more flattering to who we are, whom we love, and whom we identify with. I will never be able to see my children as others see them because our minds are not programmed for objectivity. They are programmed for consistency.
Our minds are also prone to limitations in memory, storage, and processing speed. These constraints lead to bounded rationality, a term first coined by Nobel Prize winner Herb Simon and which led to an expansive field of research in behavioral economics, psychology, and other social sciences.9
Because of bounded rationality, we may be more likely to remember the apartments we viewed first or last in our search, rather than in the middle. We overattend to vivid statistics, like the probability of dying by terrorist attack, and underattend to drab data, like the probability of dying of cardiovascular disease. Our minds anchor on a particular point of view or value, such as the list price of a car. We are also prone to bounded awareness, a failure to notice, see, and seek out easily available information, because it does not align with our expectations or views.10
We do not see the conspicuous butter in the fridge when it is in a different place than usual and we somehow miss the error messages on our phones as we scroll through our social media feeds. We need not intend to be unaware, yet we may be deeply unaware.
Bounded awareness, bounded rationality, and bounded ethicality do not apply only to sporting events. The same pattern recurs in marriages, workplaces, pandemics, elections, insurrections, and the recording and learning of history. Our challenge is to see how these natural tendencies are exacerbated by our love of our country, and, as Meghan says, how that makes it harder for us to do better.
The Patriot’s Dilemma
I call the phenomenon the “patriot’s dilemma”: the more we love this country, the less likely we are to do the necessary work to improve it. The more pride we take in our ancestors, the harder it is for us to tell their full stories, both successes and shortcomings. The more we identify with heroes from the past, the more threatened we feel by their subheroic behavior. Paradoxically, the more we love our country’s purported ideals, the more difficult it is to see how we fall short of them. Because of the patriot’s dilemma, our love for our nation is a barrier to making our nation better.
But this dilemma can be resolved. The key lies in how we think about the past.
We vary in how connected we feel our past is to our present. If my present-day country resembles how I remember my country from the past, I see the past and present as highly connected. Researchers have found that this “historical continuity” can create a sense of stability.11
This continuity is particularly important for individuals who strongly identify with their country. When the past and the present feel disconnected—perhaps because of societal changes—high-identifying individuals amp up that patriotic identity to provide the stability that the past was not providing. Those who identify less with their country depend less on the continuity between the past and present. In other words, the superpatriotic person (in the very narrow sense of that word) reacts particularly badly when the past and present are out of sync.
The uptick in the conspicuous display of the American flag in recent years, during a time of great social change and upheaval, might be one example of this tendency in action. Of course, whether or not one displays the flag is not the point; the point is the increase in the flag displays for highly identified individuals during a tumultuous time. The before-and-after difference reveals the effect.
In these studies, the researchers also measured the participants’ degree of “collective angst,” defined as “fear for the future existence of the ingroup.”12
For strong identifiers confronting high historical discontinuity, collective angst and opposition to immigration were high. So, in addition to the flag displaying, these individuals are in ears-straight-up and teeth-bared mode, fearful of change and aggressive to outsiders.
To recap these research findings, psychologists have robust evidence that we are all prone to the home team bias, in which we see things through our own eyes and those of the groups we identify with. This tendency means that we are likely to have a different perspective than others, but remain convinced that our perspective is correct. When times are unstable and we feel that our group is threatened, we go on the defensive. This tendency is particularly true for those highly identified with their groups, leaving us with the patriot’s dilemma in which we are so invested in our home team narrative, we are unable to see another perspective.
The patriot’s dilemma is worsened when the patriot is a member of a dominant group. Political scientist Diana Mutz challenged the prevalent “economic anxiety” theory of Donald Trump’s rise by tracking political attitudes of people from dominant groups (whites, Christians, men).13
Her research demonstrates that the growing numbers and status of nonwhite groups—as well as globalization—contributes to a defensive reaction among members of dominant groups that is not explained by economic anxiety. Rather, she finds those who perceive threats seek to reestablish status hierarchies. She calls this phenomenon dominant group status threat. This is more than home team bias; it is home team defensiveness.
Critical Race Theory Has Everything and Nothing to Do with This
In the late 1970s, Norman Lear changed television with shows like All in the Family
and The Jeffersons
. These hit shows brought real-life tensions in American families to the center of the fictional shows those same families were watching. Rocky race relations and bigoted backlash were discussed openly in politically divided white families like the Bunkers and economically striving black families like the Jeffersons. While more than a decade had passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s aspirational challenge that society not judge his children by the color of their skin, these shows rejected the color-blind narrative. Viewers could relate: racial disparity was a pervasive and persistent presence in their daily lives.
But why? In the context of this clearly racialized reality, legal scholars like Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado challenged the narrative that race—and racism—no longer explained racial disparities. From their and others’ work, critical race theory (CRT) was born.14
Their goal was to develop an intellectual framework to study if and how racism is embedded in systems, policies, and laws. Like most academic fields, CRT is a narrow, deep area of work to allow for rigor and precision in the research. For the next forty years, the topic was studied by academics and largely unknown by nonacademics.
Fast-forward to 2021. The teaching of history became front-page news, as did jargon previously reserved for that small circle of legal scholars.15
Critical race theory went from being an area of legal scholarship with a precise academic focus to a household word with little agreed-upon meaning. Unfortunately, most people using the acronym CRT
—which can stand for both critical race theory as well as culturally responsive teaching—have little understanding of either. CRT became a bucket term for describing anything ranging from mentioning racism to teaching about slavery to sharing historical facts to the original legal analysis framework.
In education, some are using CRT to describe anything that relates to mentioning nonwhite people in schools, whether it be a young-adult novel written by a nonwhite author or a history lesson about how nonwhite people were treated or an opportunity to examine one’s implicit biases about nonwhite people. None of these are actual examples of critical race theory.
It is as if pomegranate—a specific fruit—suddenly became synonymous with food, such that every item on a restaurant’s menu was now simply labeled pomegranate. Pasta, pancakes, pumpkins, and pizza—we just call them all “pomegranate.” As a result, the menu is confusing and the ordering process counterproductive. The original meaning of pomegranate is lost. We are using the same words but it is unclear if we are talking about the same thing.
The Present Reflects the Past
Put simply, critical race theory “is a way to talk openly about how America’s history has had an effect on our society and institutions today.”16
The theory takes the stance that existing laws, structures, and institutions are not as race-neutral as they appear. They are a product of the society in which they were created and thus may reflect that society’s racism, past and present. Historical patterns of racism remain in our legal system, and legacies of those patterns remain in society.
For example, the CROWN Act is legislation that prohibits discrimination based on hairstyles and hair textures in workplaces and schools.17
Several states and cities have passed the law, but it has yet to receive the necessary U.S. Senate votes to become federal law. Without this law, nothing stops an employer from essentially requiring a black employee to use toxic chemicals to straighten their hair in order to meet “professionalism” or “dress code” requirements, rather than wearing an afro, braids, cornrows, or another natural style. A critical race theory perspective would cite the lack of legal protection for non-European hairstyles and textures as evidence that whiteness is built into our country’s legal structures and institutions.
Within the legal scholarship world, sizable evidence supports this theory. For example, critical race scholars have shown that the punishment for drug offenses varies widely by the type of drug being used. There is no difference in the public health or personal risk consequences between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. However, there is a notable difference in the demographics of who tends to use these drugs: the majority of crack cocaine offenders are black; the majority of powder cocaine offenders are white. Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s with “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” campaigns, sentences for possession of one gram of crack cocaine were 100 times longer than those for one gram of powder cocaine.18
The Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 changed the ratio from 100:1 to 18:1, still a stark gap.19
This superficially nondiscriminatory set of laws leads to a racially discriminatory outcome. This is the premise of critical race theory: apparently color-blind laws can still have non-color-blind outcomes and historical roots.
We Can Handle the Emotions
Understanding critical race theory requires knowledge of how the concept of race has evolved in our country and the historical roots of laws. While critical race theory is not about knowing history for history’s sake, it does require some historical digging to contextualize what would otherwise appear to be an odd (at best) or hateful (at worst) outcome. As the field of critical race theory has evolved over the past few decades, the approach has proven useful in fields outside of law, including education, political science, and American studies. The idea remains the same. What appears race-neutral in the present may actually be discriminatory when its origins and current-day impacts are revealed.
Whether we use the actual definition of CRT, or the pomegranate distortions of the term, a similar concern arises. Some worry that this pedagogical approach leaves students feeling undeserved shame and guilt, and therefore should not be in our schools. In many states, laws are being proposed or passed prohibiting teaching CRT in K–12 schools, which is confusing, given the unlikely possibility that any K–12 school was teaching graduate-level legal scholarship.
I understand the worry, but I think we are approaching the issue the wrong way. Yes, reckoning with our country’s past might lead to guilt and shame. In fact, that is exactly why I decided to write this book. While I am not a legal expert on critical race theory, I know it is a misconception that the CRT’s goal is to teach American history in a way that vilifies and shames anyone. Those emotions may arise, not as the goal but as a by-product. And we can handle them.
The idea that facing our whitewashed past will evoke uncomfortable emotions is far from new and has little to do with critical race theory. That is an issue more for psychologists like me than for legal scholars.I
My stance is that we teach CRT (or as it should be called, history) and prepare ourselves to grapple with all the feelings that it brings.
The very fact that different accounts of historical events can evoke different emotions for different people reveals where part of the problem lies. Not only are we prone to the home team bias in our minds, we are also prone in our history books, our schools, and our classrooms. Seeing history for what it is, and what it is not, is part of seeing the problem.
See History for What It Is
If history is prone to some of the same biases as a recap from a home team fan, where does that leave us? Our first challenge is to notice how we rarely learn about or teach history with this limitation in mind. A prominent source of our historical knowledge is formal education, from a nursery school story about George Washington not telling a lie to a high school textbook delineating key battles of the Civil War. Teachers and textbooks carry an air of authority, and students like me and even Meghan often receive classroom history as a series of immutable facts.
To see history for what it is, we must first and foremost recognize that it is a story. And stories have a perspective. Educator Duncan Koerber wanted to create this awareness with a personal history assignment.20
He asked his students to write a classroom history, a family history, a local history, a personal history, or a piece of creative historical fiction, and then to reflect on the experience of being a historian.
If I did his assignment, I might write about my parents’ experiences as refugees during the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. First, I would need to figure out what was true. I would need to reconcile the multiple family members’ perspectives about what happened and when. They might have individual perspectives on whether “refugee” was the right descriptor. When there were factual contradictions about what belongings they took or where they stayed at night, I would have to decide how to deal with the discrepancy. My mother’s family and my father’s family had very different experiences in 1947; no doubt every family had a unique experience. I would need to somehow account for this variation in stating what was true.
Both of my parents were raised in mostly Hindu families, so I would be sharing their perspective, not those of entirely Muslim families or of Sikh families. Conflicts and violence were pervasive, and so was (is) finger-pointing for the causes of the conflicts and violence.
Thus, determining the truth would not be straightforward. As one of Koerber’s students reflected, “Yes, I feel that my stories represent the truth of what happened, from my perspective. I mean, in a way, I feel like there is no such thing as ‘truth’ because everyone sees things in a different way.” I would have to sort through everyone’s “truths” in order to figure out what was true.
Second, I would depend on memory and documentation. My parents were children at the time. Trauma would make remembering difficult as well. For my father, who saw thousands of dead bodies during the journey as a young boy, painful memories are difficult to revisit. Surely that trauma would affect his memory. Similarly, some of Koerber’s students struggled: “I had a hard time remembering details, especially the one about childhood because it was so long ago.”
Third, I would need to decide what to include and exclude. It is neither desirable nor feasible for historians to include everything. Do I treat Great Britain as the nostalgic hero or traumatizing villain in dividing my parents’ homeland, or not mention Great Britain at all? Do I explore Mohandas Gandhi’s role? Once I include something, does that make it more likely others will as well? Or, once I exclude something, is it forgotten forever? And (how) do I tell stories that will potentially upset family members who have already endured so much hardship?
My micro-experience of being a historian highlights how little of history is pure fact. When I move from being a passive recipient of history produced by others to a producer of historical accounts, the experience strips me of the illusion of history as a series of immutable facts. Historians Richard Marius and Mel Page explain: “Historians must always put something of themselves into the stories they tell; never are they empty vessels through which the records of the past spew forth as if they were an untouched truth about the past.”21
Try your own “doing history” thought experiment in your mind or on paper. What do you include and exclude? Which perspectives do you represent? What is not well remembered or documented? Now think about how the challenges you experienced would grow exponentially if the assignment were to capture the history of an event affecting not just you or your family, but an entire society.
No matter how thoughtful or thorough the producer of the historical account, the history will always be told through their lens, the product of their mind. And everything we receive is the product of how our own mind works, including the good-guys-win mindset and the home team bias. When we know this, we can step outside the history we are consuming and be “meta” about it, just as historiographers must do.
Be a Historiographer
Historiographers are in constant conversation with themselves. They are historians who study how we study history. They examine whose perspectives are represented and whose are not, what has been forgotten or undocumented, what narratives do not align with primary sources, and what primary sources have been lost or destroyed. In the “doing history” assignment above, students experience the work of the historian when they write history and the work of the historiographer when they reflect about the process of writing history.
Historiographer James Loewen gave himself an unenviable, multiyear homework assignment. He sat in a room at the Smithsonian Institution with a pile of twelve of the most popular American history textbooks from the mid-1990s. They averaged 4.5 pounds and 888 pages… each. He read every single page. In 2006 he updated his analysis by reading six new books; each text averaged almost six pounds and 1,150 pages.
Loewen shares his findings from analyzing eighteen textbooks in the updated, 2006 edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me
For example, only nine of the eighteen textbooks listed the word racism
(or a similar term like “racial discrimination” in the index). Even in those nine that listed the term, only one actually defined it in the text; several of the nine listed the term but did not address the issue. Rather, the term signaled coverage of a topic like slavery or segregation, which was somehow explained without mention of racism.
This omission means that if a student were to look up racism in the index, they might be referred to pages discussing segregation. But the explanation of segregation would not mention racism. This perplexes me. It would be like looking up smoking in the index and being referred to a section on lung cancer that never mentioned smoking. Perhaps more damningly, if a reader were to not
consult the index (as few readers do), they would read an entire explanation of segregation or slavery with no mention of racism.
Loewen notes an improvement over time in the truth-telling about the brutality of slavery in many of the texts, but a startling silence on the people committing the brutal acts. “They present slavery virtually as uncaused, a tragedy, rather than a wrong perpetrated by some people on others.” All of the textbooks failed to wrestle with or deeply cover the paradox of founding fathers who enslaved Africans. As a result, these texts form an influential system that whitewashes rather than reckons with our past.
In a more recent 2017 study, the Southern Poverty Law Center endeavored to understand teaching and learning about slavery in American schools.23
They assembled a panel of experts—the SPLC staff, a history professor whose research focuses on slavery, and an independent education researcher. They developed a thirty-point rubric to evaluate how the texts depicted slavery. The panel reviewed ten highly used history texts and surveyed 1,700 social studies teachers and 1,000 high school seniors.
The average grade: 46 percent. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, the professor on the panel, told the New York Times,
“We are committing educational malpractice.”24
Items on the rubric included how the history of slavery was integrated throughout the book—the connecting of the dots between the causes and effects. The poor grade reflects how disconnected slavery is from how the rest of our country’s history is told.
This poor grade is not an esoteric statistic or academic exercise. Meghan, the star history student, was unfamiliar with these studies when I mentioned them. Yet she bears the burden of this low grade. Because she learned about slavery in a detached and disconnected way as a child, she was not as well equipped as she wanted to be to understand today’s world and how it came to be. As an adult, she is now having to unlearn and relearn the topic. As someone who loves her country and takes pride in knowing its history, this patriot’s dilemma is doubly painful, as she has to face a reality she did not know about and the reality of her ignorance. She read, bought, and still owns the high school textbook, so why did she not know? If someone as passionate about history as her did not know, what chance do people like me have?
Perhaps Norman Lear had it right. We need to show things for how they are. Perhaps critical race theory has it right. We need to show where things came from. Perhaps Meghan has it right. We need to revisit the textbook.
Mommy, Where Do Textbooks Come From?
I do not envy history teachers. They must cover a staggering amount of material. Young people are notoriously myopic, so it is difficult to make the subject relevant. State standards limit teachers’ capacity to innovate. And the history textbook itself is the product of highly politicized negotiation. One education reporter writes that “its very construction is essentially a compromise between experts and politicians, groups with sometimes competing agendas… they pass through innumerable hands before they ever reach a classroom.”25
Those hands include the people who write the state social studies standards; politicians who write state laws; and panels of appointees who review drafts and then submit their edits to publishers. In other words, non-historians and non-educators play a significant role in how history teachers teach, which would be something like non-athletes and non-coaches playing a significant role in how a sports team plays. Historical expertise does not solely determine what is taught in our classrooms.
Understanding this process helps us understand textbooks as subjective accounts. An investigation by the New York Times
compared textbooks from California and Texas side by side. Same publisher, same title, same authors. They found significant variation between what was taught. For example, a student in California will learn about redlining and housing discrimination after World War II; a student in Texas will not. This difference has meaningful impact. Without this knowledge, the blatant differences in where black and white people live in the United States and the resources of those communities will appear to be arbitrary or a product of individual choices, not the product of past and present systems.
Let’s put this in context. I graduated from high school in 1986. Like Meghan, I had terrific teachers, but unlike Meghan, I had no particular fondness for history or my textbook. Most likely I learned from one or more of the texts Loewen analyzed in my history courses, as did anyone who graduated from high school in the United States before 2006.
When I review the very short subset of Loewen’s findings above, I notice what we did not learn. We did not learn how to talk about racism. We did not learn to see the problem. We did not learn how to emotionally prepare for feelings of shame, guilt, or denial… what I think of as dressing for the weather. We did not learn how to embrace the paradox of a history filled with both beauty and brutality or to connect the dots between what happened before and what is happening now. We did not learn how to recognize and reject fables that seem better suited for children than adults. And we did not learn how to take responsibility for harm or to build the grit needed to stick with the work of building a more perfect union. There are essential tools for this work that we were never given.
Now we are taking a pop quiz on material we never covered. No wonder we struggle to grasp systemic racism, unconscious bias, and white supremacy. No wonder our country is struggling to move forward from the past. No wonder we are immersed in a confused and emotional debate over critical race theory.
The point of learning about the past is to serve us in the present. How and what we remember is not intended to shame us, but to protect us from our own home team bias. If we fail to remember what happened then, we fail to see what is happening now.
Let’s Look at Apartheid
In the Afrikaans language, apartheid
means “apartness.” Beginning in 1948, the National Party, which controlled the South African government at the time, began implementing a series of programs and laws that divided the country by race. Where you lived and worked depended on whether you were classified as Bantu (all black Africans), Coloured (mixed race), white, or Asian (Indian and Pakistani).
This racial classification also determined whether you could move around freely without documents, what jobs you could apply for, whether you could own land, what public facilities you could use, whom you could date or marry, and what schools your children could attend. While whites comprised 20 percent of the population, 80 percent of the country’s land was allocated for their use only.26
Only whites could vote and hold political office. Protesters were regularly killed or arrested. Millions of people were forcibly removed from their homes. Migrant laborers were exploited and beaten while doing dangerous work. Families were separated.
None of this is ancient history. Talk show host Trevor Noah, not even forty years old, was a child under apartheid and puts it bluntly in his memoir, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood:
“In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”27
Nelson Mandela and other activists spent decades trying to abolish apartheid, which Mandela chronicles in his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom
Mandela was imprisoned for his activism for twenty-seven years and continued to push for change from prison. Finally, in the early 1990s, the legal infrastructure of apartheid began to be dismantled and by the mid-1990s, Mandela became the country’s president. While many de facto forms of apartheid remained, its legal foundation had been toppled.
Knowledge in the Blood
In the aftermath of apartheid, a black scholar named Jonathan Jansen became the first black rector and vice chancellor of the University of the Free State in South Africa and the first black dean of education at the historically white University of Pretoria. He was tasked with leading white South African students into a new chapter of their country’s future, a generation living through one of the most “dramatic social transitions of the twentieth century.”
The University of Pretoria was a central force in apartheid. The school served as a feeder of white civil servants who would serve the apartheid government. “Scholars” used their respective disciplines to claim scientific legitimacy for apartheid. Many of the nation’s most influential leaders, businesspeople, judges, researchers, and athletes were university alumni. Under apartheid, Jansen explains, “There was no racial tension, because white instructors taught white students about white society with a white curriculum.”29
As he was entering what he called the “heart of whiteness,” several questions dogged Jansen. He wanted to learn how white students remembered apartheid, how young Afrikaners who never lived under apartheid perceived that time, and how whites born at the same time Mandela exited prison understood their country. In his book Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past,
Jansen considers those questions alongside his lived experience. He explains the title of his book:
Knowledge in the blood for me means knowledge embedded in the emotional, psychic, spiritual, social, economic, political, and psychological lives of a community. Such is the knowledge transmitted faithfully to the second generation of Afrikaner students. It is not, therefore, knowledge that simply dissipates like the morning mist under the pressing sunshine of a new regime of truth; if it were, then curriculum change would be a relatively straightforward matter. Knowledge in the blood is habitual, a knowledge that has long been routinized in how the second generation see the world and themselves, and how they understand others. It is emphatic knowledge that does not tolerate ambiguity; this dead certainty was long given its authority by a political and theological order that authorized such knowledge as singular, sanctified, and sure. But it is also a defensive knowledge that reacts against and resists rival knowledge, for this inherited truth was conceived and delivered in the face of enemies.30
As Jansen observed how his white students, their parents, and his colleagues thought about apartheid, he extrapolated three prevailing narratives: 1) nothing happened, 2) something happened, now get over it, and 3) terrible things happened.
In the “nothing happened” narrative, apartheid was a necessary and useful way of creating social order and bolstering black people’s capacity to function as equals. When the time was right, it was always planned that apartheid would end and blacks would be given things like the right to vote. In this narrative, no violence, oppression, or dispossession occurred. Everyone benefited from apartheid. In the “nothing happened” narrative, nothing bad happened.
The “something happened” narrative acknowledges rogue individuals—bad apples. But there was a broader need for apartheid and whatever harm was done is over, so now “get over it.” A popular South African song captured this narrative. Translated into English, its title is “no longer,” with lyrics about refusing to apologize anymore.31
Finally, there is the “terrible things happened” narrative. This group came to the narrative in different ways. Some opposed apartheid all along. Others gradually came to understand its wrongs, mostly around and after 1994. Still others had a dramatic and singular epiphany. This narrative leads to real reckoning.
Jansen watched white Afrikaner students whose upbringing offered a particular racist narrative adjust to living and learning with black students. Those who felt that nothing happened or something happened (now get over it) struggled the most. When the truth or a “counternarrative” was revealed, he noted their reaction tended to be “aggressive and angry, as the single story of an innocent past starts to unravel in front of their eyes.”
Narrative Systems in the United States
While Jansen’s observations are particular to the cultural and historical context of South Africa, the similarities to the United States are striking. In the United States, the nothing-happened group sees our country’s treatment of blacks, Native Americans, and others as means to an end, the price to pay for progress, security, and prosperity. If anything, according to this narrative, those groups benefited from how they were treated. Similarly, to some in South Africa, apartheid “overall was a brilliant scheme for keeping racial order and peace.” The white architects of apartheid are to be lauded for understanding the needs of blacks.
As in South Africa, the something-happened group sees our country’s wrongs as deep, historical issues, so long ago. Once slavery ended, our country manifested its destiny and it is time to get over the distant past. Meghan’s recollection of how she learned American history aligns with this narrative. If anything, today’s society favors those harmed in the past, goes this narrative.
Finally, the terrible-things-happened narrative connects the past to the present. It can be found among those who have been heartbroken for decades and those for whom George Floyd’s murder was a turning point. Real reckoning and the progress it seeds require this narrative.
Trevor Noah’s recollection also aligns with the “something happened” narrative. He writes, “In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, the history of racism is taught like this: ‘There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done. It was the same for us.’ Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. ‘Let’s move on.’?”
As Jansen explores how these narratives are perpetuated over generations, he focuses on curriculum, recalling an oft-told story with the punch line, “Show me your curriculum and I’ll tell you who is in power.” Easiest to see, children learn the official curriculum from textbooks. Less visible is the hidden, or unofficial curriculum. Finally, and least obvious, students learn the null curriculum, what is not included. We see the parallel to what students like Meghan do—and do not—learn in history classes. The narratives act as powerful systems.
A German Thought Experiment
Susan Neiman spent her childhood in the American South and much of her adulthood in Germany. In her book Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil,
she compares how Germans have engaged with the Holocaust and Nazi history to how Americans have engaged with the history of slavery and racism.32
The contrast, she reports, is striking. In Germany, students learn from a very early age that “terrible things happened.”
References to Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust abound in German artwork, literature, television, and movies. A football-field-sized memorial sits in the center of Berlin. “Stumbling stone” markers sit in front of the homes where Jewish residents once lived before being arrested by Nazi authorities. The public reminders to reckon are pervasive. While unrepentant Germans certainly exist and Germany could do plenty more, the country’s collective memory includes vivid, salient reminders of past horrors and the collective knowledge includes the indisputable, unfathomable fact of millions of people murdered and many more held in concentration camps.
Neiman encourages a thought experiment, wondering what similar reminders might be in the United States. A slavery memorial in the center of Washington, D.C.? Markers on every building in the country built by enslaved people? Slavery museums in every state where people were enslaved? My guess is yes, yes, and yes.
Clearly, the United States and Germany differ. What surprised Neiman most was the recency of this difference. When she reviewed postwar German writing—such as memoirs and novels—she found little evidence of reckoning. Rather, she found great denial, little remorse, and even a posture of victimhood over lost property and lives. She compared the “moral myopia” of the time to the Lost Cause mentality following the Civil War in which the realities of the Confederate support for slavery were mythologized.
Neiman argues that things changed in the 1960s, when the children and grandchildren of Nazis watched the televised Eichmann and Auschwitz trials. Appalled, they became active (un)learners and began to reckon with their dark past. The rise of the alt-right in Germany and elsewhere makes clear that it has not been a complete success, but the contrast with the United States is clear. Reckoning is taking longer in the United States but perhaps we can learn from Germany. Perhaps we are in a twenty-first-century awakening, propelled by social media and television, and trickling down into our schools.
Let’s Get Back to the Fundamentals
When I caught Jared Urban on the phone, he was in Zionsville, Indiana, an Indianapolis suburb with a leafy, brick-lined main street and an ice cream shop loved by kids from neighboring towns. A white high school history teacher and football coach, he was heading to a COVID-era football practice as in-person practices resumed with social distancing. “We are doing lots of conditioning and technique stuff,” he told me. While the circumstances were not ideal, he noticed that his players, and his history students, were focusing on the fundamentals. “There is some knowledge gained through this that we would not have ordinarily gained.”
When teaching history, Jared has long favored the fundamentals—primary sources and first-person perspectives. He often remembers a story told by one of his college professors. The professor was Hispanic and when growing up in Colorado would sometimes be taunted by kids saying that he and his family should “go home.” Ironically, his family had been there for generations longer than the bullies.
“Well, this is home,” he would retort. “My family has lived here for hundreds and hundreds of years, way before this was even the United States.” The declaration to “go home” was ironic, at best, and reflected their narrow perspective of American history.
His professor’s story, Jared says, speaks to the importance of multiple first-person perspectives, in which the people within an experience or culture report their own story. If the story were a football game like the one played in 1952 between Dartmouth and Princeton, it would include the perspectives of players from both teams, fans, coaches, and family members, not only the perspective of one single player. Voices, like those of his professor’s family, “have been deliberately erased,” says Jared, yet “those voices and their narrative matter more than anyone else’s.”
So Jared was intrigued when his colleague Kris Devereaux offered him and his colleagues an opportunity. Kris served as the assistant superintendent of academics in the district. Her vision was to take several dozen educators on a professional development trip in February 2020 to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., as well as the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
While that itinerary was common, the focus was unique. With a force-of-nature spirit, Kris had a vision. Like Jared, Kris saw the risk of stories told from a single perspective in the classroom and wanted to dive deep into multiple perspectives and multiple narratives. She wanted to invite each educator to first examine their own identities and how those identities might make them more or less aware of certain perspectives. Then she wanted to create an experience where each educator could access a range of perspectives about American history. Threaded throughout, she wanted her participants to view this as not just an intellectual exercise, but also as an emotional one. To sustain their efforts, they would need to cope with the guilt, shame, and grief that arose. Her ambitious vision was that social studies teachers would return home inspired to revise their instructional practices, curricula, and materials.
Kris began recruiting teachers. One of them was Shawn Wooden, a veteran black teacher, administrator, and principal. A few months after the trip, I asked Shawn about his decision to sign up. Kris’s vision drew him in. “I already know the history of Montgomery. I am not meaning to be cold, but if you look at it in a tourist kind of way, you might feel, ‘Okay, I did that, what will I do next?’?” he told me.
“That’s not why we did it. We did it to make our community better for those who have been discriminated against and inform the teaching in our very wealthy suburban community.” Shawn added, with a smile in his voice, “I love that every single person I talk to about this asked if it was my idea and that it wasn’t. Kris [who is white] had the courage to go to her superiors and school board to propose this and ask for funding.”
Exhausting and Exhilarating
Once the recruiting was complete, Kris invited the group into pre-work discussions and readings, preparing them for both the intellectual and emotional work ahead. She knew that hearing narratives that conflicted with their own would be demanding, both intellectually and emotionally.II
She expected they would be both exhausted and exhilarated. Even those who had a solid knowledge base would be exposed to a range of specific perspectives as well as a more experiential and emotional form of learning.
As Kris predicted, the trip was challenging. “Some people struggled with questions of faith. They wondered how this [injustice] could happen alongside their beliefs of a just God,” she remembered. “I could just see it on their faces, that they were struggling,” she recalls. Good guys were supposed to win. Baked into the emotional struggle was the shame of confronting their own ignorance: some of the narratives they were hearing were new to them, a group of well-trained, well-educated, well-intended social studies teachers.
Stevie Frank, a white writing and social studies teacher in Zionsville, was one of those teachers. Stevie had thought critically about history before. In fact, she cowrote an article33
in 2014 that began, “Many of us grew up trusting the information that our textbooks provided.” The article shares her own journey to realizing the importance of multiple perspectives and exercises she had used with her own students. One exercise takes students into the perspective of an indigenous boy who questions the motives of a captain and his crew arriving on his shores. The students later realize the captain was Christopher Columbus. In another coauthored article,34
she offered a framework for how to help students think critically about history.
Still, Stevie says, the experience “changed me.” While she describes herself as someone who does not cry often in front of others, she found herself crying in a bathroom stall multiple times. She kept asking herself, “Why didn’t I know more about this? Why was I not painted a picture of how bad this truly was?”
Perhaps the difference was the visceral experience of hearing firsthand accounts on the trip. I asked her how she would incorporate this in her classroom. “I came back ready to do this,” she said. She wanted her students to have the same rich learning experience she had just had.
Less than a month after the trip ended, the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in the United States. Nonetheless, Stevie remained determined. “I spent hours combing through the Smithsonian websites for primary sources and we used them online,” she explains. She offered students an array of firsthand accounts (for example, related to the Underground Railroad) to experience. Each student then selected a primary source from the selection and did a video reflection about what they learned and what feelings it brought up for them.
Tell the Stories
I asked Shawn how the trip would affect his work as a teacher-turned-administrator. “I think I will share more of my own family’s oral history,” he says. It was something he had done occasionally, and he wanted to do it more often. Shawn’s grandfather passed away when Shawn was young, but his grandmother often shared his stories. While his grandfather fought for his country in World War II, his grandparents were apart for the first three years of their marriage. When he finally returned via ship from England, there was a warm homecoming welcome. “It was huge,” Shawn tells me.
Then the soldiers boarded buses to return to Indianapolis. The hero’s welcome became a Jim Crow rebuff… for the black soldiers, that is. Shawn’s grandfather had to stay on the bus while his white buddies bought him food to eat outside. “To give that sacrifice and then to come home and not be able to walk in a restaurant even in uniform,” Shawn says, pausing for a moment. “I think we can paint a better picture. I’m going to help teachers tell this story. The oral history matters. I think we can help this connect for the kids.”
Jared said, “One of the best things about our trip was getting the idea across that what we teach is an incomplete history. There are narratives that are not included that have to be included to paint a full narrative of what the United States really is. If you really wanna value a country, you have to look at its good, its bad, and its ugly at the same weight. And if we don’t do that, we don’t do ourselves a service of really becoming how great we could really become.”
Students like Meghan want to learn and educators like Kris, Stevie, Shawn, and Jared want to teach. Many of us, like them, love our country and want to make it better. Our first tool is to see the problem—in how our minds work, how our textbooks are written, and how our patriotism bounds us. By seeing the psychological and institutional systems that make up the problem, we can address them and mitigate their impact. But how? We tackle that next.
- I. In fact, I contracted to write this book in 2019, two years before the school board and national news debates over critical race theory took off in spring 2021. These issues are not new.
- II. I met Kris when she read my first book and reached out to ask me for my help in designing the trip, unaware that I was working on this highly relevant second book. While I rarely accept paid consulting assignments, the opportunity to offer guidance on tools (such as those in this book) and learn from the participants’ experiences was too fascinating to decline.