The Whitewashing of History: To Educate for Democracy, We Must Take Our Messages beyond the Academy

On July 1, 2021, just a few hours before its scheduled start, a free virtual program with two of the three authors of Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth was canceled after the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum withdrew as a cohost. The following day, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who serves on the State Preservation Board, the museum’s parent agency, tweeted, “I told staff to cancel this event as soon as I found out about it. . . . This fact-free rewriting of TX history has no place.” What Patrick termed “fact-free rewriting” was an effort by authors Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford to separate myth from reality, using evidence-based research to examine the origin story around Texas and the role of the Battle of the Alamo in it. The authors explore how Texas history, while perpetuating Disney-inspired fantasies about how the battle ended, often fails to acknowledge the contributions of Tejanos, Texans of Mexican origin, to the battle or the role of slavery in the fight for Texas independence. “Our understanding of history changes over time as the historical record is revealed through new research and insight, but our relationship to history remains complex and often very personal,” said Margaret Koch, director of the Bullock, in promoting the event.

Two weeks earlier, State House legislators passed Texas House Bill 3979, which prohibits teachers in state-funded schools from being “compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs,” specifically regarding issues surrounding race and racism in the United States. The bill also forbids requiring an understanding of the 1619 Project, the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times project that places slavery and the contributions of African Americans at the center of US history. This proscription coincides with Governor Greg Abbott signing a “patriotic education” bill that establishes a nine-person advisory committee called the “1836 Project” to promote Texas values, including the “Christian heritage of this state.” Critics have challenged the underlying message of legislation named for the year the state adopted a constitution that offered protection to slaveholders, imposed new slave codes, and prohibited free Black people from permanently residing in the Republic of Texas. Some have also argued that 1865—two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, when federal troops arrived in Galveston to ensure all enslaved people were freed—would have been a more appropriate perspective from which to tell the state’s history.

Texas is not alone in its efforts to restrict education on racism, bias, and the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to US history. As of mid-July, twenty-five other states had introduced similar bills or other efforts targeting academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of “divisive concepts” in schools, colleges, and universities. Political jockeying aimed at controlling which history gets recognized, suppressing inconvenient truths, and resisting initiatives to tell a more comprehensive, inclusive story of our nation’s history has taken hold in this post-truth environment in which facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. As a result, in collaboration with PEN America, the American Historical Association, and the American Association of University Professors, the Association of American Colleges and Universities issued a joint statement of concern, signed by more than one hundred other groups, calling for an end to legislative proposals that risk infringing on academic freedom, undermining informed citizenship, and whitewashing history.

But the fact is that “Education Not Indoctrination” is the rallying cry on both sides of the debate over how history should be taught. Politicians advocating for restrictive legislation are responding to a growing populist base that asserts that a liberal bias exists in higher education and exhibits increasing contempt for experts. Under the circumstances, engaged pluralism, grounded in collaborating across difference, is more critical than ever for social transformation and for the strength of our nation. Educating for democracy requires taking our messages beyond the academy and partnering with public artists and humanists in shaping an inclusive American story in ways that are accessible to all.

New generations have been introduced to the Tulsa Race Massacre, Jim Crow, The Green Book, the Harlem Renaissance, and other historical events, references, and periods through popular culture with shows such as HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft Country and comics like Bitter Root. Colleges and universities, museums, and libraries must work together to do the same, denouncing acts like the cancellation of the Forget the Alamo program, which silence diverse perspectives and disrupt the unfettered pursuit of the truth foundational to liberal education.

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