The Split in How Americans Think About Our Collective Past is Real
But there’s a way out of the ‘history wars’
What are Americans supposed to know about the history of their country? Whose stories should be taught in classrooms, whose should be omitted and who decides? Such questions inform recent education bills like Louisiana’s HB564 and Iowa’s HF802, which prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts” and are just two of the latest entrants in an often-contentious dialogue reaching back to the founding of the Republic itself. But while there’s been a steady stream of opinions from politicians, pundits and professors about where to find “Historical Truth,” it’s always been hard to know how exactly the American public would answer these questions.
Our recent national survey of people’s understandings and uses of the past, the full results of which will be published this summer, gives voice to the unheard masses. A collaboration between the American Historical Association and Fairleigh Dickinson University, and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the poll of 1,816 Americans reveals the tensions of a nation riven by racist violence and political anxieties. Yet, those same results are reason for optimism, revealing commonality and paths forward for a divided nation.
The survey data suggest the divisions are real when it comes to how we think about our collective past. For example, 69 percent of respondents self-identifying as Democrats believe that women generally receive too little historical attention, while fewer than half that number (34 percent) of Republicans agree. That trend continues for other groups: racial and ethnic minorities, as well as the LGBTQ community, are seen by Democrats as shortchanged by historians, by a two- or even three-to-one margin, relative to their Republican counterparts’ views. Meanwhile, Republicans are up to twice as likely as Democrats to say that religious groups, the Founding Fathers and the military get inadequate historical consideration. Most strikingly, 84 percent of Republicans believe that history should celebrate our nation’s past, while 70 percent of Democrats think history should question it.
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