Past Tense

Reframing the ‘History Wars’ Debate With Findings From a National Survey

By Peter Burkholder

An illustration of a history textbook with historical events and movements spilling out of the pages. These include, the Statue of Liberty, explorers, wars and Civil Rights protests.

(Illustration: Eiko Ojala)

It seems that hardly a day goes by without another horror story about history education in this country. Raucous school board meetings, book bans, legislation against contentious topics — it’s an unending news deluge that sheds more heat than light on the realities of history instruction and on Americans’ views of the past.

These struggles aren’t anything new. Newspaper articles from more than 100 years ago lamented how little students knew about basic history. Saying the wrong thing in the classroom during the Red Scare could get an instructor fired. And the 1990s saw its fair share of accusations that history was under assault, as professionals and members of Congress butted heads over national standards.

These are just some of the reasons that I spearheaded a major investigation into our collective understandings and uses of the past. Nearly a quarter century had transpired since a national survey had gathered such information, so another study was well past due. Assisted by a team of experts, including former FDU Poll director and political science professor Krista Jenkins and personnel from the American Historical Association, and bolstered by funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we embarked in the fall of 2020 on a journey into the controversies endemic to history and the nation’s broader comprehension of the field.

So, what did we learn?

Uncomfortable Histories

Front and center in today’s educational disputes are “divisive concepts.” Whether it’s the supposed teaching of critical race theory or the alleged indoctrination of learners, it’s an article of faith that people don’t want to experience discomfort when confronting the past.

Our survey results indicate that nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly 80 percent of respondents said that the teaching of uncomfortable history is appropriate. This trend held for every demographic subgroup, whether by age bracket, region of the country, college degree-holder or not, race and ethnicity or gender.

Even political affiliation failed to matter much, with 78 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans agreeing that discomfort has a place in history education. In fact, a mere 10 percent of poll respondents said they avoid looking further into past episodes they find unsettling. Contrary to legislative actions and media reports, Americans have not just the stomach for divisive history, but a genuine appetite for it.

Polarizing Issues

Yet, public perceptions about the work historians do can be genuinely polarizing at times. For example, survey respondents viewed the history of women as a highly neglected topic, with female respondents more prone to feel that way than men were. Racial and ethnic minority histories were likewise seen by people of color as underrepresented, relative to white respondents’ views.

Some of the most divergent results concerned interest devoted by historians to the LGBTQ community, with 62 percent of respondents voicing that either too much or too little attention is paid. Younger respondents, perhaps unsurprisingly, were far more likely than older cohorts to say that insufficient consideration is given to LGBTQ history. Perhaps just as predictably, Democrats and Republicans strongly diverged, with more than 30 percentage points separating perceptions of historians’ work devoted to this issue.

It’s clear why politicians might try to harness such divisions in hopes of gaining a political advantage. Glenn Youngkin’s narrow victory in the 2019 race for Virginia governor owes something to his deployment of educational anxieties as a wedge issue. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears to be trying to do much the same as he makes a bid for the White House. But our poll’s findings on the public’s enthusiasm for “divisive topics” in history might give pause to such efforts. Indeed, attempts to exploit cultural divisions largely failed in the 2022 midterms.

Revisionist History

Maybe it’s not the divisiveness of history but its unsettled nature that results in public worries and calls for regulation. Unlike in the sciences where agreed-upon answers are often attainable, historians seem to constantly change their stories, thereby turning the historical terra firma under learners’ feet into quicksand. The 1619 Project is one prominent example of an alternative story of America’s past — one that noticeably diverges from the standard narrative focusing on white men’s triumphal achievements. Why can’t historians just “get it right” and arrive at a consensus?

But a solid majority of survey respondents, 62 percent, felt that knowledge of past people and events should change over time, indicating that new or modified narratives like the 1619 Project are appropriate and drive understanding forward.

Such liberal outlooks have their limits, though, as seen in the poll’s nearly evenly divided views on whether history should celebrate or question the nation’s past. Nevertheless, the fact that 53 percent were open to a reinterpretation of American history highlights a partial acceptance of changes in how we remember and transmit past events.

Maybe without knowing it, these respondents were voicing approval of “historical revisionism,” a process that lies at the heart of the historian’s craft but conjures up suspicion in the eyes of some nonprofessionals. How respondents conceived of history itself strongly predicted their views on this topic. Fifty-eight percent of those seeing history merely as an assembly of facts thought revisionism justified, whereas a much higher 73 percent of respondents viewing history as explanation agreed.

A Way Forward?

Those last two data points offer us, if not a way out, then at least a reframing of our current predicament. As long as the American public conceives of history primarily as the sum of its factual parts (66 percent in our survey held that view), arguments over which facts to teach will continue.

The catch is that professional historians don’t see history as a long list of particulars to memorize. Instead, they overwhelmingly see it as explanation. An analogy is to think that understanding math is a matter of knowing lots of numbers, and that math experts simply know more numbers than nonmathematicians do. Those notions are silly on the face of it, yet their analogues are too often assumed to apply to the case of history and its practitioners.

We know that historians don’t just command more facts than their students do. Rather, professionals think about the past in fundamentally different ways: they embrace the ambiguity of primary sources, and they can weigh the validity of contrasting evidence-based arguments.

Most importantly, the questions historians bring to bear on any given topic are substantially different from what non-professionals ask.

These skills are conveniently referred to as “historical thinking,” and the good news is that they’re teachable. But there are barriers to their implementation.

First, a historical thinking approach to the past is quite different from what most students have experienced in the classroom: our poll revealed that more than three-fourths of respondents had encountered high school history as mostly factual acquisition. A shift from one approach to the other isn’t feasible without considerable training and buy-in from learners, instructors and stakeholders alike.

Second, historical thinking, though learnable, takes more time and effort than memorization. Our survey showed that history-as-inquiry was the more desirable approach, but once they see what’s actually involved, it’s not unusual for learners to prefer the simplicity and familiarity of basic facts. And although successful historians engage in historical thinking, they may not be aware of it and are thus unable to teach it — a phenomenon called the “curse of expertise.” Meanwhile, instructors at all levels are too often disincentivized to teach history as ways of thinking about the past.

The historical thinking alternative doesn’t eliminate arguments over which pasts appear in classrooms, but it does reframe the whole debate by asking what the goal of history education should be. Is it an ability to recall facts about a particular topic? Or is it a deeper understanding of where those facts come from, and how they support or call into question a given explanation?

Swapping out one set of stories for another won’t magically result in more sophisticated understandings of the past, nor is vilifying selected subject matter a wedge issue guaranteed to resonate at the ballot box. But there is some complementarity between “divisive concepts” and historical thinking because empathy is a critical component of the latter skillset.

Here, I refer to deliberate attempts to see things from other people’s perspectives as opposed to instantly judging them in an exercise known as “presentism.” As a medievalist, I see the presentist impulse all too often in learners, who may ridicule or reject people from long ago and far away because their values and actions are strange and foreign. Such attitudes mirror the suspicions and distrust endemic to society’s fights over the past.

But therein lies hope, too. Empathy, whether nurtured through more diverse content matter, historical thinking or both, is a capacity that can span time and space, fostering better understandings of people both past and present. Students, teachers, parents, school boards, politicians and voters all stand to benefit from coming to grips with difficult historical episodes and the methods historians deploy to explain them.

Pete Burkholder is trained as a premodernist, though he maintains a wide range of research and teaching interests. Since his 2005 arrival at FDU, he’s taught classes on the Roman Empire; conspiracy theories; history and film; medieval warfare and many other topics.

Head shot of a man wearing a sports coat and glasses.

He serves on several editorial, journal and national advisory boards, including The Teaching Professor and the Society for History Education.

A recipient of numerous institutional and national-level awards, he received FDU’s Distinguished Faculty Award for Research and Scholarship in 2020, the Distinguished Faculty Award for Teaching in 2013 and the Becton College Teacher of the Year Award in 2009.

In 2015, he was honored by the American Historical Association with the William and Edwyna Gilbert Award for the best article on teaching history. The survey referred to in this article was published by the American Historical Association in 2021.