Social Studies

Americans Do Disagree on How History Should Be Taught—But Less Than They Think

By Sarah Schwartz — December 07, 2022 4 min read
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How should schools teach the nation’s history? Americans are less divided than they think they are on the question, according to a new study.

The report, from the international research and civic action group More in Common, adds to a growing body of evidence showing that most U.S. adults want teachers to focus on both the triumphs and the dark chapters of American history.

There are some areas of disagreement: How much focus to devote to each, and what lines to draw between the past and the present, are still areas of debate, More in Common’s surveys showed.

But the new research suggests that the discourse around the “history wars” is warping Americans ideas about what their political opponents actually believe—potentially making it harder to find shared points of agreement.

The group paired with the polling company YouGov to run three surveys of 5,500 adults over the course of 2022, weighted to be representative of American citizens. It also conducted online focus groups with 281 people and nine in-depth interviews.

Researchers found what they call a “perception gap”—a difference between what Democrats and Republicans think members of the other party believe, and what members of that other group actually do believe.

“Many Republicans believe most Democrats want to teach a history defined by shameful oppression and white guilt. Many Democrats believe most Republicans want to focus on the white majority and overlook slavery and racism. But we found that both impressions are wrong,” the report reads.

For example, only 35 percent of Democrats thought that Republicans would say that “Americans have a responsibility to learn from our past and fix our mistakes.” But 93 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement.

On the other side, only 45 percent of Republicans thought Democrats would want students to “learn about how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution advanced freedom and equality.” But 92 percent of Democrats said students should learn this.

See more questions that revealed perception gaps below:

Chart showing Democrats Underestimate Republicans’ Willingness To Recognize Failures in American History and the Roles of Minority Groups in Making America Better, Source: More in Common
Chart showing the Republicans Underestimate Democrats’ Commitment To Celebrating American Achievements and Overall Story of Progress, Source: More in Common

“Conceptually, a perception gap is not necessarily a problem if it were to exist in isolation. The problem arises when perception gaps coincide with, and probably exacerbate, negative sentiment toward each other,” said Dan Vallone, the U.S. director of More in Common, and an author of the report.

That combination can fuel “feelings of threat, feelings of anger,” he said.

Disagreements focus on how to present the American story

Education Week and other outlets have traced how some Republican politicians and pundits have fomented this distrust as an election strategy over the past two years.

Some have claimed that Democrats want to teach children to hate America and feel guilty for being white—usually with no proof that these things are happening in classrooms.

In part driven by this messaging, parents in some school districts across the country have pushed school boards to ban books that discuss historical events like the U.S. civil rights movement, books that feature characters of color, or books that cover LGBTQ issues.

Even if these parents don’t represent the majority—as the More in Common study would suggest—their actions have had substantial ripple effects through school systems, from the burden they place on school board members to the scrutiny they invite on teachers’ practice. In some states, loud debates have upended the revision process for state social studies standards.

And although there’s a core collection of civil rghts heroes and founding fathers that most U.S. adults think children should learn about, survey respondents did have real disagreements in other areas.

Much of this divergence is on questions of emphasis and interpretation—how to present the American story.

Republicans’ and Democrats’ views differed on two main issues: 1) whether the United States needs to more publicly acknowledge past wrongs, in order to be held accountable for the harm they have caused, and 2) how important it is for children to learn about the history of Americans whose racial backgrounds are different from their own.

The researchers found that these views differed somewhat by race. But they differed much more by ideology. From previous research, More in Common had identified segments of their survey pool by political perspective. The most left-leaning and most right-leaning groups are most sharply divided on these questions about history. See example below:

Chart showing the Grappling with Our History: Views Vary More by Ideology than by Race, Source: More in Common

Other research has found additional areas of disagreement.

A recent study from the Rossier School of Education at theUniversity of Southern California found that there were sharp partisan divides on LGBTQ issues, with 80 percent of Democrats saying that high school students should be taught about LGBTQ issues, but less than 40 percent of Republicans saying the same.

What should these findings mean for schools and educators? For one thing, public opinion alone shouldn’t dictate school curricula, said Vallone.

Rather, the results demonstrate the need for schools to engage with parents about the content of history classes—to make sure they understand what teachers are teaching and why.

“That builds a kind of durability and resilience against what we call in the report, ‘conflict entrepreneurs,’” Vallone said, which are described as “political and media actors who benefit from and actively stoke polarization.”

This echoes advice from district leaders and education researchers, who suggest communicating clearly and proactively about why schools are making the instructional choices they’re making—and emphasizing how those choices align to state requirements.

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