Seventh-grade social studies class at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire, Conn., Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. (AP)

Reflections on lawmakers’ latest attempts to constrain the teaching of American history.

Young Americans know a great deal about American history. They absorb ideas and impressions of the past through video games, field trips, dinner-table conversations, church sermons, monuments, and SNL parodies. That history comes to them in fragments and shards, in mismatched pieces.

It is up to history teachers to give shape, meaning, and coherence to those scattered names and faces from a dim and flickering past. And yet history is often taken for granted and patronized, casually diminished or shoved aside to make room for other subjects deemed of greater importance, be they basic literacy skills or STEM.

Over the…

The mainstreaming of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” language demands a different way of understanding the past.

Around corporate and university board tables, the phrase “diversity, equity, and inclusion” has become a common, almost ritualistic phrase, deployed on PowerPoint slides and on strategic plans, on bulletin boards, and on job descriptions. While each of the words shorthanded by “DEI” bears significance and value, the acronym risks becoming a marketing and management slogan as much as a thoughtful goal.

The sudden appearance of DEI — as a phrase if not as a reality — gives us a way to see the process of history-making in action and perhaps to test some of our assumptions about history more generally…

Congress is poised to make a big investment in history education. What can we learn from these sorts of efforts in the past?

Those who care about the teaching of history and civics are holding their breath as they wait to learn the fate of the billion-dollar, bipartisan Civics Secures Democracy bill currently before both houses of Congress. The legislation promises to bring the same urgency and capacity to understanding ourselves that we have devoted to understanding the physical world.

The last such effort, the Teaching American History program introduced 20 years ago, offers encouragement as well as warning. The program, sponsored by West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, was framed as a response to a crisis in which the “traditional” history of heroes…

But it can’t stop there.

I became, back in graduate school, a devotee of what was then called “the new social history” — the history of everyday people. The field, which was just emerging in the 1970s, democratized history and opened up new possibilities for learning about the past. I loved it.

I probably also saw social history as a way to write about my own family more broadly. My mother’s and father’s families had both lived in the high mountains of North Carolina until they moved an hour away to Kingsport, a small but prosperous industrial city in East Tennessee.

A general map of the middle British colonies, in America (1776), showing how white settlers viewed the Alleghenies as a barrier. [Library of Congress]

Though I grew up…

A voter casts a ballot at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in Louisville, KY, Nov. 3, 2020. (Associated Press)

How Two Centuries of Black Migration Shaped Today’s Political Parties

The subtleties and surprises of the 2020 presidential election have been explored from every possible angle: ethnicity and gender, the suburbs and the cities, continuities and changes between 2016 and 2020.

In many ways, however, the broad outlines of the election of 2020 — like the elections of the last half-century — are products of the 1820s and 1920s. Fundamental contours of the electorate were defined by the migrations of Black Americans, first in the forced movements of enslavement and then in the bold movements of the Great Migration and succeeding generations.

The pattern is evident in a comparison between…

The sudden transition to online schooling has shone a light on the state of digital history. What we’ve seen hasn’t been very encouraging. Can we do better?

When we began creating the tools of New American History several years ago, we imagined them as a complement to non-digital teaching. We assumed teachers and students would always share classrooms and libraries. We conceded that textbooks, worksheets, and standardized test prep would be distributed in class, though we hoped their influence would decline and that we could ease that transition with more engaging ways to explore history.

Instead, of course, a pandemic has shut schools down and shoved everything online. The digital moved from enhancement to default, from the margin to the middle. The virus reminds us how precious…

President Trump speaks to the White House conference on American History, National Archives, Sept. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Patriotism doesn’t require whitewashing.

“We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” President Trump declared last week in a speech at the National Archives. “We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”

Such teaching would affirm that the United States stands first among nations in the virtue of its leaders, the genius of its institutions and the purity of its motives. …


You’d never know it from the textbooks, but the discipline of history has never been more exciting.

History has thrown a series of surprises at Americans of late, especially in the intersection of Black history and Confederate history. While it is not true that “nobody” had heard of Juneteenth before the Black Lives Matter protests, as President Trump asserted in June, it is true that many white people outside of Texas had not. And while turmoil and violence have swirled around the Confederate monuments over the last decade, observers of various political persuasions assured us that the anger directed at the monuments was not really about the monuments. …

Why the past can’t be reduced to static variables and predictable outcomes.

I learned by accident last week from my weather app that in the summer, humidity is much higher in the morning than it is later in the day. I’ve lived in humidity all my life, but had managed not to learn that fact. I did know a formula — it’s not the heat but the humidity that creates discomfort — but I always assumed the two went together. I was mistaken.

I’m sure that if I’d had a good reason to know that fact about humidity, I would have learned it earlier. Without that reason, I relied on a simple…

Protesters gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

How our embattled present heightens the need and hunger for historical understanding

Long after the smoke has cleared from last week’s protests, long after the headlines have been replaced with new ones, teachers will have to explain what these events mean, just as they must explain every step of our past. That is lonely work, vulnerable work, critical work.

The protests of police brutality are among the largest and most widespread in American history. They are also the most thoroughly filmed, reported, and analyzed, echoing with the history of slavery, segregation, and lynching. The protests present teachers with a great opportunity and a heavy burden, for we build on weak foundations.


Ed Ayers

Ed Ayers is a historian and president emeritus at the University of Richmond.

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