Josh Klein: What Chris Stewart gets wrong about history education in America

Utah congressman is out to cancel an interpretation of history that he doesn’t agree with.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Chris Stewart takes the stage before delegates attending the Utah Republican Party’s 2021 Organizing Convention at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, May 1, 2021.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, recently penned an article in the Deseret News urging Utah educators and policy-makers to disallow history curriculum that incorporates “woke” history. His focus is the 1619 Project, a recent essay collection which seeks to re-frame how we understand American history by placing slavery at the center of the story and illustrating its effects on subsequent developments in American history.

The year 1619 was the first year slaves arrived in the North American colonies, a year which these historians believe should rival 1776 in importance (the year in which the Declaration of Independence was written). As a history teacher in Utah’s public education system, allow me to offer a response.

Stewart crudely generalizes the 1619 Project as unscholarly “neo-Marxist critical race theory.” Put aside the absurdity of this for a moment. (The 1619 Project is hardly a piece of Marxist history. Stewart can consult any number of very open Marxist historians on this matter.)

Much more important is Stewart’s mischaracterization of the 1619 Project as well as the professional historical community’s response to it. Many highly acclaimed historians in fact contributed to it, and many others have welcomed it. Furthermore, it symbolizes many interpretive directions that have been taken in the professional scholarly literature of recent decades.

This does not mean that the 1619 Project is universally accepted. I myself have some problems with it, and Stewart correctly points out that a few of the field’s most accomplished historians do as well. But Stewart eschews the difference between teaching and advocating. History as a professional discipline is a field with a wide range of competing interpretative frameworks, and the debate between these interpretations is what gives history its strength, its vibrancy, its capacity to inform and instruct the present.

This debate might make Stewart uneasy, but if history were easy then it would not be worth it.

Stewart’s commentary joins a chorus of his Republican colleagues in right-wing legislatures across the country who have introduced bills that would disallow the 1619 Project from entering history curriculum. This is a comically ironic take from a party that claims to protect freedom of speech and regularly whips itself into a frenzy chasing an ostensible “cancel culture” permeating the nation.

Apparently, cancelling the 1619 interpretation of American history is an exception. I will cancel thee, but please never cancel me.

Never mind Stewart’s conservative hypocrisy here. What is at stake in this dispute is a much larger conflict over the purpose and method of the historical craft. Notice that left-leaning state legislatures have not filed a slew of laws disallowing conservative interpretations of American history. Then, unlike Stewart, please actually read the 1619 project. Notice that the authors do not advocate wielding political power against opposing views.

What we have here is a conflict between those on the one hand, such as Stewart, who would shield students from some interpretations of American history and use political power as a tool in this fight; and those on the other hand who would like students to explore many different ways to make sense of our past while helping them formulate their very own interpretative take on America’s past.

History, if it is to be a true academic discipline, must explore different ideas, test different ideas, debate different ideas — and ultimately produce more knowledge in the back end of this process. This is not possible when uncomfortable ideas are rejected before given the chance of critical engagement. Utah’s students deserve educators who explore with them the most influential modern theories and paradigms in the historical discipline, rather than educators who shield them from ideas seen as too politically incorrect by their political representatives.

This is a fairly basic conservative argument. Stewart ought to know this.

Perhaps most disconcerting is what Stewart’s commentary unintentionally reveals. He and his Republican colleagues are advocating an approach to history that avoids self-criticism and self-introspection. In doing so, they neuter history of its most powerful capability: providing a lens through which we can better the present.

It seems Stewart would have Americans use the past to protect and stroke their national ego. There have been plenty of civilizations that use history to do that. America has always been at its best when we do the opposite.

Joshua Klein

Josh Klein, West Bountiful, graduated as the Brigham Young University history valedictorian in 2013, received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland in 2019 and teaches concurrent enrollment U.S. history at Woods Cross High School.

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