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What the Culture Wars Get Wrong

What the Culture Wars Get Wrong

When it comes to teaching U.S. history, a new survey finds that Americans agree on much more than they think.

Hans Zeiger

America is hopelessly divided—or so we are told. More than twenty-five years ago, political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote in her book Democracy on Trial that we have been bombarded by “a cascading series of manifestos that tell us we cannot live together; we cannot work together; we are not in this together.” If these messages came by way of manifestos in the 1990s, today they are coming through social media blasts. Voices on all sides tell us that we live in an age of “polarization,” and that we have little left in common.

A recent survey by More in Common, a national nonprofit working to reduce polarization, finds that there is more to the story, however—that there is a “perception gap” among Americans about each other. By wide margins, Democrats tend to underestimate Republicans’ support for education about the country’s past mistakes and about minority groups’ contributions to American life. Similarly, and also by wide margins, Republicans tend to underestimate Democrats’ support for teaching about America’s record of achievement and its foundational ideas and documents.

In fact, More in Common found remarkable commonality among Americans across political differences, race, and other demographic categories. Ninety-two percent of Democrats agree that “all students should learn about how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution advanced freedom and equality.” Eighty-seven percent of Democrats say that “George Washington and Abraham Lincoln should be admired for their roles in American history.” Meanwhile, 93 percent of Republicans acknowledge that “Americans have a responsibility to learn from our past and fix our mistakes,” and 91 percent agree that “throughout our history, Americans have made incredible achievements and ugly errors.”

On the whole, according to the report, “Americans of all political orientations want their children to learn a history that celebrates our strengths and also examines our failures.”

It turns out that the vast majority of Americans are willing to acknowledge the tragedies and evils of our history, even as we recognize and celebrate our national achievements and ideals.

Why the sense that common ground is beyond our reach, then? Why the “history wars” that have raised tensions in school board meetings, legislative hearings, and cable news shows? According to the More in Common report, “rife with misrepresentations and falsehoods, these history wars are fueled by conflict entrepreneurs—political and media actors who stoke polarization by finding examples of ideologies outside the mainstream and portraying them as representative of a mass movement.” The More in Common findings suggest that we can engage in serious debate about the best ways to teach history and civics without buying into the worst of the social media and political fundraising narratives—and without questioning one another’s patriotic commitments.

The More in Common survey was complemented by a recent poll of parents sponsored by the Jack Miller Center (the organization that I lead) and conducted by RealClear Opinion Research, in partnership with the Trafalgar Group. The poll found that 89 percent of parents—including strong majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—rate an education about the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the responsibilities of citizenship as “very important.” Among those surveyed, 89.4 percent of Black parents and 84.7 percent of Hispanic parents identified this kind of education as “very important.” When it comes to American civics, there is overwhelming consensus among parents: The basic ideas and documents of America are worth passing along to the next generation.

In addition, more than 92 percent of parents agreed with the statement that public schools should “portray historical figures honestly with the understanding that we can teach a person's achievements even if their views do not align with values today,” while only 7.5 percent agreed that “if the views of historical figures do not align with values today, we should minimize or avoid teaching about their historical achievements.” As in the More in Common survey, the Jack Miller Center poll shows remarkable common ground among American parents about the best way to teach American history.

Could it be that we are less divided as a country than we think we are? If Americans are overwhelmingly in agreement about the kind of civic and historical knowledge that deserves to be taught in our schools, we should take note. Not only does this cut against the prevailing narratives, but it suggests that for all of our political differences, we can still agree on the fundamentals of citizenship. And in a constitutional democracy where we must find a way forward together, such a consensus about our national underpinnings makes a world of difference.

Hans Zeiger is president of the Jack Miller Center, a nationwide network of political scholars, historians, and civics teachers committed to the teaching of the American political tradition.

Image: Elementary school children recite the pledge of allegiance. (Flickr: Brandon Dill)