Critical Race Theory. The 1619 Project. Mask mandates. As contemporary headlines remind us, American public education is wracked by “culture wars.” But these conflicts have shifted sharply over the past two decades, from religion to nation, marking larger changes in the ways that Americans imagine themselves. From the Scopes Trial over evolution in the 1920s through battles over school prayer and Bible reading in the late 20th century, our bitterest school battles surrounded questions of faith that lacked room for compromise. Either human beings evolved from other mammals, or they did not; either Christ was the Messiah, or he wasn’t. By contrast, conflicts over history instruction were resolved by adding formerly ignored or stigmatized groups to a triumphal national story. Racial minorities and women had suffered injustices, textbooks acknowledged, but they eventually shared in America’s larger bounty of progress and freedom.
By the late 1990s, these patterns began to reverse. Conflicts over religion cooled, as orthodox believers patronized Christian academies or simply taught their children at home. But battles over American history in public schools flared as never before. The elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump—two diametrically different presidents–triggered angry shouting matches over the idea of America itself. Was the nation born in liberty, or in slavery? Was it fulfilling its promise of human equality, or did racism remain an enduring blot upon it? These were questions about the larger national story, not simply about who was included within it. But the biggest question was whether we retained enough faith in public education—and in ourselves—to let students make sense of America on their own.