History Killers: Illinois Rep. Calls for End to History Education

Second article in a series covering the manipulation and erasure of history.

[This article was originally published at New Discourses.]

When some of us began to vocalize concerns of the impacts of Critical Social Justice on our world, we were often told one of two things. One: this is a phenomenon of American colleges and universities and isn’t the real world; (or) two: the culture of suppressing speech, accusing everyone of racism / sexism / homophobia / transphobia, etc. isn’t actually happening, even on college campuses. It is debatable which argument is worse. The first denies that campus culture would spread to the outside world and the second denies the existence of a cancerous ideology influencing academia through toxic and manipulative texts. The encouragement of a breakdown of liberal notions of free thought and good faith debate gets denied on these two fronts: either it was exclusive to colleges and universities, or it was a conspiracy theory.

When I curated a free speech exhibit at Western Oregon University in the early months of 2017, which included a section titled “Free Speech is Under Threat at American Colleges and Universities,” I received generally positive responses. One of the most common bits of feedback I received was that “this needed to be said. Thank you.” I was lucky. I was at a university that generally supported free speech among students and faculty, but the impacts of Critical Social Justice on academic culture was having an increasingly negative effect.

A matter of months after my free speech exhibit, Bret Weinstein endured a backlash at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington for refusing to bend to the racist demands of self-described antiracists. The mainstream press largely ignored the story but more and more young people who generally get their news online had learned about it. Even for those not paying attention, the cancerous impacts of Critical Social Justice was becoming more apparent. Still, some wanted to deny this would reach anything outside of the ivory tower, and still others audaciously continued to deny such events were happening at all.

This has changed.

Those who thought the ramifications of a toxic ideology would stop at the campus edge, and those who denied its existence entirely, are suddenly incredibly silent.

Maybe this is because rioting and looting has been defended by mainstream journalists and an entire political party. As buildings burn behind them, reporters discuss the peacefulness of the “protesters.” Monuments, including those of abolitionists and former slaves, are toppled and vandalized. Inaccurate history is given a major platform by the New York Times and receives uncritical praise. It has become increasingly difficult to deny that the ramifications of Critical Social Justice have spread to every corner of American life. Those of us who saw it coming are not happy to be right. Those who were denying its existence, or its impact, have gone silent, or worse, joined the social justice mob themselves—possibly for self-preservation.

There is a desire in Critical Social Justice not unlike Marxism and other Utopian projects, including the French Revolution and China’s Cultural Revolution: the desire is to burn everything bad down and start over again. It would be an honorable project if it wasn’t completely insane. Some, like Nikole Hannah-Jones of the 1619 Project, want to lie about American history in order to create the world anew. A different narrative, even if it is a lie, creates a different present. As Orwell asserted, those who control the past control the present, and those who control the present control the future.

Others have now offered a new form of weaponizing history, which is to not teach history at all. It is an interesting move and one not altogether different from those deniers previously mentioned. History is “racist,” “sexist,” and “colonialist,” so the argument goes. Many of those making such claims are not themselves historians, but, like Nikole Hannah-Jones, they won’t let facts get in the way of a good story.

On August 2, 2020, Illinois State Representative, LaShawn K. Ford, held a press conference in Evanston to call for the suspension of history classes in Illinois public schools. According to NBC News Chicago, Representative Ford and leaders “in education, politics and other areas” publicly requested an end to the teaching of history in Illinois because “current history teachings lead to a racist society and overlook the contributions of women and minorities,” as reported by the NBC Chicago article.

In a news release distributed prior to the press conference, Ford’s office stated, “Rep. Ford Today in Evanston to Call for the Abolishment of History Classes in Illinois Schools.” The release requests that Illinois school districts immediately remove history curriculum and texts which “unfairly communicate” history “until a suitable alternative is developed.”

“It costs us as a society in the long run forever when we don’t understand our brothers and sisters that we live, work and play with,” said Representative Ford, calling for schools to devote more time and attention to civics, the Civil Rights movement, and the democratic process.

The following is the official press release in its entirety:

Rep. Ford Today in Evanston to Call for the Abolishment of History Classes in Illinois Schools

Concerned that current school history teaching leads to white privilege and a racist society, state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, D-Chicago, will join local leaders today at noon at the Robert Crown Center in Evanston to call on the state to stop its current history teaching practices until appropriate alternatives are developed.

“When it comes to teaching history in Illinois, we need to end the miseducation of Illinoisans,” Ford said. “I’m calling on the Illinois State Board of Education and local school districts to take immediate action by removing current history books and curriculum practices that unfairly communicate our history. Until a suitable alternative is developed, we should instead devote greater attention toward civics and ensuring students understand our democratic processes and how they can be involved. I’m also alarmed that people continue to display symbols of hate, such as the recent display of the Confederate flag in Evanston.”

Attendees at Sunday’s press conference will discuss how current history teaching practices overlook the contributions by Women and members of the Black, Jewish, LGBTQ communities and other groups. These individuals are pushing for an immediate change in history changing practice starting this school year.

“The miseducation of our children must stop,” said Meleika Gardner of We Will. “It is urgent that it comes to an end as we witness our current climate become more hostile. Miseducation has fed and continues to feed systemic racism for generations. If Black History continues to be devalued and taught incorrectly, then it will call for further action.”

The mayor of Evanston said in response, “As Mayor, I am not comfortable speaking on education, curriculum, and whether history lessons should be suspended. This is not my area. Personally, I support House Bill 4954 because I am interested in learning more and believe the history of Black people should be taught to all children and include all groups, Women, LatinX, and Native Indians who helped to build America.”

As a researcher and writer of history, I am in full support of a broad scope of history education which includes the contributions of people in the groups mentioned. Furthermore, there should always be an ongoing conversation about what parts of history are being left out, and why. This is always an important discussion and a priority among those of us in the field, but this point begs more questions.

How does Representative Ford think that civics and the democratic process can be taught without the teaching of history? While understanding that the call for the suspension of history education in Illinois public schools is a temporary request, how does Ford and his supporters expect to influence young minds with the greatness of civics and democracy without using historical examples? Is the Civil Rights movement the one and only aspect of history which can be utilized during this moratorium?

Does he understand that the importance of the Civil Rights movement was its calling back to the promises of that historical document known as the Declaration of Independence?

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was itself about the Declaration of Independence. King stated that a promissory note had been written to the people of the United States, and for African Americans a message had been returned in the form of “insufficient funds.” Does Representative Ford not understand that the power of King’s argument was its fidelity to American values of equal rights under the law and the dignity of every human being?

Is Representative Ford so historically illiterate himself that he doesn’t recognize that the Civil Rights movement, as absolutely crucial and important as it was, was one example (among many) in a long history of an American discourse regarding rights values? Does he really believe that no historical education for the interim is a reasonable, rational, suitable answer to the problem he sees? How long is this moratorium to last? The press release does not explicitly say.

Finally, what is he saying about history educators in Illinois public schools? Is he seriously making the argument that these history teachers don’t care about history? Is he including history teachers who are African American, Hispanic, LGBT, etc.? Is he only talking about straight, white history teachers? Who, exactly, is he blaming for the “miseducation of our children”?

Whether this move by Illinois State Representative Ford is sincere or a cynical political stunt, the result is the same. He is blaming those who most care about the history education of children, assuming the worst of them, and acting as though there is a cabal of historians (in public education no less) rubbing their hands together and laughing maniacally about the success of their agenda to not teach real history to children.

His thesis is absurd. His solution is appalling.

The answer to bad history education is not to end history education. I know not if the education of history in Illinois public schools is lacking, but let’s at least assume it could be improved. This is the case in most places and it’s the aspect of this issue where I am willing to give Representative Ford the benefit of the doubt. History education has been in a bad way for decades. This has been true for most areas in the United States. Some of us are actively working to remedy this crisis.

The problem here is not only Representative Ford’s proposed moratorium (though that is indeed a terrible idea). The problem is that Ford clearly believes that civics and democracy can be taught without the use of history. Not only is this absurd, it is profoundly dangerous.

How are we to know why democracy is good without historical examples? How are we to know the limits of democracy without historical examples? How are we to understand and appreciate the notion of individual rights without historical examples? How are we to understand that democracy and individual rights are not the same but are, in fact, in tension with each other, without historical examples?

Advocates of Critical Social Justice don’t concern themselves with answering such questions. In fact, asking questions gets in the way of their aim to create a new future by manipulating or erasing the past, and undermining our understanding of it in the present. This is why you are a racist / sexist / colonialist if you dare to ask an informed question. Don’t you dare let the facts get in their way.

Representative Ford has revealed to us that we cannot look to officeholders and the elected class for answers. He has demonstrated that political representatives, even those who speak about the importance of democracy, are more than happy to kill history if it serves their Critical Social Justice interests. If Ford expects that a citizenry can be taught what is important without being taught why, he deserves nothing less than our contempt for promoting such nonsense.