January 4, 2022

Walter C. Stern: A truly ‘patriotic education’ requires critical analysis of US history

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Walter C. Stern is an assistant professor of educational policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In this column for The Hill, he explains why the current crop of “divisive concept” bills is neither honest nor patriotic.

As Republicans continue their attacks on the teaching of “divisive concepts,” they have trained their sights on timeworn targets: universities, professors and schools of education.

Consider Republican Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, whose campaign website describes a vicious cycle in which people on the left “take hundreds of billions of American tax dollars and send it to universities” that propagate the supposed central tenet of critical race theory: that “America is an evil, racist nation.” According to Vance, “Those universities then train teachers who bring that indoctrination into our elementary and high schools.”

Since critical race theory is far more nuanced and has far less influence on the nation’s decentralized K–12 curricula than Vance suggests, Americans could simply ignore the right’s attempt to capitalize on voters’ anxieties about their children’s education. But to ignore the charge means missing an opportunity.

The need to cultivate teachers and students who are brave — and patriotic — enough to think critically about the nation’s past could not be more urgent. Without independent thinkers who care enough about the nation’s well-being to wrestle with, rather than retreat from, its complex history, the country is ill-prepared to tackle current and future challenges. A society, after all, can’t solve problems whose existence it refuses to acknowledge.

That’s why Americans must reclaim patriotic education from the right. Universities have a key role to play here. Universities can train teachers who are uniquely positioned to do exactly what Republicans say they want to do: develop patriotic citizens. I know, because it’s how I and countless other professors teach.

I’m a historian whose published work explores how school policies institutionalized white supremacy. Vance probably had people like me in mind when he recently celebrated Richard Nixon’s proclamation that “the professors are the enemy.” He and other Republicans might also shudder to learn that my colleagues and I teach a course on the History of American Education to more than 200 students each year, a significant portion of whom are future teachers. In fact, unlike many teacher certification programs, my university requires prospective teachers to take our course or another like it.

Read the full column here.

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