What Should We Teach Our Children About American History?


In 1987 a sweeping revision of the social studies program in New York State public schools gave the curriculum a strong multicultural slant. It was not strong enough, however, for a task force on minorities appointed by Thomas Sobol, the state education commissioner, in 1989. This task force rendered a report that included an immediately notorious assertion: “Afro-Americans, Asian-Americans, Puerto Ricans/Latinos and Native Americans have all been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression that has characterized the culture and institutions of the United States and the European American world for centuries.” This “Eurocentric” approach had allegedly instilled an ugly arrogance in students of European descent.

The task-force report provoked a great deal of publicity when one of its authors, Professor Leonard Jeffries of the City College of New York, who is a zealous promoter of an “Afrocentric” curriculum, became known as the author of the hypothesis that the pigment melanin is the source of intelligence and creativity. Jeffries divides humanity into “sun people” and “ice people,” the latter being not only melanin-deficient but militaristic, authoritarian, and possessed of a host of other racially determined defects.

We’ve always been a multiethnic country. Americans have been absorbed by diversity since the eighteenth century. Even the national motto refers to it.

In response to public outcry Sobol appointed a new commission to review the social studies curriculum. In 1991 the commission rendered a report which, while considerably more moderate in tone, recommended that the social studies curriculum for the 2.5 million schoolchildren of New York be revised once again to place greater emphasis on the role of nonwhite cultures. Nor was New York alone in this concern. Multiculturalism has become a national movement, leading to textbook controversies in California and other states and to the imposition of Afrocentric curriculums on the public schools in a number of cities across the land.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., twice winner of a Pulitzer Prize, is an eminent and productive American historian; he is also a well-known liberal with a long-standing weakness for intervening in contentious public debates. It was presumably in the first capacity that he was invited to join the commission set up to review New York State’s social studies curriculum. It was in the second capacity that he wrote a strong dissent from the commission’s report. Subsequently Schlesinger set forth his views of multiculturalism in a small book called The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society . Recently I spoke with him in his office at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he is Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities.

You’ve pointed out that the forging of a multicultural American identity is not a question suddenly put on the agenda by some iconoclasts in a comp lit department but in fact preoccupied the Founders and has interested a lot of people ever since.

That’s true. We’ve always been a multiethnic country. Americans have been absorbed by diversity from the eighteenth century on. Melville conceived our future as a federation to be compounded of all tribes and people, Emerson talked about constructing a new race, used the phrase “smelting,” and explicitly included “all the European tribes … the Africans & the Polynesians.” John Quincy Adams spoke of the necessity of “casting off the European skin, never to resume it.” Foreign visitors—Crèvecoeur, Tocqueville, Bryce—were fascinated by the project of building a new nation and a new nationality without a common basis of ethnicity or history; even the national motto, E pluribus unum (making one out of many), explicitly refers to it.

Multiculturalists claim that we’re now in an unprecedented situation because the character of American society is suddenly being so largely determined by immigrants and racial minorities. But in fact, isn’t it true that at the turn of the century the percentage of foreign-born in this country was twice what it is now?

Right. Still there are differences between then and now- especially with regard to racial composition. In the past there was a high degree of ethnic diversity, but the nation was mostly white and mostly European. At the turn of the century the Indians were on reservations, the blacks were segregated, and the Asians kept to themselves. White America faces a new situation today, with the new visibility of black Americans and the new influx of Latinos and Asians. One of the pleasing oddities of it is that thus far there has not been the kind of nativism that we’ve had in the past. The Irish and Chinese migrations both provoked violent nativist reactions. In the 185Os we had the Know-Nothing party. In the 1890s we had the American Protective Association. In the 1920s we had the Ku Klux Klan, which was then as much anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish as anti-black. Thus far, there hasn’t been the kind of (outside Louisiana) organized nativism you might expect. I’m not clear why.