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What Should We Teach Our Children About American History?

June 2024
19min read

The fiercest struggle going on in education is about who owns the past. Militant multi-culturalists say that traditional history teaching has brushed out minority ethnic identities. Their opponents say that radical multiculturalism leads toward national fragmentation.

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.

The multiculturalists have come up with their radically new situation—a Europhobic, unassimilable mass of new immigrants- by lumping together Asian immigrants, black Americans, and Hispanic immigrants. But there is rather little multiculturalist pressure from Asian immigrants, who are staggeringly successful in assimilating, and the old European immigrants seem indifferent to the Asian migration. They’re panicky about trade rivals on the Pacific Rim but not about Asians in this country.

The sense of a yellow peril has disappeared, except insofar as it is concentrated on what the Japanese are doing to us in world markets.

Multiculturalists tend to imply that Hispanic immigrants are unified in a racially distinct mass. But Hispanic immigrants come in a great array of colors, and many assimilate with speed and success. So while multiculturalism’s exponents represent themselves as speaking for a great coalition, doesn’t their political constituency seem, in fact, to concentrate in a very old group, black Americans?

That is true in the 1990s, but I don’t think that’s the way it began. The cult of ethnicity started up after the Second World War. It was the cry then of whites from Eastern and Southern Europe who resented the Anglo-Saxon Establishment—the so-called unmeltable ethnics plus Jews suddenly galvanized into a sense of identity by the Holocaust and by the establishment of Israel. It’s ironical because for various reasons these groups are both quite anti-multiculturalist these days. Yet they were the first to denounce the image of a melting pot and the idea of assimilation. I’ll bet most of them are looking at the melting pot with a good deal more enthusiasm today.

Those self-described “unmeltables” greatly overstated their own durable distinctiveness, but in the fifties and the sixties, the “ethnics” were the great carriers of the ideal of multiculturalism. After the civil rights revolution, emphasis shifted, and it’s become mainly a black political cause, with some Hispanic support, particularly on the linguistic side. These are the main carriers now.

You’ve said that if some Ku Klux Klan Kleagle had decided to devise the most cunning and malicious plan possible for injuring the social mobility of black Americans, he could not do better than promote an “Afrocentric curriculum.”


Well, yes. The Afrocentric curriculum withdraws blacks from America in favor of a fictitious connection with Africa. Many black American families have been in this country for eight or ten generations. The whole notion that black Americans are not part of America, that they are part of African culture, is absurd. Its consequences are potentially disastrous. There are those, for example, who argue that blacks should not be taught standard English, that they should be taught black English. If there is anything that is going to disable people for a role in American society, it would be to speak a separate dialect. The whole enterprise is designed to re-create American apartheid.

“Afrocentricity,” the idea that black Americans, the vast majority of whom have ancestors who have been in this country for more than three hundred years, have some kind of live, potent cultural connection with Africa, is unsustainable. Blacks are very much a part of American culture. Given the fact they are only 12 percent of the population, they have played rather an extraordinary role in shaping that culture. And the idea that the continent of Africa from Saharan desert to rain forest to savanna to Nile Delta to the Cape of Good Hope has in any sense a homogeneous culture is ridiculous. The artificiality of this whole thing is particularly dismaying. In its more extreme form it is not merely historically mistaken, it is profoundly racist. The only case that can be made is a virulently racist one: that because black Americans have dark skins and Africans have dark skins, they have some kind of mystical affinity.

Racism is not an Occidental invention, but political antiracism is. This fact is generally suppressed by the multiculturalists; it was .not suppressed by Frederick Douglass.

Aren’t these assertions by some intellectuals that black Americans are and should be hostile to European culture a very recent phenomenon? You’ve pointed out that over the last three centuries most black Americans have rejected the notion that they are not part of the weave of American life and Occidental culture.

W. E. B. Du Bois was quite explicit about this. He wrote that “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas. … I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.” Frederick Douglass was even more explicit: “What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery and a powerful vindication of human rights.” He loved Burke, Sheridan, Pitt, and Fox; he said that reading them “enabled me to utter my thoughts.” Martin Luther King, Jr., took as his models Thoreau, Gandhi, and Reinhold Niebuhr—none of them figures from the African tradition, and yet they don’t seem to have lowered his self-esteem.

This touches on an immensely serious question. It is a sad fact that both European and African political traditions approved slavery, as did almost all the traditions we know about. It was the European political culture, however, that first called for the abolition of slavery. Neither racism nor the subjection of women is an Occidental invention, but political antiracism and feminism are. These facts are generally suppressed by the multiculturalists; they were not suppressed by Frederick Douglass.

What strikes me as perverse is the way portions of the Afrocentric argument seem to recapitulate nineteenth-century “race science.”

Actually it’s very ironic. Race science is very much what Leonard Jeffries is spouting at City College. The pseudoscience that asserts that blacks are superior to whites because they have more melanin in their skin is a simple inversion of the most appalling nineteenth-century racist ideology spouted by Southern slaveholders on the old plantation.

Now, I don’t know to what extent this stuff is really believed by large numbers of people. One of the things that makes it hard to come to grips with the situation is the fact that the press, television, and radio build up flamboyant racist figures. Al Sharpton and Leonard Jeff ries do not, I believe, represent the rank and file of the urban population. But they are good copy, and the press and W play them up. All this misrepresents the situation. The social forces that are driving toward assimilation and integration are, I am confident, stronger than the political forces driving toward ethnicity and tribalism.

The pessimist might argue that for a very large number of black Americans the last forty years have been bitterly disappointing after all the hopes that followed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education , and that the multiculturalist argument flourishes in the shadow of a real and disastrous failure.

Life is always disappointing; gains are never enough. But who can deny changes that would have been inconceivable when I was young? The white-supremacy candidate of the Dixiecrats in 1948—Sen. Strom Thurmond—recently argued passionately for the confirmation of a black nominee to the Supreme Court. Orlando Patterson, the eminent black sociologist, called America the other day “the least racist white-majority society in the world” with “a better record of legal protection of minorities than any other society, white or black.” As for the problem of poverty and the underclass and the homeless, that is not an exclusively black question. Look at New York, where plenty of homeless people are white.

The historian Philip Swoboda once remarked that Americans, being a people dedicated to a proposition, are peculiarly vulnerable to an attack on their cultural canon. Englishness or Frenchness or Germanness is a much less intellectual affair.

I think that’s true. Europeans have a common ethnic base. We don’t. And they have a longer collective history. What we once took to be our strength—our so-called freedom from history—makes us vulnerable to precisely this attack. I am sure that once the great majority of college professors bestir themselves, we’ll see an end to the sillier stuff. I don’t mean we should not have courses in other continents and other cultures and in non-European history. The more we learn, the better. But the cultic and Europhobic aspects of multiculturalism should wither away.

What is more worrying is the attempt to manipulate the public school curriculum. Several factors are at work there. Education is in a mess, resources are strained, and manipulating the curriculum doesn’t cost very much. If you are going to address the serious problems in our schools—safety, better teachers, better teaching facilities, more investment in education—that costs money. Also people think: We’ve tried everything else, so why not try this? Phenomena like excessive bilingualism and the so-called Afrocentric curriculum are worrying. But even there I think most Hispanic kids want to learn English, and I think most blacks regard themselves as Americans, not as Africans.


Nathan Glazer recently argued in The New Republic that there has been a long history in America of the politicization of the school curriculum and that squabbling over the power to make our historical myths has been going on for quite a while. He thinks it is being alarmist to depict our current troubles as unique. What do you make of that?

Nate Glazer is a very intelligent analyst, and he knows more than I do about the history of oublie education in this country. But he may have been on the firing line so long that he has become deeply discouraged about the possibility of resisting some of these pressures.

Now it’s quite true that much of this debate and many of the practices have a long history. Take bilingualism, for example. In many German-speaking areas in the nineteenth century the classes in public schools were taught in German. But that was a strictly transitional measure. Today instruction in Spanish is being institutionalized in some places, not as a transition to English but as an alternative to English.

A slot in the American public school system was one of the first professional jobs that rising immigrants secured as their communities accumulated some local political clout—when the Irish dominated the American school system in the 1920s and ’3Os, for instance, and the Jews did in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. If Tom Sobol seems to be playing to a political constituency, isn’t that a very ordinary thing for an ambitious political appointee to do?

I’m not sure previous attempts at meeting political demands were quite as harmful to immigrant children who depended on the public schools to make their way into the larger society. The Irish and the Jews relied on their communal traditions to preserve ethnic loyalties. They did not try to impose Eirocentric or Judeocentric curriculums on the public schools.

We tend to think that the American public school system is what did the assimilating. I wonder whether it wasn’t a combination of the American school system, the American economy in its great mass-production era, and the relatively homogeneous character of a large and not too economically differentiated middle class.

I would agree on all of that. The fact that there were jobs In mass-production industry for unskilled labor was very important. But the relative homogeneity of American mass culture didn’t just happen; American culture was transformed by the immigrants while they adapted and adjusted to it. The extent to which non-English strains have affected American culture explains why we’re so different from England today. One of the problems now is the loss of mass-production jobs in the private economy. I have the old New Deal prejudice against welfare and in favor of the federal government as employer of last resort, and that prejudice looks all the more compelling when we recognize that the work of assimilation and integration has been done through the economy as well as through the schools. After all, there are plenty of jobs available for relatively unskilled labor today in rebuilding the national infrastructure along the lines of the Work Projects Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps of my youth.

Still, the schools were the prime mechanism for assimilation. Take someone like Mario Cuomo, who never spoke English until he was enrolled in public school. People adapt quite rapidly in that environment. The first generation of immigrants kept their native cultures. They read their own press and ate their own cuisines. But the pull of the host culture was immensely strong for their children. I think that this attraction still exists, that the unifying forces are still in the ascendancy. But in the meantime these efforts to re-create separate ethnic and racial communities increase conflict, and now it’s not just whites versus nonwhites. It’s blacks versus Hispanics in Miami, Hispanics versus Cambodians in Long Beach, California, and so on. The reason we avoided much of this in the past is in large part that there was a massive shared commitment to the ideal of becoming American. I think that ideal remains essential in a multiethnic society like ours.

We avoided a great deal of conflict in the past because there was a massive shared commitment to the ideal of becoming American.

These are imaginary communities that we choose to become part of. There is nothing inevitable about the decision to think of oneself as preeminently an American, or an African-American, or an urban American, or middle class; one can build a bleak or a cheering case for any of these choices, and you have made the point that for most of the last two hundred years, most Americans have chosen one of these imaginary communities over the others. But this also suggests that the decision to be an American rather than a member of a fractional community is not necessarily the “natural” choice.

It’s obviously in the self-interest of people like Al Sharpton and Leonard Jeffries to stress the “naturalness” of a fractional identity in order to develop constituencies for their own egomania. Such people are always going to find enough embittered, confused, and angry people to provide the appearance of such a constituency. The question is, How large will that constituency be? It is difficult for an Italian- or Jewish- or Polish-American of the fourth generation to live in any authentic sense preeminently as an ethnic. The patterns of employment, of assimilation, of movement, of falling in love, of a common national culture cross ethnic lines.

But it is sadly the case that a black American has less of a choice. There is no question that America has been historically a racist society, and one can understand a black or Indian or Asian who has read American history deciding that the world is stacked against him.

This raises a crucial point about assimilation, which is that assimilation and integration are two-way streets. It is foolish to ask only, Why don’t they join us? The responsibility of assimilation rests at least as much on the smug majority as it does on the sullen minority. The majority has until very recently excluded and rejected racial minorities to a degree that makes any minority wish to assimilate irrelevant.

You’ve pointed out the multiculturalist notion that history should be taught for its therapeutic value—that minorities may be so badly injured that they have a right to any medicine they can get, even the medicine of falsehood. The Cornell professor Martin Bernai writes that the ancient Egyptians were people one might “usefully call black,” which suggests that he recognizes that usefulness and probability may not be the same thing. Is it your impression that the more radical multiculturalists know they are dispensing lies?

First, I think they seize upon anything that seems to magnify the non-European character of American culture and ignore everything that doesn’t. This produces absurdities like the current New York State curriculum’s stress on the Iroquois contribution to the American Constitution. Second, Europhobia makes for some very bad history. Take the slave trade. The slave trade is essentially represented as a white conspiracy. In fact, as we all know, the slaves were delivered by black Africans to Arab slave traders and by the Arabs to white ships at the ports. And it was Europeans, not Africans, who finally abolished slavery and the slave trade. All cultures commit atrocities, but the Afrocentric party wants to maximize the atrocities committed by Europeans and deny the atrocities committed by Africans. It’s a corruption of history, and it really doesn’t matter whether people purvey it because they really believe it or because they think it’s good for black kids to have pride in their past.

Whatever the motivation, I think a lot of the proposed Afrocentric curriculum for the public schools is myth and fantasy. Myth and fantasy are harmful. If you believe that AIDS was concocted by whites in a government laboratory in order to wipe out the black race—as Professor Jeffries is reported to believe—you will be disabled from coming up with a rational strategy to control the disease.

Even trivial falsehoods are mischievous. Believing that Beethoven and Browning were black is going to make you sound odd to anyone who hears you insist on that as a fact. And when you discover that you have fallen for a series of “therapeutic” absurdities, your self-esteem, which this exercise is supposed to improve, is bound to suffer. The plight of inner-city Americans is indeed appalling, and to fight for themselves they need the best education we can deliver them, not a pack of anodyne lies.

How much success do you think Afrocentrists and multiculturalists are having on the ground? Black middle-class audiences liked the film Glory despite the multiculturalist critics, and black admiration for Colin Powell doesn’t seem much negated by hostility from black-nationalist intellectuals. Are black intellectuals as isolated from their troops as white intellectuals are from theirs?

One of the problems for both blacks and whites has been the notion of a monolithic racial party line, with dissenters like Shelby Steele under attack for various heresies. Certainly there has been a defensive solidarity that has discouraged some black intellectuals and politicians from speaking out against racist demagogues like Jeffries or Sharpton or Louis Farrakhan. I think this is slowly breaking down.

During the 1970s there was a great attempt inside the uni- versity to shatter orthodox narrative in American history. Do you see a link between this and the multiculturalists?


Deconstruction—the notion that all texts are indeterminate, that no one can get beyond the opacity of language, that meaning is fielder’s choice—carried a very familiar critique of historical objectivity to a new extreme. I suppose that this helped prepare intellectual ground for some of the sillier bits of multiculturalism. But history has always been a problematic enterprise. We are all prisoners of our own experience. We all look back into the past In terms of our current reoccupations and find “new” things in the past, things that previous generations were not concerned about. The impact of feminism and of the civil rights revolution on the rewriting of American history has been extraordinary and hugely productive. The more insight you can get to illuminate the past, the better. As Oscar Wilde said, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”

Rewriting history is a constant process. Vogues play themselves out in due course. Twenty years ago a lot of people were confident that subsequent historical writing would generally be computerized social history. Others saw the future as psycho-history. But where are quanto-history and psycho-history today? Pieter Geyl, the great Dutch historian, properly described history as “an argument without end.”

Right now I have the impression that we are witnessing a return to political history and diplomatic history. The diffuseness of social history has provoked a revival of narrative. The false antinomy of analytical history and narrative history is finally collapsing. The perennial challenge to the historian is to fuse analysis and narrative, not to choose between them.

There’s a lag between fashions in the academy and curriculums in the public schools. In recent times history has had an uncertain fate in public schools. For a while it sort of disappeared into a soapy basin called social studies. Lately there’s been a revival. Even the curriculum-revision commission in the state of New York said that history and geography must provide the basis for social studies.

What do you imagine mainstream American history will look like in twenty years?

I trust that there will be an integration of large portions of the current vogues. American historians must consider more systematically how events looked to the Indians, how they looked to blacks, to women, and so on. That kind of re-examination will prevent the callous dismissals of minority experience, which have occurred even among our greatest historians. They were humane people, and had events impelled them to see things in a different light, they would have written a different history. That’s all for the good.

I mean, did Columbus “discover” America? I am not going to argue with people who dislike the “discovery” of America for expressing a peculiarly European perspective. Their point is useful in reminding us to look at things from other perspectives.

Do you think that succeeding generations will be preeminently interested in seeing things the way increasingly distant ancestors did? Three of my grandparents came here from Russia in the first decade of this century, and while I may see the turn-of-the-century immigration through their eyes, I see a lot of the rest of American history the way it was taught to me in the public schools in New York State.

The meaning of ethnicity tends to get pretty thin after one or two generations. A recent study of the children and grandchildren of immigrants in Albany, New York, revealed that the most popular “ethnic experience” was sampling the ancestral cuisine, and less than one percent ate ethnic food daily. Ethnic experience is less shallow for blacks only because of the continuing potency of white racism. In this sense, to the extent that the antiracist program of multiculturalism is successful the rest of its agenda will fail.

The United States is the only large-scale multiethnic society that has ever really worked. The question is, Why has it worked? What is the American secret?

Look at the case of Hispanic Americans. Almost all firstgeneration Hispanics born here speak English fluently, and more than half of second-generation Hispanics give up Spanish altogether. A recent poll of Anglophone Hispanics discovered that their most admired historical figures were—in this order—Washington, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. Benito Juarez was fourth, and Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King tied for fifth. The new unmeltable ethnics are proving less unmeltable than the multiculturalists would have us think.

Would you say that in fact, the barriers against assimilation are weaker now than they have been for the last four hundred years?

Yes, I think that America has historically been much worse. We are a society that began by killing red people and enslaving black people and excluding yellow people. Racism is very deeply embedded in the national unconscious. What has happened in recent times is that we have belatedly begun to confront it. I can remember legislators rising in Congress to discourse on the necessity of preserving white supremacy. No member of Congress would have dared speak such words in public for a generation. People are much more aware of their own racism, and that awareness creates many possibilities. Racial tensions and conflict are highly visible, and at the same time by objective standards there is much less racism than in previous American history. I have mentioned Strom Thurmond. Maybe you have to be my age to find the sight of the old Dixiecrat vigorously politicking to secure the confirmation of a black nominee as startling as I do.

The multicultural vision at times refuses to see American history as in any sense a great political project, albeit one afflicted with a terrible irony from its genesis. At its best that older historical sense made for a generous and liberal patriotism. I’m curious as to whether you think anything like a liberal patriotism could arise from, or be any intended result of, the curricular reforms of multiculturalism.

I think it all depends again on how far they go. The new California curriculum is good. So is the 1987 revision of the New York State curriculum. Those reforms represent intelligent multiculturalism. Some of the more recent “reforms” have been less promising. Insofar as they promote racial separation, they are harmful.

This whole problem has to be seen in a larger context. With the fading away of the Cold War, we’ve reached the end of an era of ideological conflict. It is not, however, as some predicted, the end of history. One set of hatreds replaces another. From an age of the conflict of ideologies we are passing into a new age of the conflict of ethnicities.

The United States is the only large-scale multiethnic society that has really worked. The question is, Why has it worked? What is the American secret? We’ve been multicultural from the beginning, but we have countered the diversity of cultural backgrounds by aspiring from the start to create a new American nationality and a new American identity. The American idea was to absorb other cultures, not to protect and preserve them.

The radical multiculturalists make the preservation of alien cultures their objective. They think that the public school, which has been a great mechanism for the creation of a new American identity and nationality, should now devote itself to the reinforcement, celebration, and perpetuation of ancient ethnic identities.

I think they will fail. For most Americans ethnicity is not the defining experience. Most of us are of mixed ethnicity anyway, and it seems to me that if the community, the church, and the family can’t preserve a sense of ethnic identity, reliance on the schools is quixotic. But if I am mistaken—if the radical multiculturalists do not fail—they may well do great harm. Given the unifying effect of a shared historical consciousness, and the grim failures of multiethnic states that have not produced one, this is a matter of some gravity. With the world falling to pieces around us, it is all the more essential that the United States continue as an example of how a highly differentiated society holds itself together.

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