The Case for History

The Mississippi Delta
Was shining like a national guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War

Paul Simon, Graceland

We didn’t follow the Mississippi, but in early May I drove with my wife and some friends through the cradle of the Civil War, first passing through eastern Maryland before heading to Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Following a visit to the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge, Maryland, located a few miles from where Tubman grew up, we headed to Jefferson’s hill-top plantation in Monticello, Virginia. There, besides the standard “house” visit, we joined the “Slavery at Monticello” tour. We had read about this particular opportunity in Clint Smith’s excellent book, How The Word Is Passed, and looked forward to the chance to experience it for ourselves. We were not disappointed.

Our visit was led by a superb guide, Ariel, who was well read in the latest historical research on Monticello, Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the history of many of the 607 enslaved people who worked on, or passed through, the plantation. The tour was disturbing and illuminating, as it needed to be. With care, Ariel walked us through Jefferson’s many contradictions. Here was a man who could at the same time proclaim the equality of all men while selling enslaved people to pay off his mounting debts; a man who wrote, in Notes on the State of Virginia, that “blacks [were] inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” while living a life utterly dependent on the labor and intelligence of his enslaved laborers at Monticello. Ariel’s presentation was deeply informed and historically accurate. Unfortunately, as we commented to each other while heading to our cars, teachers in dozens of states are probably thinking twice about raising similar questions in their classrooms, that is if they want to keep their jobs. Republican-initiated legislation in those states, intended to quash such discussions, is already having its intended chilling effect.

Eston Hemings’s son, Beverly Frederick Jefferson, grandson of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, is pictured on the left with three of his sons, ca. 1900. No pictures of Sally Hemings or her children are known.

History came alive at Monticello, not in the “colonial Williamsburg” fashion where actors in period costume roam buildings and gardens and references to the enslavement of Africans or Native American genocide are erased, but in offering a deeper understanding of how unresolved conflicts and unlearned lessons from the past continue to shape our lives in the present. The insights we gained at Monticello enabled us to better absorb what lay ahead as we continued our trip: from the massive Confederate flag that fluttered in the breeze as we continued south on Rt 29 into North Carolina; to Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where we stood silently before a panel commemorating the nine Black parishioners massacred in 2015; and finally to the news that came our way five days into the trip that a young white man had slaughtered 10 Black people in a supermarket in Buffalo.

If much of the history we learned was bitter, even more was uplifting. We drove to Greensboro, North Carolina, the site of the first civil rights sit-in on February 1, 1960, led by David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan), and Joe McNeilby four brave Black students from North Carolina A&T, at the local Woolworths. After a first day, during which they were refused service, they returned, this time joined by a dozen other students; the next day by 20 more, and then by 40. And when the college students left for the summer, local high school students took their place.

We visited Cambridge, Maryland, which boasted a century of struggle from Harriet Tubman to Gloria Richardson, founder of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee and a moving force behind the 1963 demonstrations for civil rights in that city. In Columbia, South Carolina, we learned of the students from Benedict College, an HBCU, who caught the spark from the Greensboro sit-in and began their own protest one month later, ultimately forcing the integration of downtown businesses.

Robert Smalls, Library of Congress

On to Charleston, where, among other things, we were introduced to the story of Robert Smalls, an enslaved sailor on The Planter, a Confederate ship. Smalls, who spent months surreptitiously learning how to navigate the ship, sailed it out of Charleston harbor on May 12, 1862 when the rest of the crew was ashore, led it through Confederate lines, and ultimately turned it over to Union forces. [Cate Lineberry’s Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero (Picador, 2017), is a good read on this.]

(Photo: Robert Smalls, Library of Congress)

And finally to St. Helena Island, South Carolina, center of Gullah-Geeche culture and home of the Penn School, the first in the South to educate formerly enslaved West Africans.

The trip offered an inspirational narrative of the struggle for civil rights and human dignity that stretched back centuries, a history that revealed the deeply layered organizing and educational work carried out in scores of towns and cities across the South and that, ultimately, relied on thousands of activists. It was this work that built the foundation on which individuals such as Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were later able to stand.

It is this history, as I suggested above, that Republican legislators in more than a dozen states are determined that students should not learn. Their attempt to legislate a whitewashed history in public schools is a particularly aggressive move to control what students can, and cannot, study. But for some years now, libertarian economists have been arguing in a much more “sophisticated” fashion that students shouldn’t bother studying any history. Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, is the latest to declare the “uselessness” of studying the past. In his provocative book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money (Princeton, 2018), Caplan argues that what this country needs is less, rather than more, education. Too many people are needlessly encouraged to continue their education beyond high school, he contends. Higher education is a “waste of time and money” because much of what is taught doesn’t prepare students for their future employment. All it does is signal certain qualities to employers: intelligence, diligence, and conformity.

A brick from the McLeod Plantation outside Charleston, SC. The bricks which built all the structures on the plantation, as well as many Charleston buildings, were made by enslaved children as young as 6. You can still see the finger marks on the right, marks which were left when the brick likely slipped out of the child’s hand.

Progressive critiques of schooling have long argued that K-12 education is more about warehousing students and sorting them into laboring or professional slots than about providing them with the tools needed to critically engage with their lives, their communities, and the world. Higher education similarly can be faulted for caring as much about prestige and rankings as about building the knowledge, skills, and dispositions one needs to lead a life of fulfillment on multiple levels, not just on the job.

For Caplan, however, all that matters is whether students are being prepared for a world of work, and only the job market should determine what curriculum should be offered. As he puts it, why bother teaching “higher mathematics, foreign languages, history, or the arts” if they won’t be used “on the job”? Indeed, he finds the “bulk of liberal arts course” to be pointless. Since no one (except English teachers) will ever “use Shakespeare on the job,” the Bard, and most literature, is out. “Foreign languages…are all but useless in the American economy,” he asserts, noting that he studied Spanish for three years and still can’t speak it. And when, he wonders, “will the typical student use history?” Probably never. “Students study history for years, but history teachers are almost the only people alive who use history on the job.”

As a history teacher, perhaps Caplan’s argument hits too close to home to allow for a dispassionate rejoinder. But bloody hell: it is simply appalling for anyone – I’m tempted to say let alone an educator – to contend that because you don’t “need” history to stock shelves in an Amazon warehouse, be a cardiac surgeon, write computer code, or run Tesla, understanding the past is ipso facto a waste of space.

We are a nation divided, and many of those divisions are rooted in the continued proliferation of false narratives about this country’s past and concerted attempts to prevent the study of history in a truthful and rigorous manner. Erase history, and we cannot understand the persistence of racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism that led to massacres in Buffalo, Charleston, Pittsburgh and El Paso. Remove history from the curriculum and who will be around to notice that the Supreme Court’s (soon-to-come) decision to remove a woman’s right to control her own body is based on the thinking of an 17th century judge who presided over witchcraft trials? Manipulate history, and we lose the ability to declare with certainty who actually won the 2020 election. Every mile of our southern trip taught us this. Every mile magnified the importance of understanding how the long fight for human dignity, led time after time by African Americans and by women, is today threatened by those who deny that history because it will reveal uncomfortable truths, or dismiss it because it won’t make workers more efficient. Every mile reminded us that the imperfect democracy that remains in our grasp (historically less for some than for others) will further slip away if we forget the efforts of so many to obtain the “unalienable Rights” (to return to Jefferson) which have always been promised and which are today are so gravely threatened.


The American Historical Association just announced its Teaching History with Integrity project. Quoting from the announcement: “The AHA, its members, and other historians find ourselves on the front lines of a conflict over America’s past, confronting opponents who are actively promoting ignorance in service of misleading notions of unity. Through Teaching History with Integrity, the AHA leads or participates in several initiatives to provide resources and support for history educators facing intensifying controversies about the teaching of the American past. Historians have a crucial role to play as participants in public deliberations about how to engage students in truthful and rigorous inquiry in history classrooms.” Their website provides a full range of resources and videos that speak to the importance of teaching history with honesty and integrity.

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