A new history by Donald Yacovone examines the racist ideas that endured for generations in educational materials.
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TEACHING WHITE SUPREMACY: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity, by Donald Yacovone
The American history curriculum — if you can even call it that — is a slippery thing. Unlike many other countries, the United States lacks national standards for what should be taught to public school students about the nation’s past. Each state sets its own curriculum guidelines, but typically they are loose, with 13,000 school districts making their own decisions on textbooks, and individual teachers exercising great autonomy.
In my years as a national education reporter, experienced social studies teachers have told me that they often rely more on primary sources than on district-issued textbooks in crafting lesson plans. Teachers also understand that in order to keep their jobs, they must stay alert to the biases and concerns of their local communities. They may adjust their curriculum accordingly. And students, as we all know, are unlikely to read dry, written-by-committee textbooks with great attention.
Nevertheless, the study of textbooks holds an enduring appeal for activists, scholars and journalists like me. We pore over them because they’re among the few tangible representations of what ideas our children are exposed to after we leave them at the schoolhouse gates.
The latest author to heed this call is Donald Yacovone, a researcher at Harvard and the author or editor of numerous books, mostly on the Civil War era. “Teaching White Supremacy” is his first book about the education system, and is based, he writes in the introduction, on nearly 3,000 American history textbooks, dating from 1800 to the 1980s, held at the library of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Yacovone’s thesis is a compelling and convincing one: that Northern publishers, universities, religious authorities and social activists were more responsible than Southern ones in disseminating an enduring ideology of white supremacy and Black inferiority — one that outlasted the institution of slavery and was expressed forcefully in school materials. In many cases, this ideology existed alongside strong beliefs in abolition and preserving the Union, tying the survival of the Republic itself to the idea of America as a white nation.
Yacovone ably surveys the deep wells of racism within Northern progressive movements during the 19th century. Many white Christian abolitionists wished to see freed Black people removed to Africa. Some white feminists argued for suffrage by saying white women were morally and intellectually superior to recently emancipated Black men. Northern white labor activists often saw Black Americans as unwanted competition for jobs. All these ideas were reflected in grade-school textbooks.
Universities, too, have had a shameful influence over the K-12 history curriculum. Harvard was the seat of the eugenics movement, whose pseudoscience was approvingly cited in teachers’ journals and textbooks. Columbia gave birth to the “Dunning school” of Civil War history, named after William Archibald Dunning, the turn-of-the-century historian who popularized the myth that Reconstruction failed not because of violent white resistance, but because Black people were not competent to participate in democracy. Dunning’s sketch of corrupt Black legislators propped up by white “scalawags” and “carpetbaggers” remains a cultural touchstone today, and held sway in mainstream American history texts until the late 1960s, shaping the views that many of today’s older adults were exposed to as students.
“Recognizing the ‘error’ of Reconstruction thus became part of the national reunification effort” after the Civil War, Yacovone notes. This reading of history was seen as perfectly compatible with celebrating the Union victory and the end of slavery.
While such scholarship is not new, it is useful to document how these strains of thinking were present in textbooks. A problem throughout Yacovone’s book, however, is that textbooks are almost the only evidence he calls upon from the sphere of schools. He rarely quotes the writings of primary- or secondary-school educators or students grappling with what they encountered in the classroom, and as his survey of texts stretches into the mid-20th century, the book grows repetitive. Textbooks in each generation debated whether the abolitionist John Brown was a mad zealot or a hero. For decades, they focused more on the English wives brought to Jamestown than on the slave trade. Most books before the civil rights movement left Black Americans voiceless, ignoring Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth and W.E.B. Du Bois.
Yacovone also makes some puzzling choices as to which thinkers and writers to emphasize. He appears to regard John H. Van Evrie, a 19th-century New York publisher and Democratic Party propagandist, as the skeleton key to understanding the white supremacy embedded in curriculum materials. Van Evrie was a popularizer of scientific racism, such as the absurd theory of polygenesis, which held that Black and white people were separate species, with slavery being a natural state for the lower, Black order.
Van Evrie was “a toxic combination of Joseph Goebbels, Steve Bannon and Rupert Murdoch,” Yacovone writes, noting that his ideas are today distributed on white supremacist websites.
But the connective tissue linking Van Evrie to the schoolroom is thin. Yacovone devotes 40 pages to Van Evrie’s writings, the vast majority of which appeared in the popular press. Only four of these pages detail the contents of his single textbook, a children’s history of the Civil War. While the racist myths in that book endured for generations — for example, that enslaved people liberated by the Union Army clung to their masters rather than embrace freedom — Yacovone does not make the case that Van Evrie was broadly responsible for exposing teachers and students to these widespread lies. Indeed, he documents only a single school, in Boston, that actually used Van Evrie’s textbook.
In later chapters, Yacovone offers more evidence that the textbooks he examines were in wide use. Between 1936 and 1957, at least 12 states adopted a high school textbook called “The Development of America,” by Fremont P. Wirth, who called slavery a “necessary evil” for the nation’s economic growth. The progressive educator and Columbia professor Harold Rugg sold millions of textbooks in the years before World War II, some of which were burned by the American Legion for their supposed communist sympathies. But even Rugg portrayed the conditions of slavery as “no worse than that of some employees in the mills and factories in the North.”
“Textbook after textbook described slaves as living in comfortable cabins,” Yacovone writes, “with plenty of nourishing food, and spending their evenings singing around campfires.” Authors and publishers elided the brutality of the Middle Passage, rape and family separation.
Yacovone treads lightly on the history of activism around curriculum materials, but does note the N.A.A.C.P.’s protests against racist textbooks. He also writes that the United Daughters of the Confederacy — an organization that still exists — worked in the early 20th century to place positive books about the Ku Klux Klan in schools throughout the South.
In his final chapter, Yacovone turns to the present day, finding both hope and peril in the spread of historical material online, some of it high-quality and reliable, much of it not. Here he quotes a Connecticut teacher who reports that one challenge in teaching the resonance of history is that many students see racism as “fixed now.”
This is the very misconception some politicians and activists seek to enshrine in the classroom through legislation limiting what teachers can say and children can read about race. The message is that racism took place in the past, so students today should not be made to feel, according to a new Florida law, “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex or national origin.”
Most American children, though, are fully able to observe the distressing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that surrounds them, from segregated neighborhoods and schools to police violence. Those lived realities, Yacovone rightly suggests in his conclusion, are far more powerful than textbooks ever were or will be.
TEACHING WHITE SUPREMACY: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity | By Donald Yacovone | Illustrated | 431 pp. | Pantheon Books | $32.50