School Is for Making Citizens

Why do we have public schools? To make young people into educated, productive adults, of course. But public schools are also for making Americans. Thus, public education requires lessons about history — the American spirit and its civics — and also contact with and context about other Americans: who we are and what has made us.

That broader purpose is currently under attack. According to PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting free expression, legislatures in 36 states have proposed 137 bills that would limit teaching about race, gender and American history. Nineteen censorship bills have become law in the past two years. In our increasingly diverse nation, insulating students from lessons about racism will create a generation ill equipped to participate in a multiracial democracy. When partisan politicians ban the teaching of our country’s full history, children are purposely made ignorant of how American society works. And the costs of this ignorance to American democracy will be borne by us all.

Fortunately, our shared American history offers models of the kind of education that can unite students and communities to produce a solidarity dividend — a positive public good that we can create only by working together across racial and socioeconomic lines. Black people in Jim Crow Mississippi lived under racial authoritarianism so strict and violent that it is hard to imagine today. But lies and omissions about history were essential to the program of Jim Crow subjugation. Lost Cause mythology, which downplayed slavery as a cause of the Civil War, replaced factual history. Students, regardless of race, were taught that Black people were inferior. And many white employers thought Black people should learn only enough for proficiency in menial Jim Crow jobs.

That’s why the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sent volunteers to the Mississippi Delta during the 1964 Freedom Summer, to found schools in poor Black communities that offered a truthful education that was explicit about racial oppression and the denial of political rights.

This multiracial group of volunteers made plain the distance between American reality and its ideals. As a result, these Freedom Schools made citizens. According to William Sturkey, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,once the S.N.C.C. volunteers left, Freedom School students changed their state by organizing voter registration drives and civil rights protests and by charting a more equitable future in terms of housing, jobs and health care. They earned advanced degrees and were elected to office.

The broader civil rights movement helped transform the nation — in ways that even benefited the white Southerners who were so deeply opposed. As Gavin Wright recounts in “Sharing the Prize,” civil rights gains helped create more robust economies and local democracies, benefiting all citizens. These gains were possible precisely because people learned how to confront the nation’s failures.

Every student deserves the kind of myth-shattering and empowering education that the Freedom Schools provided. Such education doesn’t shy away from America’s ugly truths and contradictions. Stories of racial progress should be coupled with data on abiding racial inequalities in employment, life expectancy and incarceration. Discussions of figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson should include the contradiction between their hypothetical opposition to slavery and the fact that they both enslaved people.

Honest education isn’t all bad news. In fact, the deeper you go into our history, the more you can find new heroes to celebrate. As Freedom School participants learned by looking at the people who taught them, there is a tradition of American heroism, by people of all races, that is as real as the tradition of oppression and injustice. We can’t understand one without the other. Teaching age-appropriate but full history today allows white students to ask themselves: Do I want to be like the hundreds of protesters in the black and white photograph, yelling at Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old Black girl, as she tried to integrate a public school? Or do I want to be like the hundreds of white students who boarded buses for the South to register Black voters during Freedom Summer?

Contemporary attacks on teaching true history are authoritarian attempts to impose a sanitized curriculum. America’s book banners and anti-critical race theory zealots are following a path well worn by authoritarian regimes in Russia and Hungary, which have issued laws targeting the teaching of L.G.B.T.Q. issues. In the current U.S. debates, both the authoritarians and those people committed to multiracial democracy recognize that education is inherently political, because it enables students to understand, question and change their world. For the latter, this is the point; freedom comes from having the tools to comprehend a range of good and bad experiences and weigh the options for charting their future. Despite wails to the contrary from activist groups like Moms for Liberty, who claim accurate teaching of America’s history will harm white children, research shows that all students benefit from reading accurate but critical accounts. Lessons about racism make students more likely to engage and empathize across race. Such cross-racial solidarity is essential for members of our most diverse generation.

Perhaps that’s why many young people are rightfully suspicious of grown-ups who want to keep the truth from them. A white teenager in Nevada spoke out against censorship at her rural county school board meeting.

“Discussions of lessons based around our country and society’s true history are absolutely not making me, as a white person, feel attacked or guilty,” she said. “In fact, being able to talk about hard topics such as racial inequality and slavery allowed me to feel proud of how far our society has come and hopeful that we can continue to progress.”

This position recalls a letter home from a Freedom Summer volunteer explaining her students’ eagerness for knowledge. She wrote that her students “know that they have been cheated and they want anything and everything that we can give them.” Schools shouldn’t cheat kids by denying them the tools to navigate the world as it exists — and to create a better one for all of us.

The people who resist an honest teaching of history have an economic agenda, too. They attack our children’s freedom to learn in order to create “universal public school distrust,” as Christopher Rufo, one of the leading architects of the effort to censor the teaching of race in the classroom and an advocate of school vouchers, put it. When white parents — and the tax dollars that often move with them — abandon public schools out of fear of integrated curriculums, it drains the pool of public resources from our schools. It is no surprise that some recent campaigns to pack school boards, sue districts and spread book bans are reportedly funded by some of the same secret money groups that espouse low-tax, small-government economics, while financially backing the nomination of conservative judges.

If an educated citizenry makes democracy possible, attacking schools becomes a proxy war to limit democracy. This is a battle that our parents and grandparents fought and won. Now the struggle for an honest education — and the democracy it makes possible — must be ours as well.

Heather McGhee is the author of “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together” and creator of the “Sum of Us” podcast. Victor Ray is the author of “On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters & Why You Should Care.”

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