Why Teachers Are Afraid to Teach History

Originally published in the April issue of the New Republic magazine, and online March 28.
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For a decade, Jonathan Greenberg, a social studies teacher at the Center School in Seattle, taught an advanced placement course for high schoolers called Citizenship and Social Justice. A broad-shouldered man with penetrating eyes and a warm manner, Greenberg brought in speakers to talk about their experiences of racism and invited his students to share, too. Sometimes, he separated them by race so they could consider questions more privately. In an exercise known as “affinity-based caucusing,” he might ask white students, “What’s the role of a white person in fighting racism at school?” Students of color, meanwhile, might share how they cope with discrimination they’ve faced.

Greenberg shaped his curriculum according to guidelines developed by Courageous Conversation, a group founded in 1992 to help teachers facilitate dialogues about race. The organization intends its discussions to be structured by four agreements: to stay engaged, to expect discomfort, to tell the truth, and to accept a lack of closure. Frank talk about encounters with racism, Greenberg believed, would help bring attention to the struggles of underrepresented populations at his majority-white public school, and help all his students link their present lives with the historical realities of race.

In December 2012, the parents of a white student in Greenberg’s class filed a complaint with the principal. Greenberg, they alleged, had not only created “an emotionally-charged classroom environment” and a “climate of fear,” he had fomented “racial hatred and prejudice.” The complaint made its way to the school district, and, within a month, Seattle Public Schools launched an HR investigation and told Greenberg that he could not teach the racism curriculum or a planned unit about gender before the investigation concluded. Besides the teen whose parents initiated the complaint, officials interviewed no students about their experience in the class. By mid-February, the superintendent wrote Greenberg that his lessons had created an “intimidating” atmosphere for the student and “disrupted the educational environment” for others. Students began circulating a petition demanding that the curriculum inspired by Courageous Conversation be reinstated; ultimately, they gathered more than 1,000 signatures. One day, as another teacher supervised Greenberg’s class, some students signed the petition. The parents who’d originally objected filed a second complaint, this time for harassment. Within months, the district transferred Greenberg to another school.

Nine years later, as states rush to pass laws banning “critical race theory,” a term that in popular usage on the right has come to mean nearly any curriculum that refers to systemic or structural racism, teachers around the country are wondering whether they’ll meet similar fates. By the end of January, more than 35 states had introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict classroom discussions of race and gender, and at least 14 had passed laws or directives. The content of the laws varies somewhat from place to place. In Tennessee, for example, legislators banned 11 “concepts” from public school instruction. Educators aren’t allowed to promote “division between, or resentment of, a race” or suggest that individuals should feel “discomfort,” “guilt,” or “anguish” because of their race. In Iowa, lawmakers prohibit describing the state or the country as “systemically racist or sexist.”

For teachers, one of the most concerning aspects of the bills is their vagueness. Oklahoma’s law, for example, bans teaching the concept that one race or sex is inherently superior to another, but lawmakers declined to clarify how educators can teach about individuals who subscribed to these supremacist views. Texas’s law says any controversial issue must be taught “in a manner free from political bias” but doesn’t define what counts as controversial. Violating the new rules can bring about steep consequences: Teachers may be fired or lose their licensure; schools’ funding may be cut. Doubtless because the bills offer scant clarity about how one might comply, teachers have already begun self-censoring their lessons out of fear.

Their anxieties are not unfounded. In New Hampshire, the state’s education department created an online form to assist parents and students in filing complaints. The conservative group Moms for Liberty even pledged to pay $500 to the first person who “successfully catches” a New Hampshire teacher breaking the state’s new statute. Incoming Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin announced 10 days into his job that Virginia would offer a tip service for parents “to send us reports and observations” of teachers they believe are misbehaving. A group called Save Texas Kids—dedicated to “fighting CRT and any other form of woke politics”—emailed Dallas teachers asking for names of colleagues promoting critical race theory or “gender fluidity.” In December, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, proposed a bill that would allow parents to sue school districts that permit lessons allegedly rooted in critical race theory, and collect attorney fees for doing so.

For years, the school culture wars were waged over God and prayer, and how and whether to teach evolution and sex. But over the last decade, the fights have turned more toward how we frame our nation’s past, particularly how we characterize America’s histories of racism and colonization, and their relevance to today. In many ways, these debates are much harder to adjudicate; the law provides more clarity on the separation of church and state than on history curricula, and evolutionary theory offers more certainties than the vagaries of historical interpretation. For example, how should educators describe U.S. expansion of the West? Were the settlers bigoted imperialists or courageous pioneers? And is it possible for schools committed to anti-racism to embrace “color blindness,” or is that a contradiction in terms?

Public school theorists have long worried about the consequences of bringing heated matters into class. As far back as 1844, the famed educator Horace Mann warned against it. “If the day ever arrives when the school room shall become a cauldron for the fermentation of all the hot and virulent opinions, in politics and religion, that now agitate our community, that day the fate of our glorious public school system will be sealed, and speedy ruin will overwhelm it,” he wrote. Indeed, if there’s been one constant in the history of U.S. schooling, it’s the suspicion with which local communities respond when their teachers tackle controversial issues.

Parents’ fears notwithstanding, administrators stress that critical race theory is not taught in public schools; they are technically correct. As an academic field, CRT is a relatively obscure discipline that examines how laws and institutions harm or benefit people according to their race and relative power; its study is largely reserved to graduate programs. Yet parents who sense that change is afoot are also not wrong. Certain longstanding assumptions about identity and opportunity are being contested in K-12 classrooms around the nation—the same assumptions contested today in workplaces, in media organizations, and in the halls of Congress. The way these struggles shake out will have everything to do with how much control certain parents are able to exert in school districts and how well teachers can protect their autonomy.

Progressive groups and teacher unions have largely responded to critical race theory attacks with pleas that the public should trust educators to teach honest and accurate history. The appeal sounds reasonable enough, but what it means in practice is far from clear. Should teachers teach all perspectives on every issue? Is such a thing remotely possible within the constraints of a school year? What do young people need to know to thrive in a diverse, globalized, and democratic society? And who should get to decide?


On a Saturday morning in mid-November, just weeks after Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial election by campaigning on “parents’ rights” in education, an earnest and avuncular Colorado Springs high school history teacher named Anton Schulzki addressed a group of fellow teachers at the one hundred and first annual National Council for the Social Studies conference. Schulzki, the president of the council, acknowledged that the social studies curriculum has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, particularly since The New York Times Magazine’s publication of The 1619 Project, a compilation of articles and essays asserting the centrality of slavery to any accurate story of the nation’s founding. “Time and time again,” Schulzki said, “teachers, administrators, and school boards have been accused of somehow indoctrinating their students.”

He noted the irony of history curricula dominating public debate around K-12 schooling when the hours of class time actually afforded to it—particularly at the elementary and middle school levels—have decreased precipitously over the last two decades. The primary result of the new rules passed by states and school boards, Schulzki argued, has been that teachers avoid certain topics altogether. But, he implored, they should try very hard not to. It is a time “for us to stand together in solidarity for social studies,” he said, “to use our collective voices in solidarity against ignorance, injustice, and indifference.”

The pressures around critical race theory shaped many other panel discussions throughout the weeklong virtual conference. One presentation—“Decentering Whiteness: One School District’s Approach”—explored the changes the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest in Minnesota, is making to the history curriculum to reflect the needs of its changing population. Like many other suburban areas, Anoka-Hennepin, which serves a large geographic region just north of Minneapolis that includes liberal inner-ring suburbs, conservative exurbs, and rural countryside, has grown markedly more diverse over the last 15 years; nonwhite students now represent a third of its student body. Some pockets of the district voted for Trump in 2020, others leaned toward Biden. Both the leftist Ilhan Omar and the far-right Tom Emmer represent parents from this area in Congress.

Dan Bordwell, the thick-bearded teaching and learning specialist in his mid-thirties who led the “Decentering Whiteness” presentation, described the work educators have done in his district since 2017 to incorporate more diverse voices into their social studies lessons. When students learn about Brown v. Board of Education, Bordwell asked, do they also learn about Linda Brown, the student who inspired the case, and her family? When they learn about the antebellum period, do they hear perspectives from Black lesbians? With the help of Keith Mayes, a historian of African American studies at the University of Minnesota, Anoka-Hennepin teachers worked to identify where they could “infuse” new discussions of race and racism into their curriculum, while still following Minnesota’s social studies standards, last updated in 2013. Anoka-Hennepin also established an honors-level Black history elective and ramped up professional development aimed at helping teachers incorporate narratives from underrepresented populations. It’s about “telling a more complete picture,” Bordwell explained.

Helping students see themselves in the curriculum, leaders in a growing number of school districts say, will lead to higher academic achievement and deeper learning for all. In 2019, Anoka-Hennepin issued an Equity and Achievement Plan, lending more support to the work its social studies department was already doing to bring perspectives of underrepresented groups to the forefront.

But not all families saw these changes as developments in the right direction. And over the last two years, as parents began mobilizing against the specter of critical race theory, much has changed in the district. In the Anoka-Hennepin Better Together Facebook group, which has more than 550 members, parents fulminate against excessively “woke” teacher trainings and other aspects of student learning. Krissy Erickson, the founder of the Facebook group, told me she started it after the principal of her kindergarten-age son’s school signed a “Good Trouble” pledge with other school principals in the Twin Cities metro. The pledge committed to “de-centering Whiteness” and “dismantling practices that reinforce White academic superiority,” such as tracking students. Erickson, who had never been involved in parent activism before, joked that “the mama bear just recently came out.” At a school board meeting in late August, she announced that she and her fellow parents were “done being bullied into silence” and criticized the “CRT-related ideologies” that have been presented to staff and “directly trickle down into students’ assignments.” Erickson stood “in full support of teachers,” she said, but insisted that “the only real privilege we need to reflect on is the privilege we all have to live here in the United States of America.”

Thousands of other, mostly white, parents across Minnesota have similarly been protesting proposed state social studies standards that for the first time would include ethnic studies as a core component for all students. The standards—which would take effect in 2026—reflect “a relentless fixation with Native American history” and replace “objective historical knowledge … with a fixation on ‘dominant and non-dominant narratives’ and ‘absent voices,’” according to a petition led by the Center of the American Experiment, a local conservative think tank. This past November, Anoka-Hennepin residents elected a school board member, Matt Audette, who ran on a fiercely anti-CRT platform.

Bordwell, whose emails have been subject to FOIA requests by suspicious members of his community, has felt the increased pressure acutely. He submitted the idea for his “Decentering Whiteness” panel in February 2020; had he crafted the pitch a year later, he said, he would likely have proposed a different name for his presentation. “We have teachers who are walking on eggshells worried that they’re going to have a picture taken by a student or parent, that they are going to be unfairly targeted for the work that they’re doing.”

At my request, Erickson asked other parents in her Facebook group what they make of teachers’ fears about retaliation. Some teachers, she told me, are “obvious activists who will stop at nothing to promote their own OPINION.” But she believed that most parents would be satisfied so long as educators are “presenting facts and multiple viewpoints.” Members of her group, she explained, feel that issues of race, sex, and gender have “been thrown at our children from every angle”; they want “to simplify things and get back to education and academia.” As a compromise, Erickson proposed making certain subjects elective, or providing families with a heads-up about unit discussions and allowing them to opt out if they disapprove. In this, she echoed a call common among the anti-CRT cohort, who argue that teachers should alert parents of any plans to include controversial subjects in their curriculum, and even let them review teaching material ahead of time.


If the members of Erickson’s group—and similar parents—are to be taken at their word that they would support the inclusion of multiple viewpoints, they should be reassured by the work of some nonprofit education groups aiming to help teachers tackle controversial issues. One such group is Close Up. Founded in 1971 initially to bring high school students on trips to Washington, D.C., Close Up encourages “deliberation” on heated policy questions as a way of helping students build consensus. A study of its model, published this past summer by professors at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, found that high school students felt more respected in classroom political discussions designed as deliberation rather than debate.

A class using Close Up’s approach might ask, for instance, what policies, if any, are needed to reform police practices. Students would read about the disparities between Black Americans’ encounters with the police when compared to other groups, explore different policy proposals to address the issue—banning the use of neck restraints, for example—and review the arguments supporters and opponents make for each idea. At the end, students would be asked to write about which proposals they favor, which they would change, and which they would reject, and could suggest other proposals.

At least in theory, it’s possible to imagine such an approach satisfying people across the political spectrum. But on certain deeply polarizing issues, such as rights for undocumented immigrants or the place for transgender students in school sports, some on the left have argued that it’s harmful even to have those discussions; normalizing certain perspectives, the thinking goes, can be destructive to the vulnerable people they’re about. And on the right as well, many parents find certain points of view too dangerous to debate; talking about transgender athletes, for example, legitimizes the gender categories these parents patently reject and believe could corrupt their children. Sante Mastriana, a curriculum design manager for Close Up, said the group doesn’t support deliberating on everything; certain topics, like white supremacy or the efficacy of fascism, are off limits. “There are certain arguments which we are not going to entertain as valid,” he told me. Of course, if some subjects are out of bounds, it’s impossible to claim that ideology doesn’t, at some level, govern the choice of study; some administrator somewhere is choosing what to include and what not to. Mastriana said that Close Up’s solution is to rely on multipartisan resources and facts. “Unless it’s the sort of argument that just categorically makes a supposition about the nature of things without actually providing any grounding,” he said, “then it is something probably worth addressing.”

Chris McDuffie, an eighth-grade civics teacher at Heathwood Hall, a private school in South Carolina, uses Close Up materials in his classroom. He likes their “fact-based, middle of the road” format. “I tell kids to wait at least three days, check at least three sources, and to enter a conversation with three pieces of information or three questions before they form an opinion about a current event,” he told me. “No one knows where I fall politically, and I pride myself on that.” But McDuffie, who has been teaching for 21 years, including 12 in public schools, acknowledged that it’s easier to tackle political issues in a private school, where he’s afforded a great deal of autonomy over lessons. When he worked at a public school, some administrators, wary of backlash, didn’t even support teaching current events.

Like the nonprofits, some state school board associations have been encouraging local school districts to better support educators teaching contentious issues, a risky move given the intense politicization of the National School Boards Association in 2021. Last year, the national group compared parents protesting critical race theory at school board meetings to “domestic terrorism,” which led 21 mostly GOP-controlled states to withdraw membership, participation, or dues from the organization. Nevertheless, in late November, in Loudoun County, the northern Virginia region that became a national epicenter of parents’ protesting CRT, school administrators recommended that their school board adopt a policy called “Teaching About Controversial and Sensitive Issues,” based on a model promoted by the Virginia School Boards Association.

Examples of such controversial topics, said Ashley Ellis, Loudoun County’s deputy superintendent for instruction, are slavery, colonization, immigration, and the Holocaust. “Schools are under more scrutiny for what they’re teaching,” Loudoun Now, a local paper, quoted Ellis as saying. “Our teachers have asked for support in how to approach these topics with confidence.” A spokesperson for the district declined to comment on the proposal.

Teacher unions, too, have been exploring ways to support educators who tackle controversial issues. The three million-plus–member National Education Association has been organizing to pass a model school board policy that affirms the value of Black and other ethnic studies courses and pledges to defend teachers who use materials “that incorporate diverse perspectives.” The unions have also been organizing to back candidates in school board elections. “We are preparing and training our educators to be involved in elections of those who have the power and authority to make the decisions,” Becky Pringle, the president of the NEA, told me.

But parents opposed to CRT have likewise stepped up their school board efforts. In 2021, the 1776 Project PAC, a national right-wing group, formed to elect school board members who are committed to “abolishing” critical race theory and The 1619 Project from public school curricula. The group backed 57 candidates across seven states, 41 of whom won. In 2022, its sights are set on 200 additional races.


Some of the current disputes over curricula can be traced to the beginning of the Obama period. The election of the nation’s first Black president led to new cultural and political backlash, including fights over how to teach about American identity in schools. As the education historian Jonathan Zimmerman has observed, critics began labeling ethnic studies courses as “divisive” and “un-American,” and by 2014, groups were lobbying against the College Board’s revised A.P. U.S. history course, which opponents alleged cast U.S. history in too harsh a light. For example, the revised guidelines described the idea of manifest destiny—the nineteenth-century doctrine that said the expansion of the United States throughout North America was both justified and inevitable—as “built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.” The Republican National Committee passed a resolution that year blasting the framework for its reduced focus on the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and U.S. military victories. The framework “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” the RNC said. (A year later, the College Board issued yet another revised framework, filled with edits that successfully quelled its conservative critics.)

Last spring, after state lawmakers began introducing bills banning critical race theory, the left-leaning Zinn Education Project sponsored a Teach the Truth pledge, garnering thousands of signatures from teachers. The National Education Association has its own Pledge to Support Honesty in Education. Both groups argue that CRT critics want teachers to avoid addressing topics like slavery and redlining, but conservatives insist that charge is a lie. Regardless, mainstream history textbooks do cover the nation’s disturbing history of racial violence better than they used to. A content analysis led by education historian Jeffrey Snyder found that leading contemporary texts depict in detail “everything from slave whippings and lynchings to race riots and church bombings.” According to Snyder, “it is not uncommon for textbooks to include even the most grisly of images, such as a photograph of the charred body of seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington, lynched in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916.”

Perhaps the fiercest debate is over whether to teach that the United States has overcome its dark legacy of racial discrimination, or whether, as The 1619 Project suggests, slavery’s harms continue to oppress Black Americans in the present. “White supremacy affects every element of the U.S. education system,” argues Learning for Justice, a national social justice nonprofit that provides free resources to educators and school districts, on the cover of its spring 2021 magazine. In a sponsored session at the National Council for the Social Studies conference—entitled “Teaching Honest History Through Critical Inquiry”—Learning for Justice facilitators asked participants, “How comfortable are you teaching about American enslavement, including the idea that it shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness?” They encouraged educators to avoid interpreting historical texts through a “white, Eurocentric” lens that would perpetuate stereotypes, and instead to teach students “resistant” readings, which in their definition lend themselves to anti-racist interpretation and challenge dominant cultural beliefs.

Part of what makes the fights over how to teach history and social studies so tricky is that, while virtually everyone says they oppose racism, enormous disagreement exists, within the broad left as well as between left and right, about what an ­anti-racist education should look like. Ibram X. Kendi, one of the most influential writers on anti-racism, argues against standardized tests, calling them “the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds.” Others see testing as a key tool for leveling the playing field for marginalized students, allowing them to access opportunity and compete on merit, and they view moves away as discriminatory against Asians, who tend to perform better on the exams. Still others see the very ideas of competition and meritocracy as by-products of white supremacy. Tema Okun, a popular consultant on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, describes “a sense of urgency,” “perfectionism,” and “individualism” as values inherent to white supremacist culture. In Learning for Justice’s spring issue, an educator describing anti-racist teaching voiced a similar opinion: She sees white supremacy wherever there’s a “sense of urgency to meet particular deadlines that don’t necessarily speak to actual student growth.”

The Seattle parents who complained about Courageous Conversation, the curriculum Jonathan Greenberg was punished for incorporating, were not the last family to object to the ideas it encouraged. And even people who broadly agree with including discussions of racism in the classroom might object to certain arguments of Courageous Conversation’s founder, Glenn Singleton. One New York Times Magazine article, for instance, quoted Singleton as saying that valuing writing over other forms of communication is “a hallmark of whiteness” that harms Black students. (Brooke Gregory, the president of Courageous Conversation, argued that most critics of the program haven’t participated and misunderstand its goals. The point, she said, “is not to demonize anyone, it is not to create good and bad or right and wrong, it is to say that all of these voices have a need to be heard and understood.”)

Most parents organizing against critical race theory have been white, but not exclusively. Last spring, Shawntel Cooper, a Black mother of two, testified at a Loudoun County school board meeting that was picked up by national news, and has since spoken out in the media about teacher training materials she finds offensive, like one obtained via FOIA that contrasted “White Individualism” with “Color Group Collectivism.” Cooper said she did not identify with the values ascribed to the “Color Group” side, which didn’t include things like private property and independence. The trainings also asserted that “culturally competent professionals” do not embrace color blindness, and they “accept responsibility” for their own racism and sexism. “I don’t understand how you would not want to ban anything that is this divisive and divides each other because of color,” Cooper said.

When I asked Jalaya Liles Dunn, the director of Learning for Justice, how her group is contending with the possibility that educators will face political backlash if they incorporate their more radical resources, she said her members have been talking with teachers about how to develop materials that won’t get them in trouble. “We’re being really practical about what teachers can and can’t say, and can and can’t do,” she said. “We don’t create a finished product and say ‘This is what teachers need’…. They know what they need, they’re on the front lines.”


The claims of parents in Erickson’s Facebook group notwithstanding, the idea that concerned communities might be satisfied by teachers presenting multiple viewpoints on thorny subjects is not borne out by history. Even before the wave of anti–critical race theory bills, most public schools throughout our nation’s past have shied away from teaching controversial issues. In The Case for Contention (2017), co-authors Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson, a philosopher of education, note that, in general, communities have not wanted their schools to present “both sides” of an issue, much preferring teachers to reinforce local norms. Indeed, “the most significant restriction” on public school teachers tackling controversial issues, Zimmerman and Robertson conclude, has always been the public itself. Educators, who keenly feel this distrust, have generally chosen to stick to topics they believe will agitate no one.

The law offers K-12 teachers who do suffer backlash little protection. It’s been more than 50 years since the high point for teachers’ free speech. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision concluding that loyalty oaths, including anti-communist pledges, violated educators’ First Amendment rights. In 1968, the court ruled in favor of Marvin Pickering, a teacher who had written a letter to his local paper opposing a tax levy decision made by his school board and criticizing the board’s tendency to allocate funds to sports over academics. The board fired Pickering, but since his letter didn’t criticize the school employees with whom he worked on a daily basis and pertained to a matter of public concern, the court said his speech should be protected. And in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in its famous Tinker v. Des Moines decision that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Since then, however, the courts have largely retreated from protecting teacher free speech at the K-12 level, both inside and outside the classroom. In 2006, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that when public employees speak in the context of their jobs, they’re “not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes,” and thus should not be insulated from employer discipline. Less than a year later, the Seventh Circuit upheld the firing of an Indiana schoolteacher who told her class that she had honked in response to a HONK FOR PEACE sign protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq and she believed in peaceful solutions to conflict. “The school system does not ‘regulate’ teachers’ speech as much as it hires that speech,” the court ruled, asserting that she could not cover topics or advocate perspectives in class that depart from what the local school board approves.

There are nearly 14,000 K-12 public school districts across the United States, and almost all are governed by locally elected school boards. Turnout in these elections is notoriously low, often just 5 or 10 percent of eligible voters. Nonetheless, these representatives are legally empowered to set policy on virtually everything related to their schools, from budgets and bus schedules to curriculum and enrollment boundaries. The major limitation on their authority comes from state lawmakers, who can impose obligations on local districts to do with school vaccinations, standardized testing, or, of course, new rules curtailing discussions of race.

“The fact of the matter is we work with a captive audience,” said Steven Cullison, a high school economics teacher, in a National Council for the Social Studies presentation he led about free speech. “That is, the law requires students to come to school, and what’s more, we require the community to pay for it. That means that the community has a right to far greater say in what occurs in a public K-12 school than, say, in a college or in a private school.” Speaking this fall on a podcast, Alice O’Brien, the general counsel for the National Education Association, told educators that if they work in a state that passes a law against teaching that the United States is systemically racist, they must be particularly careful about how they craft curricula and answer student questions. “I wish I didn’t have to say that,” she said. “But the fact is we do have members who have gotten in trouble for appearing to promote a viewpoint in their classroom that is at odds with that prohibition.”

If educators cannot deny the stake lawmakers, parents, and other community members have in shaping school curriculum, political leaders certainly question parents’ interest at their peril, as Terry McAuliffe discovered this past fall in his failed Virginia gubernatorial bid. In a late September campaign debate, McAuliffe said a few words he would never live down. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,” he announced. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” In the closing weeks of the race, Youngkin’s campaign made those remarks a centerpiece, running ads and circulating petitions proclaiming that “Parents Matter.” Post-election public opinion research showed that McAuliffe’s comments were highly influential, including among Biden voters who cast their ballots for Youngkin.

Though the fact often gets lost in contemporary media coverage, it’s never been only conservative parents who have disputed what’s taught in schools. Throughout the twentieth century, Black parents, with the assistance of the National Urban League and the NAACP, challenged school boards and book publishers about racist passages that they found in textbooks. The advent of ethnic studies courses, too, was driven by families pressuring their local leaders for more equitable representation in the classroom.

Perhaps surprisingly, not just parents think parents should have a say in curricula. In November, in a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of district administrators and teachers, 63 percent of respondents said local parents should be involved in selecting the curriculum and materials, even though just 31 percent said parents are involved. And while it may be because they are so eager to avoid fights and criticism, more than 50 percent of educators said they supported letting parents opt their children out of classes, curricula, or units they disapprove of; 25 percent even said they “completely support” the idea.


In 2013, following the news that Greenberg would be transferred to another Seattle school, fellow teachers and former and current students rallied to his defense, shocked by how quickly administrators had caved to the grievances of a single family. More than 100 of his supporters showed up to a Seattle school board meeting decked out in green clothes, and at the school’s graduation ceremony that year, a senior delivered a speech demanding Greenberg’s reinstatement, after which his peers opened their gowns to reveal shirts with the letter “G” on chest plates. Although Greenberg was forced to spend the next year working at a middle school, an arbitrator eventually ruled that the school district had inappropriately used a transfer to punish him, and permitted him to return to his old job.

Greenberg, who still teaches high school civics in Seattle, has noticed changes in his two-plus decades in the classroom. “Students are so much more aware of systemic oppression than they used to be,” he remarked. When he used to ask his classes why people were poor, teens tended to invoke individual choice. “Now there’s a reluctancy to even mention individual choices,” he said. “I credit Black Lives Matter with so much of that. Back in the day, I might have just been happy to even discuss the concept of ‘white privilege’ with my class—now I feel like it’s not even a debate.”

Few teachers today, though, feel confident that they’d get their jobs back if they got on a parent’s bad side, and Greenberg himself suspects that his own race and gender played a role in the community’s defense of him. “I certainly feel like educators of color who get persecuted don’t get that showing of support,” he told me.

Keith Mayes, the University of Minnesota historian who helped Anoka-Hennepin social studies teachers include more Black history, sees community backlash to critical race theory as just a “foot in the door,” the first step in a project to eventually go after ethnic studies courses, racial equity initiatives, and broader discussions of racism. While he recognizes that the fear educators experience is real, Mayes thinks that what is most needed is backbone. “The real question will be how well-meaning white teachers and administrators stand up to this opposition,” he said. “That’s the fundamental question, and I’m always watching that.” Teachers, after all, are members of their communities, too; they can elect candidates for school board, testify at meetings, and advocate collectively for their interests.

In the end, as communities continue to spar, it will be students who pay the price for the laws, rules, and cultural pressures that deter educators from tackling so-called divisive subjects. A wealth of research, from both nationally representative samples of schools and individual schools, has shown that students who are encouraged to discuss controversial issues are more likely to develop civic tolerance, political interests, a sense of civic duty, and expectations of voting than their peers without similar classroom experiences. Teachers “cannot simply be mouthpieces for the state nor conduits for the majority beliefs in the local community,” Zimmerman and Robertson argue. But are we willing, on the left or the right, for teachers to be anything else?

Learning from History: The Prospects for School Desegregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 10th, 2016.
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In a new book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits, Teachers College, Columbia University historian Ansley Erickson explores the legal and political battles surrounding the desegregation of public schools in Nashville. By 1990, almost no school within Nashville’s metropolitan school district had high concentrations of black or white students—making it one of the most successful examples of desegregation in the 20th century. However, since being released from court-ordered busing in the mid-1990s, schools have quickly resegregated, concentrations of poverty have intensified, and academic scores for black students in Nashville have suffered.

Erickson shows that desegregation was not all rainbows and butterflies, and it often created new challenges that families were forced to wrestle with. She also shows how school segregation had been no accident. Rather, it was a result of deliberate choices made by politicians, parents, real estate developers, urban planners, and school administrators—ranging from funneling subsidies to build schools in suburban areas, to privileging white families when making zoning and student assignment decisions.

And yet for all the challenges that desegregation entailed, Erickson also lets us hear the voices and positive experiences of students who went through desegregation—voices that were routinely ignored during the heated debates of the 20th century.

The point of recognizing the flaws within one of desegregation’s best-case scenarios is not, she says, to conclude that it’s ultimately a fruitless project. Rather, it serves as a guide for those who might want to figure out how to start anew. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
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Rachel Cohen: Your book makes the point that while desegregation challenged some inequalities, it also “remade” inequality in new forms. Are all inequalities equal, so to speak? Can we evaluate the challenges and still decide whether the needle moved overall in one direction or another in terms of progress?

Ansley Erickson: I think that desegregation absolutely was necessary, and I think that busing for desegregation was, in sum, a positive—and in some ways ambitious—effort to counteract persistent segregation. We can recognize that even as we notice desegregation’s limits and problems. I say this not only because of the stories that students who experienced desegregation tell, and not only because of the positive test score impact. It’s also because busing made segregation a problem within local political landscapes and put questions about historic inequality in front of people to grapple with.

RC: In the conclusion of your book you say that desegregation, mandated by a Supreme Court that recognized schooling’s crucial function in our democracy, has rarely been shaped by, or measured for, its potential impact on the making of democratic citizens. If it were to be, what could that look like?

AE: In Carla Shedd’s new book, Unequal City, she explores how students who attend segregated schools versus more diverse ones perceive inequality. She finds that those in more highly segregated schools have a less developed sense of inequality—they are less informed about it because they have less to compare their own experience to.

Schools are not just about whether you can read or calculate; they are about how robustly you perceive the world around you. Even if you go to high-performing schools, segregated white or segregated black schools, it can still be difficult for kids to understand the world they inhabit. They need to have some understanding of their community, and not just their immediate community, but in the broader sense. Work like Shedd’s points to how segregation can get in the way of that understanding.

Today, economic goals and justifications for schooling seem to be valued over all others. Nashville has invested very heavily in career and technical education. Its big comprehensive high schools have been redesigned as career academies, targeting jobs like being a pharmacist or working in hospitality. The goal is to help prepare kids for jobs, to sustain local businesses. At the same time, Nashville is a place that doesn’t have a local living wage, has a skyrocketing cost of living, an affordable housing crisis. Schools are clearly focused on helping to make students workers. But what is their responsibility in making citizens who can address big and pressing questions, including about the economy and about work? What’s a reasonable and just compensation for a person’s labor? What are workers’ basic rights? To me, helping kids be ready to participate in those debates matters just as much as helping students earn a certification in a certain vocational skill area.

RC: You wrote a lot about how “growth agendas” helped fuel inequality and new kinds of segregation. Can you talk a little bit about what that means and how it worked?

AE: This question connects to the themes we were just discussing. History can help bring some nuance to today’s often oversimplified rhetoric about how education and economic growth relate. It’s been popular recently to talk about schools as providing skills that leverage economic growth. But links between education and economic growth have worked in other ways, too.

In Nashville, in the name of economic growth, big urban renewal and public housing construction projects sharpened segregation in housing and in schooling. In the name of increasing property values, suburban developers appealed for segregated schooling by class as well as by race. And in the name of economic growth, schools focused on vocational education—often furthering segregation inside schools even as buses transported students for desegregation.

RC: While combining city and suburbs into one school district is not without its challenges—the dilution of black voting power was one you explored in the context of Nashville—do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?

AE: Nashville would not have had extensive statistical desegregation without consolidation. Nashville was highly residentially segregated and the old city boundary was quite small, like many U.S. cities. By the time busing began, the people living in the old city boundary were predominately African American. Had desegregation taken place only within the old city boundaries, the district would have had a much less diverse pool of students to draw on and a less diversified tax base. Having a consolidated city-county school district didn’t prevent “white flight,” but it did slow it and make it more onerous. But consolidation did not ensure equal treatment for all parts of the metropolis, either.

RC: In your book you show how back in Nashville in the ‘60s and ‘70s, some black communities felt as if advocacy for integration suggested that students of color are inferior and need to be around white kids in order to succeed. We see similar concerns today. Integration carries many important social and civic benefits for all students, but in modern education policy discussions the impact on student test scores gets the most attention—and that significant positive impact is by and large just for students of color. Though the test score gains are huge, could a narrow focus on student achievement dilute political support for integration?

AE: I think about this a lot, as I consider how history might inform today’s nascent conversation about segregation and desegregation. Other scholars have shown striking test-score improvements from desegregation. But if your ultimate goal is test score parity, then there will always be multiple ways to get there. If the goal is also preparing citizens for a diverse democracy, it’s harder for me to see how that happens without some measure of desegregation.

RC: You note that when it came to busing, residents decried state intervention as government overreach, an illegal intrusion into their private lives. But when it comes to the state playing a heavy role in facilitating economic growth, they welcomed the government’s help. Did you find there were people back in Nashville who were pointing out this contradiction?

AE: I didn’t find anyone who was pointing it out then. Then, as now, many people did not perceive how government action was shaping their lives, especially white suburbanites’ lives, in ways that benefited them but that they did not see. People wanted to draw sharp boundaries between what was public and private. White homeowners in particular liked to talk about their housing decisions as private choices they made within a free market. What they didn’t recognize was how enabled they were by their government-backed mortgage, their low-gas-tax subsidized commutes on new highways. Public policy supported what they wanted to cast as a private choice. When asked to recognize the segregation in their cities and schools, they wanted to call it “de facto segregation”—as if it had roots only in private action. But in fact, many layers of state action and policy were involved as well. There wasn’t a coherent small-government conservatism then. Like today, the question is what people thought government power should be used for.

RC: You explored school closures and the loss of black teaching jobs as a result of desegregation. Today we see similar trends, with schools closings, charter school expansions, and the increase in non-union jobs targeted to a whiter, and shorter-term teaching force. What, if any, historical lessons can we glean?

AE: There’s a lot of good scholarship on the history of desegregation and job loss—particularly by Michael Fultz and Adam Fairclough. I didn’t make that a huge focus in my book, but there is an important broader question here about how we think about education. Schools often account for around half of municipal budgets; they are huge municipal expenditures, and they do represent a big source of employment. Historically this employment has been an important step towards middle class existence for lots of American communities. Women of Irish, Italian, Jewish descent moved into the middle class by becoming schoolteachers in the early- and mid-20th century. Similarly, African American educators have attained, or preserved, middle class status through education jobs for a long time. Somehow we have been unable to find a way to talk about the teaching profession recognizing that it is both labor and employment that matters for communities and a crucial factor in students’ lives.

Teaching Character: Grit, Privilege, and American Education’s Obsession with Novelty

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 17th, 2015.
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Twice a week for 30 minutes, fifth graders at KIPP Washington Heights, a charter school in New York City, attend “character class.” Each lesson is divided into three parts, according to Ian Willey, the assistant principal who teaches it. First, students find out what specific skill they’ll be focusing on that day. “This morning we’re going to learn how to set a long-term goal,” Willey might tell them. Next, students are asked to practice the skill. In this case, students may imagine they have a long-term project to complete, and then work to construct a timeline with incremental deadlines. In the final part of the lesson, students would take time to collectively reflect. “What was hard about this exercise?” Willey might ask. “What went well? Did anyone feel nervous? What did you do when you felt nervous?” And because part of KIPP’s mission is to help build character, the students would then classify their new skill as one or more of KIPP’s seven targeted character goals. In this example, the students were learning “grit.”

Few ideas inspire more debate in education circles than grit, which means having dedication to and passion for long-term goals. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, first popularized the concept in 2007; she believes that if we can teach children to be “grittier” in schools, we can help them achieve greater success. Paul Tough, a journalist who published a 2012 bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, also brought grit into the national spotlight. Many policymakers and school leaders have since jumped at the idea. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised Tough’s “fantastic book”—arguing that teaching skills like grit “can help children flourish and overcome significant challenges throughout their lifetimes.” Districts all over the country are exploring how they can incorporate grit into their curriculum. In 2013, Duckworth was awarded $625,000 by the MacArthur Foundation to continue researching ways to cultivate grit in schools.

Despite grit’s enthusiastic boosters, a growing movement has sprung up in opposition. Some psychologists and policy analysts question the methodology behind Duckworth’s research—which has chiefly relied on students answering questionnaires on how gritty they think they’ve been. (For example, a survey question might read: “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones,” and students would report how much that statement resonates with them.) Some critics argue that grit places too much weight on individual student behavior, and as a result, crucial attention is directed away from the structural forces that inhibit academic success. Some researchers think that emphasizing grit can even produce negative outcomes, like killing creativity.

The excitement towards and resistance to this new field illuminates a great deal more about American education and its obsession with novelty than the grit research itself—which is still in its infancy.

The Background on Grit

Grit researchers begin with the conviction that grit is malleable: They believe that if we could design the right interventions, we could probably increase students’ grit levels, too. Duckworth admires the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist whose research on “academic tenacity”—a mindset that helps students focus on and persevere towards long-term goals—suggests that cultivating grit may be possible. Grit research also builds on the work of Martin Seligman, who pioneered the field of positive psychology, focused on positive human flourishing. Duckworth is Seligman’s former student.

Schools, politicians, and news organizations have embraced grit, excited by its possible implications. The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about grit’s potential. KIPP charter schools, like the one Ian Willey works for, have incorporated inculcating grit and other “character strengths” such as optimism, self-control and gratitude into their mission statement. In 2013, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), a global education organization, published a book entitled “Fostering Grit.”

Dan McGarry, an Assistant Superintendent for Upper Darby School District—located in a township adjacent to West Philadelphia—read about Duckworth’s work in 2011 and grew fascinated by character education. “I truly believe that this is going to change the world,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. His district has since formally partnered with Duckworth’s lab, allowing Penn researchers to both provide professional development to their staff and conduct experiments on their students. McGarry hopes that teaching character will reduce discipline problems and raise student achievement.

Backlash

Advocates insist that the benefits of teaching grit are just as important for affluent kids growing up in hypercompetitive communities as they are for low-income students growing up in poverty. Yet as grit hype grows, critics have started speaking out against what they see as an attempt to gloss over the uniquely debilitating effects of poverty. Paul L. Thomas, an education professor at Furman University, argues that reformers have embraced grit precisely because it presents them an opportunity to ignore material solutions. Indeed, in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough wrote, “There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths … [such as] conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism.” 

David Meketon, a research liaison from the Duckworth Lab, acknowledges that social class impacts everyone throughout their lives. But “we think our work and understanding can help mitigate those possible preconditions,” he says.

Eldar Shafir, a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton is skeptical that teaching grit can diminish the effects of poverty. He recently co-authored an influential book with Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist, on “scarcity”—which is the psychological effect of struggling to manage with less than you need. “I have no problem with the idea that whoever you are, having grit will be better than not having grit,” Shafir says. “But my intuition is that the kinds of problems that are so pressing that it’s very hard to put them out of your mind, like whether or not you will have food to eat, or whether your parent is going to prison or will lose their job, those stresses are much harder to ignore than the stresses facing the affluent, like which prestigious college will you go to.”

“To be perfectly honest, I’m very reluctant to ask the American poor to spend more time doing yoga,” Shafir answered.

I asked Dr. Shafir what he thought about teaching students yoga and mindfulness—popular ideas that the Duckworth Lab and other proponents of grit are exploring. “To be perfectly honest, I’m very reluctant to ask the American poor to spend more time doing yoga,” Shafir answered. “I think the impact of giving kids after school programs, transportation, and childcare for their parents would be much greater than trying to figure out how to include meditation in schools.” 

In late January, some progressive educators discussed the racial implications of grit at “EduCon 2.7,” a Philadelphia-based conference designed to explore digital learning. (The panel was called “Grit, Galton, Eugenics, Racism, Calvinism.”) “We keep [hearing] this narrative that the only way children in poverty are going to succeed is by working harder than their peers who are middle-class,” said Pamela Moran, a superintendent of a large public school district in Virginia. “We have to think about our own cultural biases, why grit appeals to us, and why we want to focus on it in our schools.”

Jeff Snyder, an education historian at Carleton College, thinks that while it’s “patently absurd” to argue—as some of his colleagues do—that teaching grit is inherently racist, there are some problems with how it is being applied in the real world. “[KIPP co-founder Dave] Levin, Duckworth, they all say that character education should be for everyone. But the way that it turns out is that KIPP-based character education is overwhelmingly for poor kids of color,” says Snyder. Referring to the “culture of poverty thesis”—the controversial idea that the urban poor are disadvantaged not due to racism and discrimination but because they harbor certain cultural pathologies—Snyder says it’s understandable that people would resist a new theory that seems to suggest academic failure is rooted in individual behavior. 

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of grit culture is Alfie Kohn, an education writer who published The Myth Of The Spoiled Child in 2014. “There is no pretense of objectivity in [Duckworth’s] work; [she] is selling grit rather than dispassionately investigating its effects,” Kohn writes. “Proponents of grit tend to focus narrowly on behavior, ignoring motive,” he adds. “Do kids love what they’re doing? Or are they driven by a desperate (and anxiety-provoking) need to prove their competence? As long as they’re pushing themselves, we’re encouraged to nod our approval.”

Ironically, Kohn and Duckworth both insist they are looking out for “the whole child”—the idea that schools should not just be for children’s academic development, but for their moral, social, and physical development as well. “If we’re interested in the whole child—if, for example, we’d like our students to be psychologically healthy—then it’s not at all clear that self-discipline should enjoy a privileged status compared to other attributes. In some contexts, it may not be desirable at all,” Kohn argues. In an interview with ASCD, Duckworth says, “standardized tests … are limited in their ability to pick up things like grit and self-control … gratitude, honesty, generosity, empathy for the suffering of others, social intelligence, tact, charisma. … We’re now seeing a pendulum swing away from the single-minded focus on standardized testing and toward a broader view of the whole child.”

Is Grit Science Reliable?

In 2012, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago Schools Research published a comprehensive literature review detailing all the existing evidence on how these “non-cognitive factors” like grit, motivation, and perseverance shape school performance. They found that most of the existing research is correlational, not causal—making it unclear the extent to which these factors can be developed in classrooms, and raising questions about whether changing them would actually even improve school performance. They also found little evidence to suggest that improving students’ academic behavior would narrow racial and ethnic achievement gaps.

One criticism of grit research is that it has relied mostly on the students’ self-reported questionnaires and surveys. Two sets of problems accompany these measures—one is “social desirability bias” and the other is “reference bias.” The former is a well-documented phenomenon where people tend to inaccurately report their experiences or memories on surveys in order to present themselves in the best possible light. They seek to present themselves in a socially desirable way, thus skewing the results. “Reference bias” is a less obvious issue, but perhaps more detrimental. To answer a survey question that asks “Are you a hard worker?” you’d typically conjure up an image of what you envision hard workers look like, and then compare yourself to them. “Am I hard worker compared to the other kids in my class?” you might ask. In effect, the results of these surveys can tell us very little about how you’ll do compared to people outside of your own peer group.

Martin R. West, of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has been researching the limitations of self-reported assessments, and finds evidence that the school climate in which a student answers these questions can significantly affect what answer they will give. “In a rush to embrace non-cognitive skills as the missing piece in American education, policymakers may overlook the limitations of extant measures,” West writes, urging researchers to develop alternatives that are valid across a broader range of settings. The Duckworth Lab’s Meketon says his team is now focusing on creating more activity-based tests, such as computer games, in the hope that this will ameliorate some of the concerns people have about the lab’s surveys and questionnaires.  

Avi Kaplan, a psychology professor at Temple University who studies student motivation and self-regulation, finds the public rhetoric around grit research to be extremely political. “Grit is a paradigm that gives people certainty, and that’s what people are looking for—absolute truth.” He argues that there have always been those in his field who aspire, mistakenly, to treat psychology like a natural science. “But human beings are all so different, and people develop and change at such different points in their lives.”

Education Policy’s Ebb and Flow

This is not the first time we’ve recognized that success is not exclusively about IQ or raw talent. In 1961, psychological theorist David McClelland published The Achieving Society, which argued that cultivating the need for achievement, often through early childhood experiences, plays an integral role in one’s chance for life success. In 1990, journalist Dan Goldman published Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ, which argued that self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved are the greatest indicators of success.

This is not even the first time our country has tried to teach character or seen it as integral to education—far from it. Writing in The New Republic, Snyder of Carleton College traces the history:

From the inception of our public school system in the 1840s and 1850s, character education has revolved around religious and civic virtues. Steeped in Protestantism and republicanism, the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” As an influential 1918 report on “moral values” put it, character education “makes for a better America by helping its pupils to make themselves better persons.” In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas.

With this in mind, the discussion around grit actually fits quite snugly within a long tradition of American education. First comes an idea, and initial excitement. Then there is a backlash, followed by an uneasy period where ideas are implemented and critiqued. “And then ultimately there’s the sad truth with education research and millions of dollars that you will always end up with mixed results,” says Snyder. “You will never do an educational experiment with real live human beings that give you dramatic results.”

Duckworth’s Meketon thinks the grit backlash might be partly steeped in resentment towards the research’s popularity. “The cynical part of me says that if you find someone who is getting a lot of attention, you go against them and attack them,” he says. But Meketon acknowledges that perhaps a simpler explanation is that educators have short attention spans. “I was an educator for 40 years and I’ve watched the evolution of various ideas and best practices in education come and go.”

Snyder disagrees; he thinks it is administrators, policymakers, and philanthropists—like Bill Gates—who have short attention spans, not the educators themselves. “It’s the people who fund the type of research being done by Duckworth that tend to get bored more quickly, because they are excited by innovation in and of itself.” Snyder expects that in ten years we’ll see people excited about new ideas, or old ideas that are billed as new.

Ultimately, we just don’t know that much about grit yet. Even Angela Duckworth has admitted she doesn’t know if we can actually teach it in schools. Her lab is only just now beginning to develop tools that don’t rely predominately on self-reported assessments. Prior research suggests that we’re not all that good at teaching character in school. In 2010, the largest federal study on school-wide character education programs found that these programs largely fail to produce improvements in student behavior or academic performance.

This is not to say this is all pointless. The University of Chicago researchers did find plenty of evidence that supporting positive academic mindsets can help students develop better learning strategies, and in turn, improve their grades—learning strategies like breaking up long-term projects with incremental deadlines, which is what Willey tries to teach in his classroom.

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, sees grit’s academic value, and defends teaching it in schools. (“Learning how to be persistent at an unpleasant task, it’s hard to argue that doesn’t matter,” she says.) But ultimately DeLuca worries about where the public conversation is going. “On the one hand, there’s a hopefulness that grit offers us. It’s an American narrative that’s really appealing, and it tells us that poor kids are not lost causes,” says DeLuca, who notes that too many policymakers just give up on kids in poverty. “But what happens with really popular ideas that have simple and compelling solutions is that you can run with them, and if things don’t change, then you start to think things can’t ever change.” By not confronting social structure directly within the grit narrative, we may be setting up these kids for failure. “At the end of the day,” says DeLuca, “poor kids—gritty or not—are still navigating within a profoundly unequal geography of opportunity.”

Marginalized Economists: Revisiting Robert Heilbroner

Originally published on the US Intellectual History blog on May 25th, 2014.
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While historians have begun to take interest in the history of economic thought, the tendency to research the most influential figures, the “historical winners”, has persisted as the predominant scholarly trend. But there are merits to studying the dissenters, too. Following not only how the economics profession took the turn it did but also looking at those who tried to advocate for an alternative vision, can help to clarify the seeming intellectual hegemony of our economic times.

Robert Heilbroner, arguably the most prominent dissenting American economist of the late twentieth century, followed his changing discipline with despair. So great was his anxiety over the powerful trends capturing the minds of his colleagues, championed by individuals like Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman and Gregory Mankiw, that he dedicated himself to addressing what he felt were economics’ existential threats. Yet despite his efforts, with over twenty books to his name, Robert Heilbroner never gained recognition and mainstream respect. Even in 2014, there remains little work written about him. [1]

Born into an affluent German-Jewish family in 1919, Robert Heilbroner was no stranger to privilege. Yet when his father died when he was just five years old, and his family’s chauffeur then became his surrogate father, Heilbroner developed a nascent sense of class-consciousness. Heilbroner “sensed the indignity of [his driver’s] position as a family intimate yet a subordinate.”[2] Later in life Heilbroner would say that he felt the experience “explains something about my…personality and hence about my work. I’ve found myself pulled between conservative standards on the one hand, and a strong feeling for the underdog on the other.”[3]

Heilbroner went on to Harvard in 1936, and became interested in economic thought after readingThe Theory of the Leisure Class during his sophomore year. He called the experience “an awakening” and went on to graduate with majors in history, government and economics. [4] (Fortuitously: read Andy Peal’s recent post on Veblen’s “iconoclasm”.) Throughout his life one could spot the Veblenian influence in Heilbroner’s work; it was his central conviction that the “search for the order and meaning of social history lies at the heart of economics.”[5]

Heilbroner worked during an era of great political and cultural upheaval. In the late 1940s and 50s, while other European countries were suffering from the harsh ramifications of the war, American economics grew rapidly. Not only was America’s economy growing strong, but employment opportunities for economists were also expanding ever since the passage of the New Deal. Moreover, when many war veterans went off to college on the GI Bill of 1944, many of them chose to study the social sciences, creating a new demand for economics professors. Thus, economics departments grew to a size that American universities had never before seen.

Additionally, partly due to the influence of wartime planning, statistical study and empirical work became increasingly interwoven. After 1945, economics grounded itself more firmly within the confines of quantitative methods, including algebraic procedures, theoretical models, and economic statistics. When Paul Samuelson published Foundations of Economic Analysis in 1947, he constructed a persuasive framework that would guide the economic discipline towards a field defined much more through the development of testable propositions. The influence of John Maynard Keynes also helped to establish mechanisms that could be analyzed formally, setting the stage for the transition to math. [6] Economists like Milton Friedman also followed up on all this in the early 1950s, pushing for a “positivist” economic movement that would be “in principle independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgments.”[7]

As economics drifted in a more mathematical direction, the former stronghold of the institutionalist camp began to falter. Universities espousing the new mathematical approach like MIT, the University of Chicago and Berkeley rose to prominence, while former bastions of institutionalism, like Columbia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, declined dramatically in relevance and influence. [8]

Robert Heilbroner’s most famous book, The Worldly Philosophers, provides insight into what he thought about these new professional trends. Published in 1953, the book which traces the lives of economists like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and others, became one of the most widely-read texts ever written on the history of economic thought. Although Heilbroner self-described politically as a democratic socialist, he reserved immense admiration for economists like Smith and Schumpeter. In fact, realistically, he hoped to see a return to economic conversations rooted in the spirit of thinkers like Smith. That would demand, for example, that to really theorize on markets and businesses, as Smith does in The Wealth of Nations, one must also delve into topics like justice, virtue and conscience, as Smith does in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. [9] In a 1999 New York Times interview, just six years before his death, Heilbroner said, ”The worldly philosophers thought their task was to model all the complexities of an economic system—the political, the sociological, the psychological, the moral, the historical… modern economists, au contraire, do not want so complex a vision. They favor two-dimensional models that in trying to be scientific leave out too much.” [10]

To be sure, Robert Heilbroner did not oppose the entry of mathematics into economics. He felt a quantitative approach could augment the thick, social and philosophical analysis already (or at least formerly) employed. And he recognized that math is simply the only tool economists have available to answer certain questions. Heilbroner differed from his colleagues not over whether math was useful, but over what math was capable of explaining. Where colleagues like Friedman pushed a positivist agenda to avoid “normative” answers to some of society’s toughest questions, Heilbroner tried to show that all decisions carry inherently normative judgments. And when individuals like Greg Mankiw asserted that economists were capable of tackling economics with the same objectivity as that of a natural scientist, Heilbroner pushed back.

“What does it mean to be “objective” about such things as inherited wealth or immissterating poverty? Does it mean that those arrangements reflect some properties of society that must be accepted, just as the scientist accepts the arrangements studied through a telescope or under a microscope? Or does it mean that if we were scrupulously aware of our own private endorsements or rejections of society’s arrangements we could, by applying an appropriate discount, arrive at a truly neutral view? In that case, could one use the word “scientific” to describe our findings, even though the object of study was not a product of nature but of society? The answer is that we cannot.”

Heilbroner also strove for economic conversations that ended the “precipitous decrease” in the presence of the word capitalism. Without referring to the economic system by name, Heilbroner argued, we encourage individuals to forget what the system is for and in whose interests it is working. He looked to Joseph Stiglitz, who penned a 997-paged economic textbook, and found in it a grand total of zero references to the word “capitalism.” These types of absences reinforced Heilbroner’s angst that society was losing sight of a fundamental descriptor necessary to conceptualize modern economics. [11]

If these were Heilbroner’s only academic critiques, perhaps he would not have been so marginalized. But Heilbroner went further in his attempts to push social analysis into economics, suggesting that, “indeed the challenge may in fact require that economics come to recognize itself as a discipline that follows in the wake of sociology and politics rather than proudly leading the way for them.” This suggestion of inverting the disciplinary hierarchies highlighted an epistemological modesty not shared by many other economists in the field. [12]

While Robert Heilbroner never lived to see economics revert to a broader, more social analytical framework, his work nevertheless may have had some tangential influence over areas outside of economics. Cornell sociologist Richard Swedberg observed that “one of the most important developments” for the social sciences in the past few decades “has been the race to fill the void created by mainstream economics’ failure to do research on economic institutions.” For example, a new academic field began to take form in the 1980s—that of economic sociology. In 1985, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published an article entitled, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness”, laying an intellectual base for the new field. Granovetter’s goal, echoing Heilbroner’s rhetoric, was to push economics from its knee-jerk emphasis on rationality towards a greater focus on the ways in which social structure and social relations factor into economic systems and power hierarchies. As Granovetter said, “there is something very basically wrong with microeconomics, and that the new economic sociology should make this argument loud and clear especially in the absolutely core economic areas of market structure, production, pricing, distribution and consumption.” [13]

New programs within graduate history departments have also emerged, designed to focus more specifically on the relationship between historical events and economics. Duke University’s Center for the History of Political Economy was founded in 2008 and Harvard University’s Joint Center for History and Economics was founded in 2007.  And, just this past springthe New School launched a new center, the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies, which seeks to blend “the history of capitalism, economic sociology, international political economy, heterodox economics, critical theory, economic anthropology, and science and technology studies.”[14]

There is some evidence that suggests that even the economics profession might be changing. When Thomas Piketty published Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in the spirit of the worldly philosophers, he advanced an argument for a global wealth tax not only based on his analysis of quantitative data, but also from his engagement with philosophy, history, and even 19th century literature. And the Institute for New Economic Thinking, founded in 2009, is meant to support economic projects and research that challenge the traditional paradigms of rational models and markets.

More aspects of Robert Heilbroner’s work deserve revisiting. His attentiveness to history and his fundamental humility led to some very fascinating writings about the future, technology, business civilization and the capitalist order. His rich 40-year career leaves us much more in which to sift and question.

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[1] The best, albeit limited, secondary sources I could find included Loren J. Okroi’s Galbraith, Harrington, Heilbroner: Economics and Dissent In an Age of Optimism (Princeton: Princeton University Press1988), Mathew Forstater’s “”In Memoriam: Robert L. Heilbroner The Continuing Relevance of The Worldly Philosophy” in Economic Issues 10.1 (March 2005) and Robert Pollin’s “Robert Heilbroner: Worldly Philosopher” in Challenge (May/June 1999).

[2] Pollin, “Heilbroner”, 34.
[3] Okroi, Heilbroner, 183.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers. (N.p.: F. Watts, 1966.) 16.
[6] Backhouse, Roger and Philippe Fontaine. History of the Social Sciences Since 1945. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 39, 40, 46, 52.
[7] Friedman, Milton. Essays in Positive Economics.(Chicago: UChicago Press, 1953) 4
[8] Backhouse, History of the Social Sciences, 42.
[9] Dieterle, David Anthony, Economic Thinkers: A Biographical Encyclopedia. (Greenwood, 2013) 131.
[10] Backhouse, Roger; Bateman, Bradley. “Worldly Philosophers Wanted.” New York Times.November 5, 2011.
[11] Heilbroner. The Worldly Philosophers. 314, 318, 315, 318.
[12] Heilbroner, Robert L., and William S. Milberg. The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought. (New York: Cambridge UP, 1995) 126.
[13] Swedberg, Richard. “A New Economic Sociology: What Has Been Accomplished, What is Ahead?” Acta Sociologica.(1997), 161, 163, 164.
[14] Ott, Julia, and William Milberg. “Capitalism Studies: A Manifesto.” Public Seminar RSS. Graduate Programs at NSSR, 17 Apr. 2014.

Re: The “History” of Marriage

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that he supports same-sex marriages, quite a few reactions have flooded the opinion pages, cable networks and blog sites. Of course, people are entitled to their differing views on the subject; and President Obama’s announcement certainly can be seen as a divisive one. It angers not only many conservatives, but also groups that are considered at the base of the Democratic Party, specifically African-Americans and Latinos. However, at a time when Gallup polls report that 50% of all Americans support same-sex marriage, this public affirmation from the President of the United States marks an important moment in history.

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photo credit: msnbc.com

And yet, I almost refrain from using the word “history”, a term that opponents of same-sex marriage have so regularly abused and exploited. The word itself faces the threat of being rendered meaningless.

Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared in 2003, “I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history. I disagree with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman.” Recently Romney spoke at Liberty University, where he reaffirmed his position of nine years ago. He spoke of the “enduring institution of marriage,” one that defines itself as “a relationship between one man and one woman.”

He has other conservative supporters, of course. In January, Newt Gingrich boldly associated gay marriage with Paganism. Gingrich said, “It’s pretty simple: marriage is between a man and a woman. This is a historic doctrine driven deep into the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament…the effort to create alternatives to marriage between a man and a woman are perfectly natural pagan behaviors, but they are a fundamental violation of our civilization.”

Conservative blogger, Erick Erickson writes, “In the past few decades, many people have decided that several thousand years of human history can be ignored in favor of unproven claims of happiness, fairness, progress, and an expanded notion of equality.”

It is imperative to do some fact checking of these ‘historical’ claims.

When Newt Gingrich invokes marriages from the Old and New Testament, is he counting the one where Jacob had two wives? Or where King David had eight wives? Or where King Solomon had 700 wives?

When Mitt Romney speaks about the “enduring institution” of marriage, does he mean the marriages of ancient Egypt where royal siblings would legally marry one another in order to keep their royal bloodlines pure? Or the marriages of the ancient Romans where daughters were human forms of currency, used to help form strategic alliances and strengthen the military position of the family?

Marriage is an evolving institution. It is both deceptive and manipulative to speak of the history of marriage as a stable, un-changing tradition. To be against gay-marriage is one thing; to depict marriage as a fixed institution is another.

Wedding vows, as we know them today certainly have not been around for “thousands” of years. The vows with the well known “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer” come from a man named Thomas Cranmer in 1549.

Society did not really even make the switch to marrying for love, a period known in sociology as “affective individualism”, until the Victorian Era. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria became the revered icons for a loving marriage. People began to grow distasteful of arranged marriages for economic purposes, and began to seek new meaning, namely love, in the institution of marriage.

When Erick Erickson argues that we’re ignoring “thousands of years of human history” I think the real question is which history is he referring to? Which marriage structure is he claiming we should fight to preserve? Arranged-marriages between a man and a woman? Polygamic marriages?

And if Erickson does mean marriages for love between a man and a woman—well, that is one of the most recent historical phenomena of them all.