American history can and should be taught in Kansas, despite raging culture wars about critical race theory

By Sharon Hartin Iorio
Special to Gannett Kansas
Sharon Hartin Iorio

Kansans have learned that culture wars don’t stop at the state line. They invade most every aspect of our daily life. Lately the teaching of American history has come under fire. Whether the battle is political (Republican vs. Democrat) or ideological (critical race theory vs. traditional explanations of history), this media-fed assault is taking aim at public schools.

Our schools should be a place where students learn about our democratic system and their place in it, not a battleground for opposing viewpoints.

The culture war now raging reaches far beyond arguments over what view of America history should be taught. It’s a struggle that encompasses the core of democracy, because American democracy transcends the organization and functioning of government to embrace wider responsibilities of citizenship — respect, decency, civic obligation and love of liberty.

To fulfill the fore founders’ original purpose of public education to create an informed electorate, what should we teach our K-12 students today about history and our way of life?

For the current year, Kansas teachers are required to teach civics embedded in the curriculum of students in grades K-four. Social studies classes or embedded instruction in the intermediate grades are determined by individual school districts. For high school students, study of world history, American history and government including concepts of Kansas history and government and the U.S. constitution are required for graduation. 

Virtually all of us can agree that this is a strong curricula. The furor, however, is not about “what” is required in our schools. It’s about “how” it’s taught.

Chairman of the Kansas House Education Committee Steve Huebert wants to require high school students to pass a citizenship test to graduate. The test would be similar to that given to immigrants applying for U. S. citizenship. Introduced in the last legislative session, the bill didn't pass.

According to the Kansas law, what is required in Kansas public schools is the purview of local school boards based on state policy and federal law. Currently state standards present a centrist approach. Both the unfair, unjust events in American history as well as the nation’s rise to become a beacon for liberty and the strongest economic and military force in the world are taught by presenting comprehensive, accurate accounts of the past.

Critical race theory — the current center of contention — illuminates institutional and personal racism that continues to this day. Other accounts describe American history as a march of slow progress. Neither is fully accurate. From the thinking of early Greeks to the present, humankind has been unable to produce any one theory that connects the full sweep of history to explain why the past happened the way it did.

Kansans must not allow piecemeal legislation or full-blown curriculum coming from any political or ideological group to overtake school curricula. Historical theories are the work of university-level studies.

Directionless yet significant public contention over the teaching of American history should be met with local school-district examination of social studies and history curriculum by teachers and administrators, involve community input and culminate in elected school board review. Democracy put into practice will either identify areas of needed improvement or reassure parents and students that their school is on the right track.

Respect for diversity and patriotism aren't mutually exclusive concepts, except in culture wars.

Sharon Hartin Iorio is professor and dean emeritas of the Wichita State University College of Education. Reach her at Sharon.iorio@gmail.com.