Jill Lepore is a historian at Harvard University and a writer for The New Yorker. In this recent article, she reviews a history of attacks on one of our nation’s most important democratic institutions: our public schools. To read the complete article, subscribe to The New Yorker. It is a wonderful magazine.

She begins:

In 1925, Lela V. Scopes, twenty-eight, was turned down for a job teaching mathematics at a high school in Paducah, Kentucky, her home town. She had taught in the Paducah schools before going to Lexington to finish college at the University of Kentucky. But that summer her younger brother, John T. Scopes, was set to be tried for the crime of teaching evolution in a high-school biology class in Dayton, Tennessee, in violation of state law, and Lela Scopes had refused to denounce either her kin or Charles Darwin. It didn’t matter that evolution doesn’t ordinarily come up in an algebra class. And it didn’t matter that Kentucky’s own anti-evolution law had been defeated. “Miss Scopes loses her post because she is in sympathy with her brother’s stand,” the Times reported.

In the nineteen-twenties, legislatures in twenty states, most of them in the South, considered thirty-seven anti-evolution measures. Kentucky’s bill, proposed in 1922, had been the first. It banned teaching, or countenancing the teaching of, “Darwinism, atheism, agnosticism, or the theory of evolution in so far as it pertains to the origin of man.” The bill failed to pass the House by a single vote. Tennessee’s law, passed in 1925, made it a crime for teachers in publicly funded schools “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Scopes challenged the law deliberately, as part of an effort by the A.C.L.U. to bring a test case to court. His trial, billed as the trial of the century, was the first to be broadcast live on the radio. It went out across the country, to a nation, rapt.

A century later, the battle over public education that afflicted the nineteen-twenties has started up again, this time over the teaching of American history. Since 2020, with the murder of George Floyd and the advance of the Black Lives Matter movement, seventeen states have made efforts to expand the teaching of one sort of history, sometimes called anti-racist history, while thirty-six states have made efforts to restrict that very same kind of instruction. In 2020, Connecticut became the first state to require African American and Latino American history. Last year, Maine passed “An Act to Integrate African American Studies into American History Education,” and Illinois added a requirement mandating a unit on Asian American history.

On the blackboard on the other side of the classroom are scrawled what might be called anti-anti-racism measures. Some ban the Times’ 1619 Project, or ethnic studies, or training in diversity, inclusion, and belonging, or the bugbear known as critical race theory. Most, like a bill recently introduced in West Virginia, prohibit “race or sex stereotyping,” “race or sex scapegoating,” and the teaching of “divisive concepts”—for instance, the idea that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist,” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

While all this has been happening, I’ve been working on a U.S.-history textbook, so it’s been weird to watch lawmakers try their hands at writing American history, and horrible to see what the ferment is doing to public-school teachers. In Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin set up an e-mail tip line “for parents to send us any instances where they feel that their fundamental rights are being violated . . . or where there are inherently divisive practices in their schools.” There and elsewhere, parents are harassing school boards and reporting on teachers, at a time when teachers, who earn too little and are asked to do too much, are already exhausted by battles over remote instruction and mask and vaccine mandates and, not least, by witnessing, without being able to repair, the damage the pandemic has inflicted on their students. Kids carry the burdens of loss, uncertainty, and shaken faith on their narrow shoulders, tucked inside their backpacks. Now, with schools open and masks coming off, teachers are left trying to figure out not only how to care for them but also what to teach, and how to teach it, without losing their jobs owing to complaints filed by parents.

There’s a rock, and a hard place, and then there’s a classroom. Consider the dilemma of teachers in New Mexico. In January, the month before the state’s Public Education Department finalized a new social-studies curriculum that includes a unit on inequality and justice in which students are asked to “explore inequity throughout the history of the United States and its connection to conflict that arises today,” Republican lawmakers proposed a ban on teaching “the idea that social problems are created by racist or patriarchal societal structures and systems.” The law, if passed, would make the state’s own curriculum a crime.

Evolution is a theory of change. But in February—a hundred years, nearly to the day, after the Kentucky legislature debated the nation’s first anti-evolution bill—Republicans in Kentucky introduced a bill that mandates the teaching of twenty-four historical documents, beginning with the 1620 Mayflower Compact and ending with Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing.” My own account of American history ends with the 2020 insurrection at the Capitol, and “The Hill We Climb,” the poem that Amanda Gorman recited at the 2021 Inauguration. “Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: / That even as we grieved, we grew.”

Did we, though? In the nineteen-twenties, the curriculum in question was biology; in the twenty-twenties, it’s history. Both conflicts followed a global pandemic and fights over public education that pitted the rights of parents against the power of the state. It’s not clear who’ll win this time. It’s not even clear who won last time. But the distinction between these two moments is less than it seems: what was once contested as a matter of biology—can people change?—has come to be contested as a matter of history. Still, this fight isn’t really about history. It’s about political power. Conservatives believe they can win midterm elections, and maybe even the Presidency, by whipping up a frenzy about “parents’ rights,” and many are also in it for another long game, a hundred years’ war: the campaign against public education.

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