School districts in the Commonwealth of Virginia are substantively revising their social studies curriculums, prioritizing the history of discrimination and intolerance against racial minorities, particularly Black Americans and to a lesser degree indigenous persons. “Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness, and white supremacy was both a product and legacy of slavery,” notes Teaching Tolerance’s “Teaching Hard History,” a curriculum project of the Southern Poverty Law Center that many Virginia educators have embraced.
“This is the history that has already been there,” an instructional coach in Charlottesville City Schools recently told the Washington Post. “We’re just choosing at this time to foreground other perspectives, marginalized perspectives…. [History] has always been on the backs of oppressed people.” Yet, there is more than one “marginalized persons’ perspective.” Indeed, a growing cottage industry in academia studies oppression through the lens of race, gender, sex, and religion, among others. Determining the prioritization of these many diverse victim narratives thus elicits a more fundamental question; what is social studies education for?
There are many proposed answers: to prepare students for civic responsibility; to make sense of the present; to develop skills in reading, writing, research, and “critical thinking.” These, though valid, are all still means to some other ultimate end. To identify that end, we must consider the philosophical principles that undergird social studies education.
The oppressor/oppressed paradigm that permeates “Teaching Hard History” and other similar curriculums stems largely from a materialist understanding of history that interprets the past predominantly in terms of social and economic struggles for power between “oppressor and oppressed... in constant opposition to one another,” according to Marx. Intimately related to this is an emphasis on human agency, also central to curriculum guidelines. It can also be found in Nietzsche’s emphasis on the will to realize autonomy: “This world is the will to power — and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power — and nothing besides!”
Combined with other philosophical principles (e.g. utilitarianism), this coalesces into a specific ideological interpretation of history. The essential purpose of life is to maximize autonomy, self-actualization, and individual pleasure. Yet oppressive, patriarchal power structures have historically limited this. Such structures must then be identified and dismantled.
In this paradigm, historical actors and events are interpreted primarily in regards to power and agency (who has them, who doesn’t, who limits them). This approach inevitably fosters suspicion and skepticism, which is inimical to instilling a shared historical identity or fostering a robust sense of civic responsibility. Why work within an oppressive system? When considering this civic inheritance, students will invariably come to one conclusion: tear it down.
This is an impoverished and insufficient understanding of our nation’s history. It’s also unclear how a curriculum focused on power structures and victim narratives will be any better than one allegedly racist and misogynist. The former offers no coherent vision of a shared civic life, but one where ideological opponents are demonized. What will stop it from manifesting new oppression and prejudices, ignoring what doesn’t conform to its own narrative, like the inconvenient truth that in 1860, Native Americans owned approximately 5,000 black slaves?
There is, however, an alternative, tried and true philosophical paradigm for understanding reality and history. In classical Greece, especially represented in Aristotle, freedom exists to realize objective goods, achieved through a life of virtue. “No doctrine vindicated itself in so wide a variety of contexts as did Aristotelianism: Greek, Islamic, Jewish and Christian,” observes renowned philosopher Alasadir MacIntyre.
The Jewish understanding of freedom complements the Greek by focusing on religious worship and social justice. Both civilizations perceived liberty as intimately and inextricably united to teleology, or what Aristotle called final causality. Mankind has certain natural and supernatural ends, and to flourish we must realize them. Social studies is then the study of humanity related to those ends, and the inculcation of civic virtues necessary to achieve them.
Education that opposes racism in all its forms, past and present, is obviously commendable. Yet the underlying principles of Virginia’s new curriculum are erroneous and self-destructive. Moreover, premises that go unidentified go unquestioned. If school districts are going to revise their curriculums, they must be honest, coherent, and true. Our youth will be far better equipped to build a prosperous polis if they understand themselves not in simplistic binaries, but as noble actors in a great, unfinished story where the virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and prudence are oriented towards physical, intellectual, and spiritual happiness.
Chalk previously taught high-school history in Charlottesville and Fairfax County. He is a columnist for New Oxford Review and Crisis Magazine.