A user on Reddit asked: Tonight, my wife and I engaged in a heated debate on whether or not the American Civil War history was taught differently in the South vs. the North. She was deeply offended when I pointed out that her history books were likely lenient on the Confederate states… We both attended primary and high school in the 80’s and 90’s.
First things first: due to the 10th Amendment and the fact education isn’t mentioned by name in the Constitution, education is a matter mostly left up to the states. In some regions, like New England, especially New York State and Massachusetts, structures of formal education emerged during the Colonial Era. In others, especially the Mid-West states, formal education didn’t become part of the state’s tax system until the early 1900’s. What this means in practice is that you and your wife could have gone to school just 10 miles apart, separated by a state border, and your history experiences in school could have been dramatically different.
These differences are compounded by a number of factors including teacher preparation – some states established policies requiring high school teachers have a strong pedagogical (how to teach) background with a secondary emphasis on content (what to teach). Others did the opposite. Another major factor is the system of textbook adoption which serves as an example of the starkest differences between states. Generally speaking, textbook adoption laws can be found in Southern and Western states. Local control is most common in the Northeast and Central states. This piece by Dana Goldstein in the New York Times provides examples of practical differences in textbooks for different states.
Basically, states have passed laws and created policies that fall generally into two categories:
- the state makes decisions around which textbooks districts will use
- the state allows each school district to decide which textbooks to use (and may or may not fund their choice)
Your question didn’t specify which states you grew up in but for the sake of comparison, let’s say she’s from Texas and you’re from NYS. Let’s start with you first. By the time you arrived in high school in the late 80’s, you were stepping into a system two centuries old, that fell into category 2. Part of the state system including high school exit exams dating to 1878, which informed the content teachers taught. There was a feedback loop between curriculum and the Regents exams which meant teachers would propose a Regents exam, develop a curriculum to teach to that exam, and use whatever textbooks or resources they deemed necessary. Newly hired teachers would use the existing Regents exam to determine what to teach. In 1919, you could have taken one of 5 different history exit exams.
- American History with Civics
- Geography (Physical Geography History Ancient; Modern)
- History of Great Britain and Ireland
- History of Education
By the late 1970s, the state settled into the US History and Global Studies exams you would have encountered in the 1980s and 1990s. The thing that needs to be stressed is the balance between teacher autonomy and shared curriculum. Yes, your teachers needed to get you ready for the statewide Regents exam but how they got you there was up to them and district leadership. But this also meant there wasn’t a lot of time for wandering off the path, as it were. This system of teacher-designed exit exams extended to all public schools in NY, regardless of demographics. A quick review of US History exams leading up to 1980s show the Civil War was just one of many topics covered. As an example, only one true/false question related to the topic appeared on the 1936 exam: The right to secede from the Union was settled by (the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War). Meanwhile, there were a handful of questions about democracy, immigrants, and current events. In 1969, the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, one of the essay prompts explicitly spoke to Civil Rights and asked students to explain how people from minority groups had been denied their rights. The 1969 test was about twice as long as the 1936 one and included several questions on the plantation system, the North’s role in the Triangle Trade, and the American government.
This isn’t to say the NYS education system was progressive, and to be sure, I’m glossing over a whole bunch related to the Great Migration, immigration, school integration, the disproportionately White and women teaching force (more on that below), and funding inequities. Rather, the presence of such a question on a Regents exam serves as evidence NYS teachers were expected to teach students explicitly about systematic racism, if not under that name, and give them enough evidence so they could write an essay on a high school exit exam.
Finally, districts on the east coast, especially in and around NYC, were constantly going through expansions and contractions due to immigration and population shifts for most of the 20th century. One consequence of this was the creation of routines (pledges, songs, etc.) that focused on a national American identity (which is to say, an identity shaped by White European, Protestant touchstones.) To paraphrase one schoolman of the era: children walked into NY schools French, German, Russian, etc. and walked out American. Part of this notion of what it means to be an American, or to live in a state that remained with the United States, “the peculiar institution” that was American slavery was a Southern thing, not Northern. It was fairly common for children in northeast schools to leave school with a sense that they belonged to a long history of those on the side of righteousness.
So, to summarize with a broad generalization: Northern states, through a combination of tradition, guardrails around course expectations, and cultural norms, expect/expected districts to provide students with a comprehensive history education focused on a sanitized version of America’s history, which includes the Civil War.
Now lets shift to a Southern state, most of which fall into category 1 from above. A 1985 study of the rationales for statewide textbook adoption identified a culture related to the state’s identity as a key driver for the policy decision. That is, it’s not a coincidence that most of the 22 states that have statewide textbook adoption policies were former members of the Confederacy or adjacent to a member state.
Before we unpack that more, a quick detour into demographics. Beginning in the 1820s, the teaching profession underwent a massive demographic shift. Prior to that point, teaching was generally something men did in-between other things. With only a few exceptions for celebrity tutors, it had no real clout as a vocation. The rise of public education, though, changed that. Through deliberate marketing campaigns by reformers on the east coast, the role of “teacher” was elevated to that of the Protestant clergy. Young women couldn’t directly serve their church, but they could serve America’s children by becoming teachers. By 1870 or so, 75% of all white women living in Massachusetts had been a teacher at one point in their life. Teaching was elevated to a righteous calling – one young women were thought to be ideally suited for. Once she got married, of course, she had to leave her students as it was inconceivable a woman could be a helpmate, a mother, and a mother-teacher, all at the same time. Eventually, for Northern women, the sisterhood among teachers gave rise to teacher unions. For Southern women, it often meant social clubs. A key example of one such club is the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
To be sure, not all white Southern teachers belonged to UDC, endorsed the “Lost Cause” narrative, (this thread from two years ago includes some back and forth on the nature of the philosophy), or were straight-up white supremacists. But a lot did. And were. Like their Northern colleagues, it was the norm for Southern women to leave the classroom upon getting married. However, UDC members who left the classroom could still fulfill their calling by being an active member of the UDC. From Heyse, 2006:
The UDC historical committees reviewed textbooks used by teachers in the Southern schools, reported on which ones they approved and which they condemned, recommended their selections to state and county school boards, and wrote books on what a “fair” and “unbiased” textbook should look like. Wilson reported that in 1901, the UDC’s historical committee urged the examination not just of histories but also “readers, biographical sketches, poems for recitation, songs, and even geographies” (140).
The August 2, 2020 episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver provides additional information on the work the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
While the women of the UDC were pushing a particular take on American history, their fathers, brothers, current and future husbands, and sons that ran schools typically shared the UDC’s sentiment that those who fought in the Confederacy were fighting for their homes, for their way of life. Those leaders were responsible for things like naming schools, building monuments in community public spaces, and making the final decisions around textbooks. It’s this convergence of philosophies that resulted in a Texas school built in 1957 (3 years after Brown v. Board) named Robert E. Lee HS and teachers using a textbook that described the day in the life of a “happy slave.” These philosophies became part of the grammar of schooling in Southern schools.
Numerous textbook audits, including some that date to the early 1940s, speak to various ways the UDC’s advocacy shaped the history students learned in Texas schools. The Texas Education Agency, which oversees education in the state, first convened in 1949 (all White, all men) and practically from the get-go, was interested in statewide textbook adoption. Each member of the board is elected, which means each board member has made promises to constituents, oftentimes, this would translate into a promise to “return” to Texas’ roots when there was a sense textbooks had shifted too far to the left. Given its size and economic power, textbook publishers knew that being picked by Texas was a financial boon. One way to try to win that jackpot was to aim directly at the heart of what mattered to members of the board: a worldview that centered White heroes, minimized the impact on the Indigenous people of the region, the contributions of Hispanic/Latinx people, and reframed the nature of chattel slavery.
It’s helpful to think of the UDC’s focus as “patriotism AND.” While NYS students would pledge allegiance to the American flag, Texas students said the pledge, were taught to “Remember the Alamo,” and encouraged to valorize Lee.
So, to summarize with a broad generalization: Southern states, through a combination of tradition, statewide textbook adoption, and cultural norms expected/expect teachers to provide students a history education that focuses on a comprehensive understanding of what it means to be a Southerner, an identity framed around the Civil War.