Radical right-wing history has no place in School District 51’s curriculum
Let me be clear from the outset: This column is not a criticism of Mormons, the LDS Church or the hundreds of excellent Mormon historians who write and teach history.
What it does question is the bias—with one notable exception—reflected in the list of history texts recommended to the District 51 School Board by member Jeff Leany, as reported in a Sentinel story Friday.
With the exception of David McCullough’s “1776,” none of the works listed meet the minimal criteria for works of history. They lack both the scholarly objectivity and factual accuracy essential to historical narrative or interpretation.
Leany does include one exemplary text. McCullough’s “1776” is a model history text that, by contrast, highlights the failure of the other books recommended to the board.
Librarian of Congress James Billington called McCullough “the citizen chronicler of the American story for our time.” Describing him as a “unique—and uniquely American—humanist,” Billington continued, “He is a historian who immerses himself deeply in primary materials, a literary artist of the first order, and a trusted person who has projected serious reflection out to an unprecedentedly wide audience.”
McCullough is one of the most popular and successful historians of his generation. Though he refers to himself as a “storyteller” rather than a historian, his narratives meet the highest standards of history.
What makes “1776” such a good choice for advanced high school history is the balance McCullough achieves in recounting events in American history. Unlike academic historians who interpret political and diplomatic aspects of the Revolutionary War, McCullough focuses on the war and those who fought it.
The Americans and George Washington are but players in a larger drama that includes their British counterparts, and even England’s royal court.
As New York Times reviewer Tony Horwitz described it, “This is a sly book, beginning with its title, ‘1776.’ It’s a story of war, not words—the great declaration in Philadelphia occurs offstage. Yet no combat takes place for most of the narrative. George Washington often pales beside his supporting cast, and readers are invited to empathize with reviled figures: Tories, Hessian mercenaries, even King George III.”
The remaining authors on Leany’s list are “historians” of a different sort. They go to primary sources not to discover the truth about the past, but to bolster their preconception that the Founding Fathers were guided not by Enlightenment principles, but by Christian dogma.
Their leader is a right-wing Mormon outlier named W. Cleon Skousen whose activism goes back to the McCarthy era and the John Birch Society. By the time he died in 2006, he was largely forgotten, though his ideas still existed in the fringe group of followers who joined his movement.
As described in a 2010 Southern Poverty Law Center report, Skousen founded the Freeman Institute in 1971. “The outfit now goes by the name National Center for Constitutional Studies (NCSS) and works out of a remote farmhouse in Malta, Idaho.”
Fallen into obscurity after his death, Skousen was resurrected by Fox TV host Glen Beck, who praised “The 5,000 Year Leap” on his programs. With Beck’s support, the book quickly jumped from obscurity to No. 1 on the Amazon online sales list.
The book’s premise is that the United States, because its Founding Fathers based their government on Christian principles, has made more progress in 200 years than other countries have in 5,000.
Wilentz calls the book “a treatise that assembles selective quotations and groundless assertions to claim that the U.S. Constitution is rooted not in the Enlightenment but in the Bible, and that the framers believed in minimal central government.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes it as “an illustrated recipe for turning the United States into 50 little theocracies, each dictating morality according to its own religious ethics.”
Space does not permit analysis of the other authors recommended by Leany, but their works reflect the ideas of their mentor, Skousen. David Bowman, for example, brags on his website that his illustrated comic-book-style history, “What The Founding Fathers Thought,” as “THE (sic) quintessential conservative, tea party-esque, book for YOUNG readers.”
“There is nothing like it,” he brags.
Most reputable historians would agree.
There is virtually no chance District 51 will actually adopt these books, but the proposal, and the seemingly favorable response to it by some other board members, is a huge red flag for the community.
Parents and District 51 supporters who don’t want the curriculum determined by radical right-wing religious doctrine need to send a strong message to that effect to the board.
Meanwhile, the board could learn a lot about the standards of history by reading McCullough’s “1776.”