For the better part of the last decade, Megan Threlkeld has been leading students on a tour of a nation at war with its past. 

Threlkeld, a history professor at Denison University in Ohio, teaches a seminar for first-year students focused on how American history has been taught through the centuries, parsing textbooks to explain how national narratives evolve. The course dissects some of the country’s most notorious battles in the great culture war over historical memory — from the 1990s-era clashes about how to commemorate the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the conservative uproar in the mid-2010s over a U.S. history course framework emphasizing the country’s legacy of racism. The last few years of her course have coincided with a new front in America’s culture wars: how this legacy is discussed in public schools.  

Since 2021, at least 18 states have passed laws banning schools from teaching critical race theory or “divisive concepts” about racism and sexism. In the same period, universities and colleges have become a key battleground for conservative lawmakers intent on codifying an “anti-woke” view of history in the classroom, with nearly two dozen states introducing bills targeting history instruction and diversity training in higher education. 

Threlkeld’s students have been studying these fights in real time and reflecting on the future of a country afraid of its past. I spoke to her about what they make of this fraught political moment and the continuities between history wars of the past and present.

When you started teaching this class nearly a decade ago, what was the dominant history war captivating the public? And do you see any connections between that feud and what people are fighting over today?

Starting around 2010, the College Board decided to revisit the AP U.S. history framework. So they brought in historians and teachers and all the kinds of people you would expect. And it was a multi-year process that was all done by the College Board. And then in 2014, they released the revised framework around which schools could design the AP courses that fit with what they do in those districts. The right-wing reaction was exactly what you would expect, which was, ‘Why are these people listed and not these people?’ 

So for those first few years of teaching this class, I was able to show my students these reactions and to show them the responses from the College Board and the responses from school districts and ordinary teachers who were dealing with this in their classrooms every day. I could tell that students had never really thought about the politics behind all of this because they’re just in class. They’re just learning what they’re being taught. One of the experiences that stays with me most strongly from this class is just seeing students realize how political history is.

Many students can probably study a specific battle over a textbook and not understand that history itself is often contested and politically weaponized. How do you explain this concept of history wars to your students? How do they react? 

It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve tried a lot of different ways over the years. The thing that I have done the last few times that I have taught the course is just to give them one of these bills. The last time I taught this course was the fall of 2022. And in the spring of 2022, the Ohio House of Representatives had proposed one of these ‘divisive concepts’ bills. So we talked through the process of how these bills work, and I just gave them the text and said, ‘Take a look at this and tell me what you think.’ And that was more powerful than anything I had tried before. 

Some of the other things I had done before were giving students two very different textbook excerpts of the same event and talking about why these excerpts would be so different. Even then, getting them to understand the political stakes always took more time. But with these bills, all I have to do is hand them the text of one, and they’re just immediately thinking, ‘What is going on?’

Do students buy lawmakers’ rhetoric that these laws are intended to protect them from harmful and divisive concepts? 

Their first reaction is usually disbelief that anyone thinks that there are topics in U.S. history that high school and college students shouldn’t learn about. They are very thoughtful when it comes to thinking about younger children. But by the time students get to their age — 16, 17, 18 — they just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that there is something dangerous in learning about slavery or learning about racial discrimination of any kind. And some of them who come through this course and start to understand how little they know about American history, some of them are angry that they weren’t taught the things that they’re learning.

We do have some really interesting discussions about patriotism and what it means to be patriotic. Because they pick up on a lot of that rhetoric, too, that the purpose of public education is to make students patriotic citizens. And so, I do always get a couple of students who ask things like, ‘Well, how can I learn all these terrible things that the United States has done and still be patriotic?’ And I think that’s an incredible question. Where a lot of them come to by the end of the semester is that they need to know these things in order to be patriotic. That being ignorant is not patriotism.

I grew up in California, but I have reported from and lived in the South. And while I was there, I learned that students were taught a very different version of Civil War history — including one that glorified the so-called ‘Lost Cause’ mythology of the Confederacy. For me, learning about the regional and geographic differences in U.S. history education was very eye-opening. Taking this a step further, I wonder what this course is like for students who aren’t from the U.S. Have they drawn comparisons to places they come from?

I love it when international students in this class feel comfortable enough to start talking about their experiences. At Denison, we have a lot of students from Vietnam, a lot of students from China, a lot of students from India. And when they do start to open up and start to reflect on the kind of history they were taught in high school, it’s clear that they do understand how much of what they learn is controlled by the state.

I’m thinking about Vietnam in particular because I had this one really smart, thoughtful student in my class this past fall who was from Vietnam. And he was very conscious of the fact that in Vietnam, history education has been tied very closely to reunifying and rebuilding the country over the last 50 years. 

And so he was actually able to talk in a way that I don’t think most 18-year-olds can about the political uses of history in that nationalist context. And for some of my students who are from the U.S., I could see the wheels turning in their heads, when they start to realize, ‘Oh, this stuff serves a political purpose. And what might be the purpose it’s serving in my state? Let me think about that.’

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.