Teaching the History of Reconstruction in 2022

I want to thank the Zinn Education Project for putting together this comprehensive report on the current state of teaching of the Reconstruction Era in classrooms across the country. The report is extensive and there is way too much to cover here in a blog post. History educators, museum professionals, and others will want to spend time digesting their key findings.

Freedmen voting in 1867

It will come as no surprise that overall we do a poor job of of addressing the complexity of Reconstruction, if it is addressed at all. The ZEP team does a very good job of explaining the challenges of teaching this period, from the influence of the Dunning School to the place of Reconstruction in textbooks and where it often fits into the school year calendar. They also demonstrate how the history of Reconstruction connects to recent events such as the January 6 insurrection, the fight for voting rights, and growing concerns surrounding political and racial violence.

As to how the period should be taught, their suggestions of what should be included in a curriculum on Reconstruction are spot on. You can also scan through their assessment of how Reconstruction is taught in your state. Overall, the report hues closely to recent findings published by the SPLC on how slavery is taught around the country.

We shouldn’t be too surprised by these findings. It is a reminder of the continued influence of elements of the Dunning School and the Lost Cause on popular understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction and a long-standing unwillingness in this country to come to terms with its history of racial discrimination and white supremacy. I will not be holding my breadth in anticipation of significant revisions in k-12 curricula around Reconstruction. In fact, we seem to be going in the opposite direction in many states with bans on how certain aspects of this history are taught.

That said, I applaud the ZEP for publishing these findings. The first step is understanding the scope of the problem and what needs to be changed. Let’s get to work.

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4 comments… add one
  • Msb Jan 14, 2022 @ 0:56

    In my day, Reconstruction often went unmentioned. Until I started to study history in college, what I “knew” came from Gone with the Wind, sadly.

    BTW, I just read, and much enjoyed, Bruce Levine’s book on Thaddeus Stevens.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 14, 2022 @ 3:15

      Glad to hear you had a chance to read Levine’s Stevens biography. It’s really good.

  • Gustav speed Jan 13, 2022 @ 16:16

    Zinn as in Howard Zinn? No bias there!

    • Kevin Levin Jan 13, 2022 @ 16:19

      I have been critical of Zinn’s scholarship and the ZEP on occasion. That said, this report is well written and based on significant research. I know one of the three researchers on the project.

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