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Even as historical scholarship has grown more sophisticated, the educated public’s familiarity with leading-edge historical interpretations has almost certainly diminished.

I can only speak, with any authority, about the roughly 6,000-plus undergraduates I have had at UT Austin since 2017 in face-to-face courses, almost all of whom graduated in the top 6 percent of their high school class. Even though they took courses in U.S. history in fifth, eighth and 11th grades, their knowledge of history is exceptionally uneven, and their knowledge about world history is far worse.

None of this is surprising:

  • A substantial majority of their social studies teachers took no more history courses in college.
  • Texas’s social studies standards, like those in most states, pay as much attention to current events, civics and financial, geographic and other social studies literacies as to history.

Unlike most states, Texas does test whether students have mastered essential knowledge and skills in social studies. But as I learned when I served on a Texas Board of Education working group charged with revising the state social studies standards—recommendations that wound up being tabled—the existing history learning objectives fail to do a good job of identifying the events, concepts, topics, individuals and ideas that every high school graduate ought to know about U.S. and world history.

Let me stress: Texas’s social studies standards are at least as good as those in the other states and District of Columbia.

Worse yet, most high school students never receive a coherent narrative of either U.S. or world history. As one colleague put it, “The past appears to them an incoherent jumble of unrelated events.” Without a coherent framework, it’s impossible for students to speak intelligently about connections between past and current events.

If the problems were confined to K-12 schools, that would be bad enough. But most college students do not take a single class that offers a framework for historical understanding. Most graduate with barely any subject matter knowledge about Africa, Asia and Latin America and very limited understanding of European and U.S. history.

In other words, our public discourse presupposes a level of historical knowledge that simply doesn’t exist. It strikes me as obvious that few students understand the following historical facts:

  • That settler colonialism—the conquest of other people’s lands—is nothing new and not confined to the West.
  • That most labor throughout history was coerced and most people alive today are the descendants of slaves and slave owners.
  • That capitalism has a long history and has involved both exploitation and improvements in living standards.
  • That democratic liberalism, both as a set of values and a system of government, is a relatively recent phenomenon and has been contested from both the left and the right.
  • That there is no golden age to look back upon and progress, while real, especially in areas of women’s rights, civil rights and civil liberties, has come at a cost and has always involved trade-offs.

Today, many of the most bitter debates in the history wars rage around the teaching of Black history. But while most college students graduate with some familiarity with slavery, antislavery and the civil rights movement, few have received any exposure to what I consider the cutting-edge area of research in Black studies—the study of the Black Atlantic.

This scholarship demonstrates that between the mid-15th and mid-19th centuries, Africans and their descendants were active participants in the shaping of the modern world. This perspective treats the Atlantic Ocean not as a barrier but as a connector between Africa, Europe and the Americas and emphasizes Black agency. At its heart, the Black Atlantic lens views the history of the Atlantic world in terms of the circulation of people and ideas as well as goods and cross-cultural exchange and negotiation.

Although this approach takes its name from a path-breaking 1993 book by the British-Guyanese scholar Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, a host of scholars from many fields has contributed to its prominence. In history, Ira Berlin, Michael Gomez, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Linda Heywood, Sidney Mintz, James Sweet and John Thornton are only a few of this approach’s pioneers.

The Black Atlantic lens shows how African-descended people in the early colonial period served as cultural brokers and mediators between different societies and underscores their pivotal roles in settling and shaping New World societies. It also examines how West and Central African spiritual, artistic and philosophical concepts were maintained, adapted and blended with other traditions in new environments. This perspective emphasizes the various forms of political engagement and resistance employed by African and African-descended people and their far-reaching consequences for global concepts of freedom and equality.

The Black Atlantic concept has revolutionized the study of African diaspora history by encouraging historians to look beyond national histories and consider the interconnected nature of Black experiences across the Atlantic. It has reframed the narrative of modernity by positioning Blacks as key agents in the development of modern thought, culture, aesthetics, sensibilities and political systems. It has also stressed cultural hybridity by showing how African, European and American cultures blended and influenced each other, creating new cultural forms. In addition, it has broadened the understanding of resistance to include cultural and intellectual forms, not just physical rebellion.

In anthropology, the Black Atlantic concept has shifted the focus to cultural flows, emphasizing the movement and exchange of cultural practices, beliefs and knowledge across the Atlantic. It has encouraged the study of creolization, of how new cultural forms emerge from the blending of diverse traditions. It has challenged static notions of culture and offered, as an alternative, a conception of culture as dynamic and constantly evolving through intercontinental and cross-national exchanges. In addition, it has expanded the scope of diaspora studies to include not just forced migration through slavery, but voluntary movements and cultural returns.

In literature, the Black Atlantic framework has encouraged comparative approaches across different regions of the African diaspora. It has highlighted transnational themes, revealing common motifs and concerns in Black literature across national boundaries. It has expanded the literary canon and underscored the role of literature in identity formation and the construction and negotiation of Black identities in different contexts.

The concept of the Black Atlantic has also significantly transformed scholarly approaches to art, music, philosophy and science by emphasizing interconnections, cultural exchanges and the contributions of African and African-diaspora peoples to global knowledge and creativity.

In art history and criticism, the Black Atlantic perspective has shown how artistic styles and techniques flowed between Africa, the Americas and Europe and how artists blended African, European and American aesthetic traditions; positioned Black artists as central to the development of modernist art, not just as influences or imitators; and expanded the canon, increasing recognition of Black artists from various parts of the Atlantic world.

In musicology and ethnomusicology, the Black Atlantic framework has explored how African musical traditions evolved and influenced various genres across the Atlantic, shown how music served as a means of preserving and adapting cultural practices under oppressive conditions, and analyzed the political and social messages and commentaries contained in Black Atlantic music. In addition, it has studied musical hybridities, revealing how different musical traditions blended and produced new forms.

The Black Atlantic concept has impacted philosophical studies by recovering overlooked African and African-diaspora philosophic traditions; examining how African philosophical concepts blended with Western and other traditions in new contexts; considering how the experience of slavery and racism have reframed philosophical perspectives on existence and consciousness; and questioning the Western philosophical canon’s claims to universality, showing, how, for instance, concepts like Ubuntu (interconnectedness) have been maintained and transformed in diaspora communities, influencing thinking on ethics and social relations.

In the history and philosophy of science, the Black Atlantic framework has increased recognition of the scientific and technological contributions of African and African-diaspora peoples, explored knowledge transfers across continents and national boundaries, analyzed the impact of race upon scientific discourse, and explored alternate epistemologies, different ways of knowing and understanding the natural world have interacted and evolved.

Across all these fields, the Black Atlantic framework has shown how ideas, styles and practices flowed in multiple directions across the Atlantic, creating new forms of artistic, cultural, intellectual and religious expression; repositioned African and African-diaspora peoples as active creators and innovators, not just recipients of European knowledge and culture; shown how Black Atlantic peoples maintained and transformed their cultural practices under oppressive conditions; and explored how concepts of Blackness and Africanness have been constructed and contested across different contexts.

In my field, history, useful starting points for understanding include:

  • John Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Modern World, which explored the complexities of the slave trade, including African involvement and resistance, the formation of Atlantic creole cultures in Africa and the New World, and the maintenance and adaptation of African cultural practices in the Americas.
  • Michael Gomez’s Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South and Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas examine how specific African ethnic identities were maintained and transformed in the New World, the significant role of Islam among enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, the complex process of racial identity formation among African Americans, and the ongoing cultural and intellectual links between Africa and its diaspora.
  • James Sweet’s Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441–1770 and Domingos Álvares, African Healing and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World, which combine anthropological and historical approaches to reconstruct African diasporic experiences and to show how African spiritual beliefs and practices persisted and were modified in the New World, what Inquisition records reveal about the experiences and beliefs of Africans and their descendants in the Portuguese empire, and various forms of cultural and spiritual resistance among enslaved Africans.
  • Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden’s African Americans and Africa, which recovers African American connections with Africa from the era of the slave trade to the present, including Black involvement in the colonization movement and Black leadership in efforts to oppose European colonialism in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Among the more junior scholars who are involved in the rewriting of the history of the Black Atlantic are Manuel Barcia, Roque Ferreira, Yuko Miki, Isadora Mota and Miguel Valerio.

The future of the humanities is comparative, transnational and multicultural, and departmental hiring priorities need to reflect that fact. An interconnected world requires scholarly approaches that can bridge cultures, disciplines and national boundaries. It recognizes that many cultural, social and historical phenomena cannot be fully understood within a single national context. Such an approach examines global networks and exchanges, studies diasporic communities and their impact, and analyzes how ideas, cultures and people move across borders. Failure to embrace that approach will, I am convinced, result in scholarly stagnation.

What, you might ask, is the relationship between the Black Atlantic and critical race theory?

The most obvious difference involves geographical scope. The Black Atlantic approach emphasizes transnational and intercultural connections across the Atlantic world and focuses on cultural exchanges between Africa, the Americas and Europe. In contrast, critical race theory developed in a U.S. legal context and focuses on race relations within national boundaries and generally retains a U.S.-centric perspective.

The Black Atlantic’s theoretical origins are rooted in cultural studies and postcolonial theory and emphasizes cultural hybridity and exchange. Critical race theory focuses on how law and legal and governmental institutions perpetuate racial inequality.

Whereas the Black Atlantic model emphasizes the role of Black people in shaping modernity and focuses on cultural production, identity formation and how African cultures were maintained and transformed and influenced other cultures, critical race theory analyzes systemic racism and its perpetuation through law, institutions and social structures and how race intersects with other forms of oppression.

Also, critical race theory sees race as a social construct used to maintain power structures, focuses on how racial categories are legally and socially enforced, and stresses the permanence of racism in society and institutions. The Black Atlantic perspective views race as a complex, fluid concept shaped by historical and cultural interactions; explores how racial identities are constructed and negotiated across different contexts; and emphasizes cultural hybridity and the blurring of racial categories.

In terms of objectives, the Black Atlantic paradigm seeks to reframe understanding of cultural development and modernity by revealing the Black contributions to global culture and thoughts, while critical race theory seeks to expose and challenge systemic racism and transform legal and social institutions to achieve racial justice.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two frameworks involves the concept of agency. Scholars of the Black Atlantic stress the creative agency of Black people in shaping culture and ideas and focus on cultural resilience and resistance in the face of oppression, while proponents of critical race theory show how systemic and structural racism limit individual and group agency.

While these approaches differ in their focus and methodologies, they are not mutually exclusive. Many scholars draw on both frameworks, using the Black Atlantic approach to understand cultural dynamics and CRT to analyze systemic inequalities. Both offer complementary perspectives on the Black experience and its global significance.

Recently, on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf asked the following multiple-choice question:

“A prof uses their position in a course to advance social justice as they see it. They’re engaged in: 1) fulfilling a moral obligation; 2) a righteous choice; 3) a defensible choice; 4) a suspect choice; 5) an unethical choice; 6) an abuse of power.

“What does your answer turn on?”

One argument for using a course to advance social justice ideas is that education can be a tool for change and the classroom should challenge existing inequalities. Some also argue that such an approach can counteract historical biases in the academic curriculum and make education more relevant to students’ lives.

The obvious argument against this perspective is the potential for indoctrination. Using the classroom to advance social justice crosses the line from education to ideological indoctrination and violates students’ academic freedom and their right to explore diverse viewpoints. It can also detract from teaching core subject matter and skills and alienate and marginalize those students who disagree with the professor’s views.

In my view, a professor’s primary responsibility to provide a thorough, professional and balanced perspective reflecting the most recent scholarship. This approach maintains a focus on scholarly rigor and intellectual exploration and encourages students to analyze complex ideas and draw their own conclusions.

In the context of Black history, the Black Atlantic framework is particularly powerful because it shows how new scholarship can fundamentally alter our understanding of historical events and processes. It places Black history within a broader, transnational context, moving beyond nation-centric narratives. It explores how concepts of race, nationality and systems of labor have evolved over time and across different contexts. It demonstrates how Black experiences and contributions were integral to shaping the modern world, not peripheral to it.

This approach doesn’t preclude discussions of social justice—indeed, these topics will naturally arise when studying Black history and the Black Atlantic. However, it frames these discussions within a scholarly context, allowing students to engage with these ideas critically and see how they connect to broader academic debates and real-world issues.

Ultimately, this approach to teaching respects students’ intellectual autonomy while providing them with the tools and knowledge to form their own informed perspectives on social justice issues. It fulfills the basic academic mission of higher education: to cultivate analytical and problem-solving skills, foster self-awareness, promote understanding of diverse cultures and perspectives, and prepare students for a globalized world.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational and Equitable Experience.

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