How Should History Be Taught?

Debate currently rages over how to teach history in American public schools. Should the abyss of racism receive full attention? Should we teach our children that the United States is benevolent in its wars and use of military power — did we not bring down Nazi Germany? Is the nation fundamentally good based on its history, worthy of flying the flag, or is it responsible for so many horrors that an ethical person would keep the flag in the closet or burn it in the streets? Left and Right and everyone in between have different, contradictory perspectives, but to ban and censor is not ideal. Examining the full spectrum of views will help students understand the world they inhabit and the field of history itself.

While there was once an imagining of objectivity, historians now typically understand the true nature of their work. “Through the end of the twentieth century,” Sarah Maza writes in Thinking About History, “the ideal of historical objectivity was undermined from within the historical community… The more different perspectives on history accumulated, the harder it became to believe that any historian, however honest and well-intentioned, could tell the story of the past from a position of Olympian detachment, untainted by class, gender, racial, national, and other biases.” Selecting and rejecting sources involves interpretation and subconsciously bent decisions. Historians looking at the same sources will have different interpretations of meaning, which leads to fierce debates in scholarly journals. Teachers are not value-neutral either. All this is taken for granted. “It is impossible to imagine,” Maza writes, “going back to a time when historians imagined that their task involved bowing down before ‘the sovereignty of sources.'” They understand it’s more complex than that: “The history of the American Great Plains in the nineteenth century has been told as a tale of progress, tragedy, or triumph over adversity,” depending on the sources one is looking at and how meaning is derived from them.

But this is a positive thing. It gives us a fuller picture of the past, understanding the experiences of all actors. “History is always someone’s story, layered over and likely at odds with someone else’s: to recognize this does not make our chronicles of the past less reliable, but more varied, deeper, and more truthful.” It also makes us think critically — what interpretation makes the most sense to us, given the evidence offered? Why is the evidence reliable?

If historians understand this, why shouldn’t students? Young people should be taught that while historical truth exists, any presentation of historical truth — a history book, say — was affected by human action and sentiment. This is a reality that those on the Left and Right should be able to acknowledge. Given this fact, and that both sides are after the same goal, to teach students the truth, the only sensible path forward is to offer students multiple interpretations. Read A Patriot’s History of the United States (Schweikart, Allen) and A People’s History of the United States (Zinn). There are equivalent versions of these types of texts for elementary and middle schoolers. Read about why World War II was “The Good War” in your typical textbook, alongside Horrible Histories: Woeful Second World War. Have students read history by conservatives in awe of a greatest country in the whole wide world, as well as by liberals fiercely critical of the nation and many of its people for keeping liberty and democracy exclusively for some for far longer than many other countries. They can study top-down history (great rulers, generals, and leaders drive change) and bottom-up social history (ordinary people coming together drives change). Or compare primary sources from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth demanding or opposing women’s rights. Why not? This gives students a broader view of the past, shows them why arguments and debates over history exist, and helps them understand modern political ideologies.

Most importantly, as noted, it helps students think critically. Many a teacher has said, “I don’t want to teach students what to think, but rather how to think.” This doesn’t seem possible without exploring varying perspectives and asking which one a young person finds most convincing and why. One can’t truly practice the art of thinking without one’s views being challenged, being forced to justify the maintenance of a perspective or a deviation based on newly acquired knowledge. Further, older students can go beyond different analyses of history and play around with source theories: what standard should there be to determine if a primary source is trustworthy? Can you take your standard, apply it to the sources of these two views, and determine which is more solid by your metric? There is much critical thinking to be done, and it makes for a more interesting time for young people.

Not only does teaching history in this way reflect the professional discipline, and greatly expand student knowledge and thought, it aligns with the nature of public schools, or with what the general philosophy of public schools should be. The bent of a history classroom, or the history segment of the day in the youngest grades, is determined by the teacher, but also by the books, curricula, and standards approved or required by the district, the regulations of the state, and so forth. So liberal teachers, districts, and states go their way and conservative teachers, districts, and states go theirs. But who is the public school classroom for, exactly? It’s for everyone — which necessitates some kind of openness to a broad range of perspectives (public universities are the same way, as I’ve written elsewhere).

This may be upsetting and sensible at the same time. On the one hand, “I don’t want my kid, or other kids, hearing false, dangerous ideas from the other side.” On the other, “It would be great for my kid, and other kids, to be exposed to this perspective when it so often is excluded from the classroom.” Everyone is happy, no one is happy. Likely more the latter. First, how can anyone favor bringing materials full of falsities into a history class? Again, anyone who favors critical thinking. Make that part of the study — look at the 1619 Project and the 1776 Report together, and explore why either side finds the other in error. Second, how far do you go? What extreme views will be dignified with attention? Is one to bring in Holocaust deniers and square their arguments up against the evidence for the genocide? Personally, this writer would support that: what an incredible exercise in evaluating and comparing the quantity and quality of evidence (and “evidence”). Perhaps others will disagree. But none of this means there can’t be reasonable limits to presented views. If an interpretation or idea is too fringe, it may be a waste of time to explore it. There is finite time in a class period and in a school year. The teacher, district, and so on will have to make the (subjective) choice (no one said this was a perfect system) to leave some things out and focus on bigger divides. If Holocaust denial is still relatively rare, controversy over whether the Civil War occurred due to slavery is not.

Who, exactly, is afraid of pitting their lens of history against that of another? Probably he who is afraid his sacred interpretation will be severely undermined, she who knows her position is not strong. If you’re confident your interpretation is truthful, backed by solid evidence, you welcome all challengers. Even if another viewpoint makes students think in new ways, even pulling them away from your lens, you know the latter imparted important knowledge and made an impression. As the author of a book on racism used in high schools and colleges, what do I have to fear when some conservative writes a book about how things really weren’t so bad for black Kansas Citians over the past two centuries? By all means, read both books, think for yourself, decide which thesis makes the most sense to you based on the sources — or create a synthesis of your own. The imaginary conservative author should likewise have no qualms about such an arrangement.

I have thus far remained fairly even-handed, because Leftists and right-wingers can become equally outraged over very different things. But here I will wonder whether the Right would have more anxiety over a multiple-interpretation study specifically. Once a student has learned of the darkness of American history, it is often more difficult to be a full-throated, flag-worshiping patriot. This risk will drive some conservatives berserk. Is the Leftist parent equally concerned that a positive, patriotic perspective on our past alongside a Zinnian version will turn her child into someone less critical, more favorable to the State, even downplaying the darkness? I’m not sure if the Leftist is as worried about that. My intuition, having personally been on both sides of the aisle, is that the risk would be more disturbing for conservatives — the horrors still horrify despite unrelated positive happenings, but the view of the U.S. as the unequivocal good guy is quickly eroded forever. Hopefully I am wrong and that is the mere bias of a current mindset talking. Either way, this pedagogy, the great compromise, is the right thing to do, for the reasons outlined above.

In conclusion, we must teach students the truth — and Americans will never fully agree on what that is, but the closest one could hope for is that this nation and its people have done horrific things as well as positive things. Teaching both is honest and important, and that’s what students will see when they examine different authors and documents. In my recent review of a history text, I wrote that the Left “shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging, for instance, that the U.S. Constitution was a strong step forward for representative democracy, secular government, and personal rights, despite the obvious exclusivity, compared to Europe’s systems.” Nor should one deny the genuine American interest in rescuing Europe and Asia from totalitarianism during World War II. And then there’s inventions, art, scientific discoveries, music, and many other things. The truth rests in nuance, as one might expect. James Baldwin said that American history is “more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” (What nation does not have both horrors and wonderful things in its history? Where would philosophy be without the German greats?) I’ve at times envisioned writing a history of the U.S. through a “hypocrisy” interpretation, but it works the same under a “mixed bag” framing: religious dissenters coming to the New World for more freedom and immediately crushing religious dissenters, the men who spoke of liberty and equality who owned slaves, fighting the Nazi master race with a segregated army, supporting democracy in some cases but destroying it in others, and so on. All countries have done good and bad things.

That is a concept the youngest children — and the oldest adults — can understand.

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