Is it possible to teach non-partisan, non-ideological history?
Recent articles in the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, and Education Week have covered the controversial changes to K-12 Texas history standards recently made by the Texas State Board of Education. While current interest is focused on whether a conservative ideology is being foisted upon a captive audience of public school students, the bigger and more important issue is how history can and should be taught.
I submit that it is impossible to teach a history class that is non-partisan, non-ideological, and objective. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because history is, by its very nature, messy. Not only do people have very different perspectives about how or why events they experienced actually happened, or what their impact was, but new evidence and perspectives emerge over time that influence how people think about events that they never lived through.
For example, my grandmother–who I would classify politically as a right-leaning moderate–believes that Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt has been the best U.S. President in her lifetime. This is in large part due to him putting together programs that helped people, her own family included, during the Depression. Yet a strong argument has been made by the 2004 book FDR’s Folly that it was Roosevelt’s “New Deal itself, with its shortsighted programs, that deepened the Great Depression, swelled the federal government, and prevented the country from turning around quickly.” This argument has been used recently by conservatives to discourage government intervention in the economic crisis, while liberals have rejected it. I don’t know how FDR and the New Deal could be taught in a history class without acknowledging different partisan and ideological viewpoints, as well as viewpoints that vary due to one’s age and experience.
So if we accept the idea that views of history often change over time, and that there may be many ways of viewing (and teaching) important events, what’s the solution for our schools? Here’s one possibility:
First, in grades K-4, any teaching of history should be kept very basic and non-controversial. The primary goal during this period should be for students to become somewhat familiar with facts, people, places, and events they will encounter later in their educational careers. The “mile wide, inch deep” approach used in most grades and subjects actually works here.
Once fifth grade starts, however, the “mile wide, inch deep” approach should be dropped in favor of in-depth learning about critical events throughout U.S. and world history. This might mean, for example, spending a semester on the Revolutionary War or the Civil Rights Movement, rather than a few weeks. Extended time would allow for the inclusion of more people and groups who played a role in those events, debates about whether people made the right choices at the time and if those choices still look correct today, and the acknowledgement of different perspectives–all of which are central issues in the Texas debate. The critical thinking promoted by this model would far surpass anything that’s going on in most schools right now.
When thinking of this model, I reflected back on my experience as a college student and as a high school teacher. From my undergraduate course on the Vietnam War at the University of Michigan, I have exactly two memories. The first is from a class period when we had a guest lecturer. He had been in the Air Force during the war, and he stated that the United States was beaten fair and square in Vietnam, and that although the military did make many mistakes, no country on earth could have won that war given the type of resistance they faced. He also talked about the “fact” that the military fought all-out and not with one arm tied behind its back. My second memory is from the following week, when we had another guest lecturer. This gentleman had been a POW in Vietnam for seven years, and he spent quite a bit of time talking about the “fact” that the U.S. military lost the war because it was fighting with one arm tied behind its back (i.e., limited in what it was allowed to do with regard to fighting). As a 19-year-old, I was intrigued that two people who both fought in the same war could have such different views, and be so certain that their view was correct. And since both men were well-spoken and provided logical arguments, I was pushed to think long and hard about who had the better argument (I’m still working on that).
When teaching U.S. government at a high school on the south side of Chicago last year, I tried to do what my college professor had done. When I heard my students making mostly critical comments about George W. Bush, for example, I drew a table on the board and listed various areas where President Bush had taken action. I then showed them a column filled with actions in these areas that I knew the students would disagree with. Then, I unveiled the second column, which had actions in each area that I knew the students would like. We then talked about the fact that depending on who one lived with and talked to, and what one watched and read, a person could have very different ideas of what occurred and not necessarily have the whole story. Similarly, a few weeks after Barack Obama’s inauguration, I asked my students, all of whom were African American, if they knew who had just been chosen to lead the Republicans against Obama and the Democrats. Most guessed John McCain, or George W. Bush, so when I put up a picture of Michael Steele, the newly-selected chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), they were flummoxed. “But he’s black,” commented a few students simultaneously. This led to a discussion of the history of political parties and why certain groups tend to vote for them. Along the way we discussed the Republican party’s history (from Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, to their support for Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s, to Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” as a way to capture white voters who had abandoned the Democratic party in the mid-1960s), which again caused some cognitive dissonance for the students given their prior notions about Republicans.
The “problem” with teaching history like this is that it takes time to explore an issue in depth, and to explain and discuss different points of view. And that means creating state standards that do not attempt to cover everything. But history is more interesting to students, and more accurately taught by teachers, if fewer topics/events are taught in greater depth. (This is why so many people enjoy reading 400-page biographies of historical figures, and why HBO’s 10-hour miniseries about John Adams was so successful.) If done correctly, less can be more when it comes to teaching history in a way that acknowledges its multi-partisan, multi-ideological, subjective nature.