Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts–Part VIII

In Chapter Five of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, Sam Wineburg addresses the role of “cultural assumptions in the learning of history.”

Several studies have shown that boys are superior to girls in historical knowledge. Why? Part of the reason, Wineburg argues, is because textbooks pay little attention to the lives of women. This makes perfect sense. But while there have been several attempts by school districts and states to integrate women into the story of American history, Wineburg wonders if this is really changing our students’ views of the past.

To see how gender shapes students’ understanding of American history, Wineburg took a group of students, ranging from 5th to 8th grade, and asked them to draw a picture of a “pilgrim,” a “western settler,” and a “hippie.” All of these figures are usually portrayed as male in American culture. Wineburg wanted to see if the female students would portray themselves in the pictures or portray the figures as male. (The experiment was much more complicated than this–I would encourage you to read the book).

In the end, nearly all of the boys drew male figures. Over 75% of the girls drew male figures. (Again, read the book for the complexity of this study. I cannot do justice to it here). Wineburg responded: “We are concerned about girl’s tendency…to depict a past inhabited by fewer women than men. But we are equally concerned about boys’ tendency to depict a past inhabited almost exclusively by men.”

How do we change this? Wineburg is skeptical about things like Women’s History Month or filling a classroom with posters of prominent women to balance a “male dominated curriculum.” Too many of our textbooks cover women with side bars and short biographies that are separate from the narrative, a pattern that Gilda Lerner calls “contributory history.” (Women are only important when they “contribute” to what men do).

Wineburg’s solution to this problem is to get our students to write their own history:

It is not enough to expose students to alternative visions of the past. already digested and interpreted by others. The only way we can come to understand the past’s multiplicity is by the direct experience of having to tell it, of having to sort through the welter of the past’s conflicting visions and produce a story written by our own hand. We have in mind here a vision of history classrooms where students learn the subject by rewriting it…This vision of history instruction transforms a school subject from a fixed story, with questions of significance and importance sewn up, to an array of stories that invites students to consider the fullness of human experience.

Wineburg seems on the mark here. (See his thoughts about Ellen–blogged about here). The way girls experience American history should disturb us. The way boys experience American history, with women virtually invisible, is perhaps more disturbing. But as Wineburg concludes, “on educational grounds” these problems should pose a “challenge” for us.