Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Part XIII

This will be our final post on Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. (I have decided not to blog on chapters related to assessment and memory, but I encourage you to read them). I hope you have gleaned something about historical thinking and history teaching from this series and I would encourage you, if you have not done so already, to buy Wineburg’s book. During the course of the series I received many nice notes from secondary and college teachers, including Wineburg himself, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the posts.

I will close our series with Chapter 9: “Moral Ambiguity in the History Classroom.”

In this chapter we meet Richard Stinson, the chair of the Social Studies department at his high school and a teacher with seventeen years of experience. Richard is a very creative teacher. He uses a variety of means to teach his students about the making of the United States Constitution (including an exercise with a badminton racket, a nerfball, ping pong balls, and a Frisbee).

Stinson wants his students to reflect morally on the meaning of the Constitution. He asks his students if “there is any authority that transcends the Constitution?” When the students look down and begin to fidget Stinson asks another question: “What about moral authority or religious authority?”

Stinson pushes. He asks his students what they would do if they were a guard at a concentration camp during World War II and were ordered to exterminate Jews. Would they obey the government’s orders or obey a higher order, even if that meant that they would lose their own life as a punishment for their disobedience. Several of the outspoken students in the class said that they would save their own hides and obey the order to kill. He asks them a similar question about the My Lai incident. Would they kill innocent villagers in Vietnam? Again, the answer was yes. They would obey such an order.

What should we do when a student says something like this with very little reflection? Stinson, as a human being with a moral conscience, is bothered by his students’ response and he tells them so. He tries to stay objective, but on an issue like this he just cannot do it.

Did Stinson overstep his bounds by inserting his moral voice into the conversation? Does he cease being a historian/history teacher by taking the course in this direction in the first place? Some would say yes. Wineburg, however, thinks what Stinson’s approach is appropriate. I would have to agree.

Though sharing a fifty-minute format with the geometry or chemistry classroom down the hall, the history classroom differs in profound ways. While discussions on solving equations with two unknowns or the foundations of the Avogado’s number may provoke teachers to ask themselves deep questions about learning and pedagogy, they rarely raise questions about what it means to be human, what it means to answer to powers that dwarf the self…Stinson’s classroom show us that when history is approached courageously and at its deepest levels, no new curriculum is needed to engage enduring questions of values. In classroom like his, history cannot avoid issues of character.

Wineburg is taking a legitimate and clean shot at those who demand that history education must always justify itself amidst calls to teach character education.

Why do we need some special curriculum on character education when we already have history education?

The past does not offer, as Wineburg calls it, “some formula” that exists “for teaching young people how to make meaning from the past and live their lives with a sense of decency.” But the history classroom does provide a space where conversations that trigger our moral sensibilities can take place.