As I wrote about in my last post, the Texas Department of Education is revising their social studies standards. One of the outside reviewers, appointed by the conservative members of the Board, is David Barton, the president of Wallbuilders, an organization that promotes the idea that America is a Christian nation. Barton is not a historian by training, but thousands of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians learn their history from him.
Barton begins his report with a jeremiad we have all heard before. He laments the fact that schoolchildren do not know some of the basic facts of American history, such as who led the Continental Army at Valley Forge or who said “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.” Barton suggests that students do not possess this basic knowledge because history is too often taught under the umbrella of Social Studies. Drawing upon “No Child Left Behind,” Barton wants students to study American history as a separate subject apart from “Social Studies.”
Barton is right. History should be taught as a separate subject. Students do not get enough history during their K-12 years. But I think students should learn more history for reasons that are bit different than Barton’s.
For Barton, American history is necessary to develop good citizens. While this is certainly one of the benefits of the study of our nation’s past, I am not convinced it is the primary reason why history is so important to the school curriculum. History is important because it forces us to think differently. As Sam Wineburg has noted, historical thinking is an unnatural act. It requires students to encounter the strangeness of the past and in the process aids them in learning virtues such as empathy, hospitality, and self-denial. When a student engages an idea from the past that he or she disagrees with, good historical thinking requires them to listen first before casting judgment. Listening to the voices of the past can tranform and truly educate students by turning their attention away from themselves and their present moment and seeing themselves as part of a larger human story.
By focusing on the “citizenship” dimension of history we can too easily get caught up in picking and choosing the “right” people to include in the curriculum. Or we can get bogged down with the ways the past serves us and our understanding of national identity. When we study the past solely for its usability in the present, we find ourselves falling into the very “Social Studies” approach that Barton decries. The study of the past teaches students to enter the foreign worlds of different eras. The best teachers help their students imagine the past through primary sources. They lead them into the strangeness of the past and teach them to listen.
If this is the purpose of history, then memorization, historical literacy, and the selection of the “right” figures to include in the curriculum become less important than the teaching of historical thinking skills.