History Education and Identity Politics: An Exchange with a K-12 History Teacher


My recent post “Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics” seems to be resonating with some people.  I am especially happy that it is resonating with K-16 teachers.  Some good discussion seems to be happening.

One of the teachers who has engaged with the piece at my Facebook page is Leslie Smith, a history teacher in San Bernardino, California.  I met Leslie in October 2011 when I was in California to work with the teachers of the San Bernardino School District. My visit was part of the district’s Teaching American History grant programming.  As the curriculum coordinator for the district, Leslie was responsible for running the grant. If I remember correctly, I did presentations on Protestantism in America and the American Enlightenment. (I was there under the auspices of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History).  More importantly, I got to know Leslie and we have continued our friendship through social media.

Here is what Leslie wrote in response to my original post.  I should add that she is not only an outstanding history teacher, but she is also a practicing Catholic.

Leslie: I see the tension that you mention and want to celebrate it because before there was *no* tension, at least not in the narrative taught in k-12 classrooms. It was a national narrative of great men (read fairly-wealthy, white men) did great things and that’s why America is great. Beginning, middle, end of story. And now students are being taught a different narrative that may be increasing their narcissism. Although I wonder how much of this is caused by other factors, I do see the narcissism you speak of. I would think that what they need isn’t one narrative or another but a willingness, the ability, and the time to complicate history education with multiple narratives.

I would argue that it is in dealing with and maintaining balance with tension that is where the work lies (perhaps Opus Dei). Without tension, we are left with flaccid tools that neither fulfill their purpose nor serve any use. It is hard work to maintain a balance with this tension, but so much is at stake. We must seek the Spirit of God living within us and at the same time see His face in those we meet. We must see ourselves in history and encounter new/different people as they were in history. Peter was a betrayer *and* a fisher of men. Washington was a slave owner *and* a great leader. We are sinners *and* made in Imago Dei. The *or* is easier but not the truth and will essentially get us no where. The same is true with history education *and* identity politics.

In the end, I worry about any single story. I would soooo love to sit with you and discuss this at length. There has GOT to be more time and effort put in building useful bridges between k-12 and university education, especially in the humanities. We can’t afford not to.

And here is my response:

John: Leslie: Yes–I would love to come back out to California and have this conversation. Your point in the first paragraph on the great men narrative is on the mark, but I am not convinced that we need to abandon some type of national narrative in favor of a U.S. history course defined by identity politics. Even if the narrative deals heavily with the failures of Americans to live up to their ideals (as King reminds us in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail) it will still show kids that the promise of America has always been a contested and unfulfilled one and that there is a lot more work to do.

I will be the first to say that the teaching of historical thinking skills should be the primary goal of a K-12 history course. But the 2016 election has also convinced me that the study of history must play some kind of civic role as well.  As I have argued in Why Study History?, I don’t think the teaching of historical thinking skills and the “history as civics approach” are mutually exclusive. Good historical thinking skills produce good democratic citizens. But such civic lessons should also come through the kind of narrative I described above.  

As for the Holy Spirit–I could not agree more. Again, I touch on this in Why Study History?. The kind of empathy necessary for historical understanding to take place and for empathy to contribute to our life together in this country and beyond is for me connected to the spiritual disciplines. I was just listening to a Ted Talk in which a political commentator–a non-believer– was saying that empathy is a “meditative practice” for her when she deals with conservatives who do not like her liberal politics.  I am not entirely sure that we can muster the inner strength alone to practice and teach the kind of empathy I talk about in this piece and elsewhere.  I can get away with this kind of talk at Messiah College, where most of my students share my Christian faith. But just in case some of my critics out there are reading this, I would NOT advocate this kind of approach to empathy in a public K-16 history classroom, even if an approach to empathy informed by the spiritual disciplines might be the presuppositional base upon which the teacher operates.  

Thanks for the conversation.


2 thoughts on “History Education and Identity Politics: An Exchange with a K-12 History Teacher

  1. I see a great combination of the Leslie’s “and” and the civic education that you mentioned, John. That’s what some of today’s best history curriculum does: it makes things, people, and events complicated, teaching students that easy answers are too shallow and soundbites obscure wisdom.

    For example, during the past semester, my students and I have explored Abraham Lincoln and his feelings on race and slavery. Calling him “The Great Emancipator” might be accurate, but it obscures the tension he felt between personal convictions and constitutional imperatives, between idealism and realpolitik. Part of my job is to model and create connections to civics, so I then made a comparison to modern Christians who struggle with opposition to homosexuality and support for the legality of gay marriage in the United States. The lesson wasn’t about deciding an opinion; it was about learning to appreciate the complexities of the tensions we live with as Christians in a pluralistic society and refocusing the political conversation on productive areas. A similar comparison could be made with a recent discussion of internal and external migrants (e.g., Mormons) during the 1800s along with the difficulties of assimilating or welcoming the stranger when their culture is so different, even to the point of being offensive (e.g., polygamy).

    One more example of this could be practicing those Historical Thinking Skills in such a way as to foster better civic engagement. I’m working on a blog post about that this week, but for now, I’ll summarize my ideas briefly. I think teaching students how to source a document can teach them how to combat fake news, but, if we include Leslie’s idea, it can also force students to go beyond black and white caricatures of, say, Andrew Carnegie as solely a Robber Baron or Captain of Industry, or of Emma Goldman as a dangerous radical or labor saint.

    After teaching a one-week special course on Just War Theory called “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” last year, I asked my students to answer that exact question. Although their individual written responses were more nuanced, their collective oral response was both indicative of the course and of my goals as a history teacher: “We don’t know, Mr. Lagerwey. It’s too complicated.” The more we K-16 teachers can challenge initial assumptions and make things complicated, the better we’re preparing students for the real world, where cut and dry answers are rarely useful or wise.


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