The Task of the History Teacher in the Age of Trump

SeixasPeter Seixas, a scholar of historical thinking at the University of British Columbia, gives some credence to what I have been saying for several months now at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  The age of Trump has forced us to go back to the basics.  We must do a better job of explaining the role of truth and facts when we teach historical thinking.  This is no longer a given.

Here is a taste of Seixas’s excellent piece at Public History Weekly:

Many of the modern, liberal traditions that have been challenged by Trump and his fellow travelers were, until recently, so fundamental that history educators barely gave them a passing thought. Academics hardly needed to rally to defend the idea of truth, because the only threat was from some of our own poststructuralist provocateurs, delivered in prose so tortured that it had little apparent impact on the broader public sphere. When a serial liar became the United States’ President and an advocate of “alternative facts” was retained as his assistant, the game changed.

The implications for history education and its scholars, internationally, are profound. If we need to revisit our stances on truth and facts, so too do we need to re-examine those of research and knowledge, interpretation and evidence, community and nation, identity and difference, and citizenship and solidarity.

One hardly need mention the attention, in recent decades, to positionality in knowledge production.[3] But where does “positionality” leave knowledge in relation to the purveyors of “alternative facts,” who claim they are the truth from their own position in Memphis or Moscow? Of course, people’s varieties of experience and belief, and differences in relation to power and privilege, are at the core of the social, educational, and historical sciences. But building knowledge must ultimately emerge through dialogue, debate and discussion, as a common project conducted on a common basis of civility and with a shared respect for evidence. In the current climate, we cannot afford to toy with separate islands of identity-based theory.

The problem of teaching about historical interpretations, similarly, needs to be examined through a new lens in this political environment. Most history education scholars in recent decades, myself included, have sought to destabilize students’ belief that what is in the textbook—or any contemporary account—is the story of what happened. We have focused on the categorical difference between interpretations of the past and the past itself. That difference has not vanished in the age of “alternative facts,” nor has the importance of teaching it.  But the burden is upended. That is, our central challenge will be to help students understand the limits of interpretation, the constraints that bind what we say to the evidence that we have, and the importance of defending interpretations that are supported by the weight of evidence, not as just one among many possible ways of seeing things.

Read the entire piece here.

Seixas also makes a “special recommendation” of Sam Wineburg’s forthcoming (2018) book Stuck in the Past: Why Learn History When It’s Already on Your iPhone? (University of Chicago Press).  You can listen to our interview with Wineburg at Episode 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

2 thoughts on “The Task of the History Teacher in the Age of Trump

  1. I find the whole premise that it is only due to Trump’s election that now we should talk about facts, truth, etc. troubling. It is a sad misnomer of the times and calls into question if educators are truly advocates of teaching critical thinking and being citizens in a democratic, constitutional republic or pushers of an agenda, preconceived and prepackaged. To think the previous administration did not push alternative facts is simply wrong. Thr uproar over “alternative facts” is confusing. We use to teach that as propaganda. Nothing new here.

    The truth is we should have been teaching critical thinking and checking sources and questioning interpretations under Obama or under Clinton too. These things should not be situational.


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