Sam Wineburg: Why history can’t be about telling our children lies

Sam Wineburg is one of our favorite writers, authors and thinkers here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Listen to our conversations with him in episode 4 and episode 52 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Anyone who reads this blog knows my favorite Wineburg quote:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.

This quote is even more relevant now than when Wineburg first published it nearly twenty years ago in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Last week Wineburg published a piece at the website of Phi Delta Kappa titled “The Silence of the Ellipses: Why History Can’t Be About Telling Our Children Lies.” He writes, “History textbooks often tell sanitized versions of the past when a more complete story will enable us to know who we are as a country–and become even better.” Here is a taste:

In September 2020, President Donald Trump stood in the great hall of the National Archives to denounce what he called a leftist assault on American history: “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms,” he said, and teach our children a kind of history that will make them “love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.”

Love built on a lie is false love. It achieves its mirage by making truth its victim. The goal of historical study is to cultivate neither love nor hate. Its goal must be to acquaint us with the dizzying spectrum of our humanity: lofty moments of nobility mixed in with ignominious descents into knavery. When history’s mirror intones a single phrase — that we’re the fairest of them all — it freezes us in childhood and stunts our growth. History that impels us to look at the past, unflinchingly and clear-eyed, does not diminish us or make us less patriotic. The opposite, in fact, is true: It makes us grow up. Understanding who we were allows us to understand who we are now. Only then can we commit to doing something about it.

That should be the goal of history education. Our children deserve nothing less.

Read the entire piece here.