White Supremacy in the History of American History Textbooks

pictoralhistory00goodrichHarvard’s Donald Yacovone has an interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education on the history of American textbooks and their representation of race.  Here is a taste of “Textbook Racism: How scholars sustained white supremacy“:

There it sat on a library cart with 50 other elementary, grammar, and high-school history textbooks, its bright red spine reaching out through time and space. As I opened the book’s crisp white pages, it all came back. My loud gasp startled those near me at the special collections department of Harvard University’s Monroe C. Gutman Library. Exploring the New World — published repeatedly between 1953 and 1965 — had been assigned in my fifth-grade social-studies class in Saratoga, Calif.

As part of a broader study of the legacy of the antislavery movement and the rise of the modern civil-rights era, I wanted to assess how abolitionism had been presented in textbooks. I imagined a quick look. Instead, I found myself immersed in Harvard’s collection of nearly 3,000 U.S. history textbooks, dating from about 1800 to the 1980s. Without intending, I had become engaged in a study of how abolitionism, race, slavery, and the Civil War and Reconstruction have been taught for generations.

After reviewing my first 50 or so textbooks, one morning I realized precisely what I was seeing, what instruction, and what priorities were leaping from the pages into the brains of the students compelled to read them: white supremacy. One text even began with the capitalized title: “The White Man’s History.” Across time and with precious few exceptions, African-Americans appeared only as “ignorant negroes,” as slaves, and as anonymous abstractions that only posed “problems” for the supposed real subjects of history: white people of European descent.

Read the rest here.  To the extent that American history textbook publishing reflected the concerns of the larger society, this should not surprise us.

How to Improve History Education: 1997 and Today

NashIn his 1997 book History on Trial, UCLA historian Gary Nash reflected on his role in the crafting of the failed National History Standards.   After his experience fighting this battle in the culture wars, Nash encouraged teachers, educators, professors, legislatures, and anyone else with a stake in American democracy to consider four things:

1. As a nation “we should commit ourselves enthusiastically and unreservedly to a history education that is fit for a democratic society.”  For Nash, this meant “abandoning the notion that teachers or education authorities should designate certain historical facts, events, deeds, ideas, or interpretations as off limits to analysis or reassessment..”  He added: “no historical representations or explanations–even those dearest to the hearts of liberals, conservatives, Afrocentrists, Eurocentrists, or postmodernists–should be held in public sacrosanct or indisputable.

2. As a nation “we should end the futile struggle among educators and policy makers over whether we should teach more historical “content” and less “historical thinking” or vice versa.  This is a false dichotomy, as good teachers have always known.

3. As a nation “we must nurture the flourishing new alliances between schools and universities.  He adds: “legislatures and school boards should insist that new history teachers be well trained in the discipline.”

4. As a nation, we must continue to “broaden the scope of history education to ensure that the experiences of all classes, regions, and ethnoracial groups, as well as both genders, are included in it.”

The other day, while teaching this book in my “Teaching History” course, I asked my students to assess whether Nash’s points are still relevant today.  It made for an interesting discussion.  While some students pointed to progress in all of these areas, most said that these core issues are still relevant in 2017, two decades after Nash published History on Trial.

What do you think?

Donald Trump’s American History Textbooks

Trump militaryWhat did Donald Trump learn about American history during his childhood in New York?  Matt Ford, a writer at The Atlantic, decided to go back and take a look at the American history textbooks assigned in Trump’s history classes.

Here is a taste of his piece “What Trump’s Generation Learned About the Civil War.”

Until the late 1960s, history curricula in Trump’s home state of New York largely adhered to a narrow vision of American history, especially when discussing slavery, the Civil War, and its aftermath. This was true in the predominately white public schools throughout the country. The African American experience and its broader significance received little to no attention. When textbooks did cover black Americans, their portrayals were often based on racist tropes or otherwise negative stereotypes. Trump’s understanding of the Civil War may be out of step with current scholarship, but it’s one that was taught to millions of Americans for decades.

“The dominant story was that secession was a mistake, but so was Reconstruction,” Jonathan Zimmerman, a New York University professor who studies the history of American education, told me. “And Reconstruction was a mistake because [the North] put ‘childlike’ and ‘bestial’ blacks in charge of the South, and the only thing that saved white womanhood was the Ku Klux Klan. When African Americans read this in their textbooks, they obviously bristled….”

Many of these textbooks still taught something akin to “The Dunning School,” an approach to the Civil War and Reconstruction that was critical of Northern efforts to bring racial equality to the immediate postwar South.

Racist material permeated other sections of the American curriculum, well beyond the field of history. Geography textbooks depicted Africa as “the dark continent” and either ignored it or portrayed it as a place of cannibalism and barbarity. “[Black] critics condemned biology textbooks, which often reflected eugenic theories of racial hierarchy,” Zimmerman wrote in a 2004 article on U.S. textbook changes after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. “Still other blacks attacked music textbooks for including songs by [prolific 19th-century songwriter] Stephen Foster, complete with Foster’s original lexicon—‘darkey,’ ‘nigger,’ and so on.”

These textbooks shouldn’t be interpreted as reflecting their readers’ views, Zimmerman cautioned me. Instead, they offer a window into what students would have learned in a previous era. “This tells us more about the culture of race as expressed in the curriculum than it does about what any given individual imbibed or not,” he explained.

Read the entire piece here.

It’s Not The “Teaching American History” Grants, But It Is Something

Here are the details from The National Coalition for History:

Federal Funding Opportunity for K-12 History and Civics Grants Announced

Federal Competitive Grant funding is now available for K-12 History and Civics Education professional development! The US Department of Education has published a Federal Register Notice announcing the grant competition for the National Activities grants we successfully advocated for in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Click here to read the Federal Register Notice.

NOTE: The timing on this is tight! For those wishing to apply for funding please note the following:

The deadline on notice to apply is August 10th (this entails you telling the US Department of Education you intend to apply).

The Department of Education will host a pre-application webinar to provide technical assistance to interested applicants on July 18, 2017-next Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. eastern time. To join the webinar please go to the event address: at https://educateevents.webex.com/educateevents/onstage/g.php?MTID=e0ff2dd5c36144d0f8e4ba71d69d03484.

The deadline to submit applications is August 21st.

For further information contact: Christine Miller, U.S. Department of Education, 400 Maryland Avenue SW., Room 4W205, Washington, DC 20202–5960. Or by email: 

Christine.Miller@ed.govDetails about the K-12 History and Civics National Activities Grants Program (click here):

The new program is designed to promote innovative instruction, learning strategies, and professional development in American history, civics and government, and geography, with an emphasis on activities and programs that benefit low-income students and underserved populations.

This is the first year the new grants program received funding from Congress. It is expected the grants will be awarded in October 2017. The estimated amount of available funds for FY 17 is $1,700,000. Contingent upon the availability of funds and the quality of applications, the Department of Education may make additional awards in subsequent years from the list of unfunded applications from this competition. The estimated range of awards is $200,000–$700,000 per year and the estimated average size of awards is $500,000 per year. The estimated number of awards is 2–7. The project period is up to three years, with renewal of up two additional years if the grantee demonstrates to the Secretary that the grantee is effectively using funds.

 

Today’s Op-Ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News: : “Why study history?: A bill before the Pa. Senate is only part of the answer”

Harrisburg_capitol_building

Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home read an early draft of this piece.

Here is a taste:

First, every member of the Senate, before voting on this bill, should read the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s 6-12 “Academic Standards for Reading in History and Social Studies” and the PDE’s “Academic Standards for Writing in History and Social Studies.”

These CORE Standards, released in March 2014, require teachers to cover material that would prepare Commonwealth students very well for the United States citizenship test.  In addition, these CORE standards require educators to move beyond the teaching of mere facts.

They stress the necessary skills Commonwealth students need to learn in their history classes.

Second, strongly encourage Pennsylvania lawmakers to require history educators to have training in how to teach historical thinking.

Students today are bombarded with information.

The kind of facts necessary to score well on a citizenship test can be easily found by conducting a quick Google search. What our students really need is training in how to distinguish between good information and bad information. 

When they read their social media feeds they need to learn how to spot what is fake and what is real. 

They need to “consider the source” of information they encounter. They need see the complexity of the human experience as it has unfolded through time. They need to think about the forces that have shaped the world that they have inherited.

This kind of thinking should happen every day in a history classroom.  Students read documents from bygone eras and analyze them critically. They look for bias. They understand voices from the past in context. They move back and forth between the past and the present and get a good mental workout in the process.

History students learn to listen to voices from the past before judging them. In the process, they cultivate the democratic virtue of empathy.

They learn to look beyond themselves to see the world through the eyes of others–those who are dead and those who are alive–who have experienced it in different ways.

These kinds of historical thinking skills are acquired through an immersion in the past guided by a skilled history teacher.  I would thus, thirdly, encourage the Senate to initiate legislation that requires Pennsylvania history teachers to have a college major in history. 

At Messiah College, a private institution in Mechanicsburg where I chair the History Department, pre-service teachers graduate with both a Pennsylvania teaching certification in Social Studies and a full history major. 

Earlier this year the National Council on Teacher Quality ranked Messiah’s history education program as one of the sixteen best in the United States. 

By taking 39-credit hours in history, our students enter the classroom prepared to deliver content and cultivate the historical habits of the mind desperately need in our society today.

The Rafferty/Dinniman bill is not a bad start. Facts and civic knowledge is the foundation of a good history education. But it is only a foundation.

Read the entire piece here.

What Does the Trump Budget Mean for Civics, History, Archives, and Education?

make-america-great-againThe National Coalition for History sums it up pretty well:

On May 23, President Trump sent his proposed fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget request to Congress.  As expected, it includes devastating cuts to federal history and humanities funding including elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and K-12 history and civics grants and Title VI/Fulbright-Hays international education programs at the U.S. Department of Education. Click here for a link to a chart summarizing the proposed budget for these and other federal history-related programs. There will be an in-depth agency-by-agency analysis posted on the NCH website shortly.

Don’t Know Much About History

David Barton recently appeared on the Glenn Beck radio program to talk about history education.  He argues that “the progressives” are to blame for lack of student knowledge in American history today.

Listen here:

When I heard Barton imply that history students prior to 1920 had a solid grasp of American history, I thought about the opening pages of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Wineburg writes:

Identify the source of the following statement: 

“Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take pride.”

The above characterization of high schools students historical knowledge comes from:

(a).  Ravitch and Finn’s report on the 1987 National Assessment of Educational Progress, in which they argued that students’ test scores place them “at risk of being gravely handicapped by…ignorance upon entry into adulthood, citizenship, and parenthood.”

(b). The 1976 New York Times test of American youth, published under the banner “Times Test Shows Knowledge of American History Limited.”

(c).  Reports on the 1942 New York Times history exam that prompted Allan Nevins to write that high school students are “all too ignorant of American history.”

(d).  None of the above

The correct answer is (d), none of the above.  This quotation comes from neither the 1987 a18c6-wineburgNational Assessment nor from any of the earlier reports.  To find its source we have to go back to 1917, long before television, the social studies lobby, the teaching of “thinking skills,” the breakup of the family, the growth of the Internet, or any of the other factors we use to explain low test scores.  Yet the conclusions of J. Carleton Bell and David McCollum, who in 1917 tested 668 Texas high school students and published their findings in the fledgling Journal of Educational Psychology, differ little from those of subsequent commentators.  Considering the vast differences between those who attended high school in 1917 and the near-universal enrollments of today, the stability of students’ ignorance is amazing.  The whole world has turned on its head, but one thing has stayed the same: Kids don’t know history.

Responding to the Critics of My Piece on South Dakota and Early American History in Schools

Let me get straight to the point here. Some of you have read my piece on South Dakota’s decision to no longer require students to take early American history courses.  This piece was originally run at the History News Network under the title “South Dakota: Please Reconsider Your Decision to Dump Early American History.”

In the past few days I have heard from several school administrators and teachers from South Dakota who convinced me that a few things need to be corrected.
First, the HNN headline (which I wrote) is misleading.  South Dakota has not “dumped” early American history entirely.  It is still being taught at the K-8 level and it also appears to still be offered at the 9-12 grade level as one option to fulfill a history requirement.  
In other words, my sentence that reads “In case you haven’t heard, the South Dakota Board of Education has dumped early American history from its K-12 curriculum” is inaccurate.  It should read “In case you haven’t heard, the South Dakota Board of Education will no longer require early American history in its 9-12 grade curriculum.” 
On September 28, 2015, the piece was picked up by Raw Story who ran it under the headline “South Dakota no longer requires kids to learn about the Constitution, Native Americans, or slavery.”  I did not write this title.  It is only partially true.  If high school students do not choose to study early American history to fulfill their history requirements they will not learn about slavery or examine the Constitution as a historical document.  It is very possible, however, that they would will still learn about Native Americans in another American history course.
I apologize to the South Dakota educational community for this error, but I do still think the general idea of the article still stands.  It is a shame that South Dakota is no longer requiring high school students to learn early American history.
I think the situation is summed up best by Sheena Louise Roteman’s piece at Indian Country Media Network.  Here is a taste:
South Dakota high school students will not be learning about Native Americans next year, thanks to some quietly approved changes in content standardsthat no longer require students to study early American history.
Beginning in the 2016-2017 academic year, high school students in South Dakota may choose one of three courses to satisfy their single U.S. history requirement: Early U.S. History, Modern U.S. History or Comprehensive U.S. History.
A group of 35 educators made up the South Dakota Social Studies Content Standards Revision Committee, which recommended the adjustments that were approved on August 24, after a year long approval process – the first changes to be made since 2006.
The changes effectively remove a large part of American historical context from the required curriculum, including colonialism, the American War for Independence, slavery, Manifest Destiny, the Civil War and women’s suffrage.
Students may still opt to take Early U.S. History. They also now have the option of avoiding it altogether, which makes it a “non-standard standard,” said Ben Jones, dean of arts and sciences for Dakota State University in Madison,as told to the Argus Leader.
The entire content standards report emphasizes critical thinking, inquiry, communication and problem solving skills.
“Rather than just having then memorize a list of historical events on a time line,” Michael Amolins, Harrisburg School District Secondary Curriculum Director, told KSFY, “we’re trying to get them to use that information in context so that when they’re looking at current events they can make good and informed decisions as citizens and as voters.”
But this leads to another concern – what happens when students get to college?
“What we’re going to get is students who don’t differentiate,” Michael Mullins, a history professor at Augustana University in Sioux Falls,told KSFY. “Say, Abraham Lincoln’s time period from George Washington’s time period from the Puritans. And it will get lumped together and we’ll wonder why.”
Jones told the Argus Leader, “It’s disabling their citizenship.”
According to the Argus Leader, instructors from colleges and universities around the state submitted a letter to the board opposing the lack of required history. This list included representatives from Dakota State University, University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University, Northern State University, Augustana University, Presentation College, the University of Sioux Falls and Black Hills State University.

Why Students Need History

Writing at Time, Jason Steinhauer, a public historian at the Library of Congress, reminds the readers of this popular news magazine that history is important, but not for the reasons that most Americans are hearing in recent debates.

Nothing new here for the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home,but I commend Steinhauer for spreading the word in such a popular forum.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Our students may not go on to all be historians, or even remember the hundreds of facts they learn in a given year. But through history they can become more disciplined and rigorous thinkers. They can be challenged to be more independent-minded analysts, and, I would argue, more compassionate human beings—skills that historical study inculcates and that lead directly to life and career success. The best reason to study history is not to memorize facts, but rather to experience the historical process and learn to interpret facts in a thoughtful, independent and meaningful manner. If we are to continue to foster national greatness and prepare students to independently assess an increasingly complex world, we should continue to promote such thinking.
The debates and headlines too often miss these nuances—which is why I’ve suggested that history take a cue from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and invest in what I’ve termed “History Communicators.” For years, the science community has invested intraining “Science Communicators” to more effectively convey the value of science to the public.
On the surface, history may seem less in need of such help than, say, physics. But we should not assume that history needs no help communicating itself. I am currently working with scholars, journalists, documentary filmmakers and public historians—historians who work in museums, archives, national parks and government—to convene a series of workshops and develop teaching plans to train a generation of “History Communicators” and create new ways to communicate history and historical concepts to non-experts. I am also helping to initiate a nationwide History Relevance Campaign, to reaffirm history’s value to our communities. Through these and similar efforts we historians have an opportunity to better espouse history’s value and ensure we don’t fall behind in producing outstanding, independent thinkers who have the confidence to draw their own conclusions. The current concerns over history curricula may be opportunities to voice that message more clearly.
The historian and philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once said that “history, more often than not, is an infinite display of human stupidity and cruelty.” Kolakowski had witnessed World War II, the Holocaust and Communist dictatorship. He had seen the worst that humans could do to one another and believed that we must not be afraid to separate history from myth, fact from fantasy. Perhaps the best reason to study history is to understand what humans are capable of doing to one another—and how we have the capacity to correct such injustices. That is a valuable lesson for any student, this back-to-school season and beyond.

History Teachers Who Did Not Study History in College

It has been said that most high school history teachers go by the first name “coach.” The idea behind this adage is that anyone can teach history.

School districts demand that their music teachers have a college degree in music and are certified to teach music.  The same goes for foreign language teachers, art teachers, science teachers, English teachers, and math teachers.  Yet, according to this study brought to my attention by Robert Townsend of the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, only 27% of public high school history teachers have a college major and a state certification in the subject.

Over the course of the last ten years I have been doing a lot of work with teachers. Townsend’s statistics confirm my anecdotal evidence.  Most history teachers I encounter did not major in history. Instead, they majoed in social studies or social sciences, subjects that require a small smattering of history courses–perhaps two, maybe three.

Things get worse when we consider the qualifications of middle school teachers.  Only 17% of middle school history teachers have a history major and a state certification.  Over half of the middle school history teachers in the United States do not have a history major or a certification in history.

So not only are public schools eliminating history from the curriculum, but when history IS taught, it is likely taught by someone without a history degree or certification in the subject.  (Not all states have a history certification).

This information tells us that we have a long way to go in trying to convince school districts and state boards of education that history is more than just the memorization of “one damn thing after another.” It takes training–training in the discipline of history–to excel at teaching a primary source, getting students to think historically, and having them think about things like complexity, contingency, causation, change over time, and context.

Let’s keep working on this…

Show Your Support for the Funding of History in Schools

I strongly encourage you to write your member of the House of Representatives.  STEM may produce good workers in a capitalist economy, but history and the humanities are essential for the preservation of our democracy.

From the Organization of American Historians via History News Network:

Negotiations to finalize a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will resume when Congress returns after Labor Day. Members of the House and Senate will be meeting to iron out the differences between the versions of the bill passed by each body. Quite simply, the Senate bill restores federal funding for K-12 history and civics education while the House bill does not. 

The Senate version includes four provisions that create funding for high quality American history, civics, geography, and economics education.  Some House Majority Conferees, however, have already declared their top priority in conference to be eliminating as many new programs and grants as possible.  This poses a direct threat to the Senate provisions that could inject much needed funding into history, civics, and the social studies.

The Organization of American Historians and the National Coalition for History (NCH) urgently need you to contact your member of the House of Representatives. Congressmen Ross (R-FL) and Cicilline (D-RI) have drafted and distributed a sign-on letter urging their colleagues to adopt the history and civics provisions in the Senate’s version of the bill.  We need your help collecting as many signatures on this “Dear Colleague” letter as possible before September 11th so that this letter can have an important impact on the negotiations. 

Please urge your representative to sign the “Dear Colleague” letter supporting key provisions that benefit history and civics education.   

Send an email directly to House members! 

Follow this link to NCH’s website for more information.  

We cannot overstress the importance of this effort. Congress has not reauthorized the ESEA in 15 years so this is likely our only opportunity to get funding restored for K-12 history and civics education.  Time is of the essence, please act today!

Jon Butler
OAH President 2015-2016 Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of American Studies, History, and Religious Studies,  Yale University
Adjunct Research Professor of History, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Katherine Finley
Executive Director 
Organization of American Historians  

Great Britain’s History Wars

When it comes to pundits and politicians decrying the lack of historical knowledge among young people, there is nothing new under the sun.  Writing at The Times Literary Supplement, David Cannadine, author of the recent The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences and The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England, reminds us of this fact in the context of the debates over the history curriculum in British schools:

…there have been constant complaints about the teaching of history for as long as it has been taught: that young people know too little about the national past; that they are ignorant about dates, battles, politicians and kings and queens; that (alternatively) the rote learning of dates, battles, politicians and kings and queens is excruciatingly boring and is not the same as history; and that there was once a golden age when history was better taught, and when boys and girls did know about the national past, from which there has been a recent and catastrophic decline. Across the whole of the twentieth century, there was scarcely a decade when points such as these were not being made. And when these criticisms were levelled, as they have again been recently, it was usually in complete ignorance of the fact that they had already been made several times before. Ironically enough, the criticisms of history teaching in English schools, made by people who, presumably, think history is important, are almost invariably lacking in any historical perspective. 

Cannadine has offered a vision for history in British schools that is different from the one offered by Secretary of Education Michael Gove.  Read the entire article to learn more, from Cannadine’s perspective, about the differences.

Here is a taste of Cannadine’s proposal:

Yet if the National Curriculum is not the problem, then what is? Our answer was clear, namely that since the 1900s, insufficient time has been given to history in the classroom: hence the rushed and superficial treatment of unrelated subjects; the lack of a firm chronological sequence and narrative structure; the difficulty of giving adequate attention to the big picture; and the risk of repetition at Key Stage Three and at Key Stage Four for those taking the subject at GCSE. Reforming the National Curriculum, we concluded, would not address these problems, and the only way to do so would be to make history compulsory to the age of sixteen. That had been Kenneth Baker’s original intention when he devised the National Curriculum; it would integrate the National Curriculum with GCSE, and it would align our teaching practices with those of other Western countries. By gaining more time for history in the classroom, the problems of superficiality, chronology, incoherence and repetition could finally be confronted. That was our recommendation, which was welcomed by professional historians and schoolteachers, by Ofsted and the Historical Association, and by the Independent and the Daily Telegraph. Our proposal was also endorsed by an Expert Panel set up by the Department of Education and by the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History, who urged that “history should be part of a curriculum as a core subject to sixteen”.

Christianity is a Cult and Communism is Awesome

According to this post at the blog of the Texas Freedom Network, Texas communities are up-in-arms about something called CSCOPE.  Here is a description:

CSCOPE is a curriculum management tool developed through a collaboration of regional Education Service Centers set up by the state in the 1960s. The purpose of the service centers is to provide support to public school districts. CSCOPE guides districts in how to cover the state’s curriculum standards and includes sample lessons teachers can use. 

The CSCOPE website describes it this way:

CSCOPE is a comprehensive online curriculum management system developed and owned by the Texas Education Service Center Curriculum Collaborative (TESCCC), a consortium composed of the 20 ESCs in the state. The CSCOPE system includes a curriculum framework for grades K-12 in all foundational academic subject areas aligned to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. CSCOPE content is regularly updated based on all SBOE-adopted changes in the TEKS, as well as any relevant changes/interpretations of state standards and from feedback collected through various stakeholder groups in the collaborative, including individual teacher submissions through the CSCOPE website and the School District Advisory Committee, comprised of district representatives from all participating regions of the state. Participating school districts may also use the online CSCOPE system to customize and/or create content, as well as providing for the inclusion of locally approved or adopted supplemental resources.

It sounds pretty tame to me, but apparently some communities are very upset about CSCOPE.  The parents of Marble Falls and Burnet were so upset about it that they held a meeting to “declare war on our children in the form of C-SCOPE curriculum.”  The local Tea Party was behind this, as evidenced from this newspaper advertisement:

Perhaps I am wrong, but I can’t believe that any self-respecting curriculum would include lessons with titles such as “Christianity is a Cult,” “Communism is Awesome,” or “Christopher Columbus Was a (sic) Eco-Warrior.”

The Antihistory Presidency

obama-and-historyThere is a lot to digest from last night’s State of the Union Address.  The pundits will be out in force today talking about all of the new initiatives Obama proposed, particularly the stuff he had to say about immigration and gun control.  And how about 102-year old Desiline Victor? As the grandson of a 102-year voter, Desiline’s story tugged at my heartstrings.

Obama also talked about education last night.  And once again, he celebrated the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math).  Here is a quote from the speech:

Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.  We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math–the skill’s today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.

We need young people who are trained in the STEM disciplines.  But we also need our president to get behind the humanities, especially history.

Obama’s statement that STEM disciplines provide skills that “today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future” is only partially true.  Anyone who attended the recent Wake Forest conference “Rethinking Success” (or watched the conference presentation online) knows that companies and employers are just as interested in humanities and liberal arts majors as they are college graduates trained in STEM fields.  In fact, some of them are MORE interested in humanities majors than those trained in traditional STEM disciplines.

Obama’s support for STEM last night also extended to higher education. He called for a new “College Scorecard” that would reward colleges and universities that provide greater access to “the education and training that today’s jobs require.”

Again, I have no problem with colleges training students in STEM disciplines.  I work at a college that does a good job at this kind of training.  But I also teach at a college committed to the humanities and the broader liberal arts–disciplines that teach skills, ways of thinking, and ways of being that are essential to the cultivation of a civil society and a thriving democracy.

Obama’s speech last night–at least the parts dealing with education–sounded eerily similar to the Republican governI do not have the time or the space here to defend the the value of history and humanities.  If you are a regular reader of he Way of Improvement Leads Home you know that I have done this many times before. (In addition to the previous link see my piece at Patheos:  “Education for a Democracy” or take a quick glance at my “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” series)

I will, however, call your attention to the irony of it all.  In his public addresses Obama has effectively used history to make his political points.  Ever since his famous breakout speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention he has been making appeals to the Declaration of Independence.  Last night he appealed, on multiple occasions, to the ideals and values that define America.  He referenced the responsibilities of the Congress to place the nation over partisan interest.  He talked about the meaning of citizenship. He asked Americans to join him in writing the next “great chapter” in national history.

Obama must be aware that Americans cannot respond to these exhortations without knowing something about the past.  How can our children write the next “great chapter” in national history when they have little knowledge of the previous chapters?

Obama’s historic rhetoric soars.  He has appealed to the civic humanism of the founding fathers and their commitment to the common good.  In his Second Inaugural Address he talked about Selma, Seneca Falls, and Stonewall.  But I wonder how many young people knew the meaning of these references.  And I wonder how many will know them in ten years. If his track record of funding history in schools is any indication, I don’t think he cares.

Barack Obama has done virtually nothing to promote a renewed sense of civic identity through the study of history.  Just ask the 2010 Washington-era teacher of the year Kenneth Bernstein.  In a recent piece in The Washington Post he decried the lack of civic education in our schools.  Rather than addressing this issue head-on, Obama has cut funding for the successful Teaching American History program and has defined educational reform entirely in terms of STEM disciplines.

Barack Obama is no friend of history.  If I am looking for an ally on this front I will take George W. Bush any day of the week.

Another Social Studies Debate is Brewing

This time in Minnesota

John Hinderaker supports John Fonte’s criticism of the new Minnesota social studies standards.  Michael Lynch, writing at his blog Past in the Present, responds to the whole mess.  Here is a taste of that response:

Lawyer and commentator John Hinderaker is upset because the new standards emphasize the different impacts that the American Revolution and the Civil War had on various groups.  He writes, “One might have thought that events like the American Revolution and the Civil War would affect Americans generally, but such a concept is foreign to today’s academics.”

Well, certainly the Revolution and the Civil War did affect Americans generally, but it didn’t affect all of them in the same way.  If you were a white male living in Pennsylvania, the Revolution probably resulted in a greater exercise of political power.  If you were a white woman living in Massachusetts, you took on new roles as a republican mother and citizen.  If you were an enslaved black male who managed to hitch a ride with the British as they evacuated the seaboard cities, you got freedom.  And if you were an Indian of any gender living in the Ohio Valley, the Revolution wasn’t exactly a bonanza.  There’s nothing wrong with teaching kids about the varied effects of important events.  Indeed, history teachers need to introduce the complexity involved in significant events like the Revolution.

Hinderaker also charges the standards with attributing “institutionalized racism” to big business.  But that isn’t exactly what the relevant passage says: “As the United States shifted from its agrarian roots into an industrial and global power, the rise of big business, urbanization and immigration led to institutionalized racism, ethnic and class conflict, and new efforts at reform. ”  The standards are clearly dealing with a number of transformations in the U.S. during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of which the rise of big business was only one.
The rise of big business, the growth of cities, and immigration resulted in a number of changes in American life, including racism, class conflict, and reform efforts.  And, of course, shifts in immigration patterns and urban growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did result in institutionalized racism, as evidenced by the emergence of measures like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the restrictions on Asian immigration in the Immigration Act of 1917.

Perhaps, then, the problem isn’t with the standards, but with the reading comprehension of the people criticizing them. Or perhaps the problem is something else. Hinderaker writes that when he saw Joseph Brandt’s name on the standards’ list of “historically significant people” from the American Revolution, he had no idea who he was and had to look him up.  He notes only that Brandt was “a Mohawk Indian,” which is sort of like saying that Stonewall Jackson was “a guy from Virginia.”  Since Hinderaker had to look up the name of one of the most important figures of the Revolutionary frontier, might I suggest that he isn’t the person to be assessing standards for teaching history in Minnesota’s schools?

As I wrote several times (click link and scroll down) during the entire Texas social studies debate, citizenship is one reason, but not the primary reason, that history should be taught to school children.  I am not denying the fact that history can teach kids civic literacy.  We certainly want our kids to know the century in which the American Civil War took place or the name of the first president of the United States.  But history offers so much more.  It provides students with a new way of thinking about the world that allows them to see themselves as part of something bigger.  As my colleague Joseph Huffman says in this video, it adds an extra dimension to the way we understand our lives. 

History cultivates humility and empathy and intellectual hospitality–the kind of skills necessary for democracy to thrive.  While the choice of topics that student’s study is important, it would seem that these kinds of skills can be gleaned from learning how to interpret primary documents from any people group or movement in the American past.

The study of history is less about teaching kids what is good or bad about the United States and more about teaching them to function in a democratic society.

But I have said this all before and I am sure I will be saying it again.