Interview: Historical Proportions

November 01, 2002 5 min read
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These days, it’s next to impossible for teachers to present certain political, scientific, or cultural ideas in classrooms without finding themselves embroiled in some kind of controversy. Jonathan Zimmerman, a former social studies teacher who is now director of the History of Education program at New York University, argues as much in his new book, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Harvard).

Throughout the 20th century, he writes, business leaders attacked just about anyone in schools who offered critiques of capitalism. And while most schools now teach the theory of evolution, they are challenged in some districts by fundamentalists who lobby for creationism.

At the heart of Zimmerman’s argument is his belief that critical thinking—a willingness to ask big questions about such things as the causes of economic inequalities—is still pretty much absent from our classrooms and textbooks, especially in history, which gets most of his attention. Although textbooks are far more inclusive than they once were—for instance, students encounter Frederick Douglass as well as Thomas Jefferson—they are still, Zimmerman demonstrates, more about hero worship than the careful consideration of ideas.

Zimmerman lives with his family outside Philadelphia, where he was reached by phone just after a vacation in Maine. He spoke about his own teaching career, the undue influence that textbooks have on history classes, and the tactics necessary to turn both teachers and their students into more effective U.S. citizens.

Q. Did anything in your own teaching career get you thinking about the themes you address in your book?

A. In Baltimore, where I taught in the late ’80s, I raised a huge amount of antipathy in my middle school classroom because in response to questions from students, I said that Martin Luther King had extramarital affairs. I then gave a lesson on how we know that: The FBI, with the approval of Kennedy, wiretapped him illegally. Nevertheless, I was perceived by parents in the mostly black school as trying to turn kids against King. I suspected then that what was really going on in history and social studies classrooms was hero worship and that hero worship was preventing the kind of encounter with history that citizens need.

Q. So lots of once-neglected people and groups have been added to history textbooks, but mostly in the spirit of hero worship?

A. Right. What students are now getting is a parade of great figures. And while I’m critical of that, it’s far better than what preceded it because certain groups were completely neglected. It is progress that kids now learn about Douglass and King, and we should celebrate that. But we should also be aware of the difficulties inherent in that bargain. Too often we’re doing little more than saying, “Come on in, you’re great and so are we.” That’s the implied title of our national history: “We Are Excellent.”

Q. Has there ever been a time when history textbooks were actually trying to get kids to think critically instead of focusing on what you term “American triumphalism”?

A. Harold Rugg’s hugely popular textbooks, written during the Great Depression, emphasized poverty and inequality in the United States. But when the economy finally picked up, his books lost their popularity. Now, Rugg said he wanted to inspire a dialogue about the American economy, which is the kind of thing I’m after. But he was being somewhat disingenuous. In truth, he wanted to promote a certain view of the economy, namely that laissez faire is dead. That notion sits very uneasily next to the idea that we should teach kids to think. Also, it’s not the place of the schools to give simple answers—whether they be answers from the left or right—to complex questions about the nature of society and economy.

Q. Do we know how teachers have traditionally used the texts in their classrooms?

A. Larry Cuban [a Stanford University professor of education], in his book, [How] Teachers Taught, concluded that at the secondary level, teaching has remained pretty static over the decades— the teacher stands in front of the room, the kids sit with the books open. In high school, then, most teaching has been textbook driven, with the teacher pretty much presenting the text as truth. Incidentally, in surveys, history has long been the most detested subject by students. There has never been a golden age of history teaching.

Q. In essence, you want teaching to be more about critical thinking than indoctrination.

A. Right, and a lot of interest groups have conspired against that happening. As a student of mine once quipped to me, “You’ll never see a parents’ group called Americans in Favor of Debating the Other Side in Our Schools.” However, there are now so many different actors seeking to inscribe their views on schools that the teacher may actually be in a better position to do more intellectually challenging work. School districts are no longer unitary in what they want taught. Some people in a school district want X, some Y, and some simply don’t care. In essence, they are now so diverse that no one point of view can be exclusively taught. Now, I don’t pretend that there are millions of teachers who are just waiting to do the kind of teaching I want. But I do believe that there is an historical opportunity to do intellectually rigorous teaching.

Q. Textbooks now routinely address issues pertaining to sex and gender. But class and economic issues still seem off-limits, don’t they?

A. Absolutely! That’s the taboo that Rugg violated. Ignoring these issues has long been part of our schools, and of America writ large. Even in college, when they say they’ll study class and race, it’s really about gender and race. Class is always the variable that gets downplayed. But this could change if the recession continues or deepens. In times of economic crisis, critiques of the economy find a broader audience.

Q. It’s interesting that your book—really a book about history— concludes with a discussion of teacher training.

A. Yes, people think it’s weird that there’s this whole book about culture wars and then, suddenly, accreditation. But these issues are closely related. If our teachers have not studied history, then they can’t ask big questions, they can’t present students with a document and say that this is just one point of view. So improved training of teachers is a necessary condition. If you’re going to be a good history teacher, you need to be grounded in historical knowledge. For instance, I could never teach chemistry. It’s not because I’m not educated, but because I don’t know enough about chemistry to get students to ask the big questions about the discipline.

I mean, I could require them to memorize the periodic table, but that’s not teaching—teaching is engaging kids in the questions that define the discipline.

—David Ruenzel


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