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Teaching History in Troubled Times

By Marc Tucker — August 23, 2017 4 min read
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Lyndon Johnson, himself a former teacher, was known to tell the story of a young, unemployed teacher who applied for a job in Texas. He was asked by a school board member whether he taught that the world was round or flat. “I can teach it both ways,” he replied.

I suppose that one can teach that General Robert E. Lee was a man of integrity and skill who led the South honorably in a good cause or one can teach that Lee was instead a man who became a traitor to his country and his oath to defend its Constitution, a key figure in a regime whose raison d’etre had become the enslavement of black people by whites.

How does one deal in the classroom with the fact that the statues now in contention were largely put on their pedestals in the 1920’s and 30’s, in the midst of some of the most savage acts of the Jim Crow era? Was it or was it not an act designed to reassert control of the white population over their former slaves? How was the erection of those statues related to the Dred Scott decision denying citizenship to these former slaves?

What is the obligation of a history teacher in these troubled times? Once, long ago, when I was a professor of public policy, I asked my students in a graduate seminar to pretend that they were advisors to a superintendent of schools and to brief the superintendent on a controversial topic, describing the attitudes and beliefs of the opposing sides clearly so that the superintendent could understand the arguments being presented by both sides. Some of the teachers in the room refused to do the assignment I had given them. They thought, they said, that it was immoral to do that. The only morally defensible posture was to take the side they thought was morally right and present the arguments for that position. To present the arguments for any other position, they said, would be immoral.

I was astounded. How, I asked, were their students supposed to live in a world of endless conflict, among people with any number of views on the issues of the day, when there was only one point of view that was legitimate and that point of view was presented by fiat? Wasn’t this a democracy? Weren’t we supposed to argue for our positions in the public arena, present evidence for our positions, be prepared to hear the other side, see what evidence they had and listen to the logic of their position before finally making up our mind? Isn’t that what a democracy is all about? The answer I got was no. The morally right thing was obvious. Our obligation was simply to advocate for that position. Any attempt to understand another person’s view, if it differed from your own, might legitimate that view. Period.

After Johnson left the heavily Mexican-American school district on the Rio Grande where he first taught, he moved to the big city. There he led the high school debate team to a state championship. The team members learned to argue both sides of every proposition from the evidence and to do it very well. This did not make either them or Johnson immoral. It made them effective. If the superintendent of schools does not understand why her opponents in the community believe what they believe, and if she is not herself in command of the facts and the reasoning behind her own position, she is not nearly as likely to prevail as she is if she has her facts and argument in order and has a ready response to the arguments of the other side.

One could, I suppose, as a history teacher, simply marshal all the arguments at one’s command for tearing down the offending statues and present them to one’s students. It would be very easy to do that if your conclusions matched those of most of the people in your community, much harder if they do not.

But I would hope you would not do that. Nor would I have you do what the young teacher in President Johnson’s story did in his job interview. I would hope that you would do as Johnson himself did as a teacher or what I did when I was teaching my public policy class: teach your students how to argue from the evidence, with a healthy respect for what real evidence looks like. If you do that with trust and confidence in your students, I am confident that, most of the time, they will come down in the right place, not because you told them what to think, but because you taught them how to think.

When I gave my students their assignement, I told them that I wanted them to brief the superintendent on all the views of all the major groups of stakeholders, but then, at the end, present their own recommendation and defend it.

Put your students in the position of having to argue the case for keeping the statues up. If you do that, they will be forced to research the arguments that the advocates for that position have actually taken. If you make them defend those positions, they will see where those positions come from and they will have to evaluate the evidence of those positions.

Most of us live lives that are framed by the narratives we grew up with. That is not just true of “them.” It is also true of “us,” whoever we are. It is very hard for most of us to see how fragile our narrative is until we put it to the test of holding up someone else’s narrative against our own. If you do not trust your students to come to the right conclusion when they have all the evidence and have used it to come to a reasoned conclusion, then you have faith in neither education nor democracy.

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