Sure, We Teach History. But Do We Know Why It's Important?

—Taylor Callory for Education Week
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In 1980, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians began hearing testimony from Japanese-Americans who, after the Pearl Harbor attack, were forced at gunpoint into prison camps throughout the desolate interior of the United States.

Initiated by Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat who lost an arm fighting the Nazis, the commission was largely conceived in order to establish a legal and political case in Congress against internment and for some kind of redress. But Nisei men and women, the children of Japanese immigrants who had kept virtually silent for decades due to a social code inherited from their ancestors, captured the moment. They used the hearings to share their stories of sorrow and humiliation. The intense emotion of these personal histories galvanized a political movement that succeeded in winning monetary reparations from the federal government for those who had been interned. It was an unprecedented event in the American experience.

Andrew Ujifusa
As my father, the Japanese-American Citizens League’s volunteer chief legislative strategist who helped convince President Ronald Reagan to sign the redress bill in 1988, later recalled, “I saw all these old people crying, and that made me cry. I guess the whole community cried.”

When the nation feels not just divided, but divided in an unprecedented way, studying history serves as a guide. A nation that can see through and place the turbulent present in historical context is better empowered to grasp the present and decide on the best course of action ahead.

Those who work in classrooms and with students grasp this. In a recent survey of educators who were presented with two choices, 78 percent told EdWeek Research Center they believed the primary purpose of teaching history is “to prepare students to be active and informed citizens,” compared with 22 percent who said the primary purpose of teaching history is “to teach analytical, research, and critical thinking skills.” (We should not, of course, label the second group wrong.)

Therefore, we study and share history in part to give us the foundation for action. We build that foundation in part by learning and sharing stories of immigrant forebears and their legacies; the 1619 Project from the New York Times, which consists of a series of essays about the legacy of slavery, does something similar, but in a fashion that its creators want to be unsettling, if not excruciating for many.

Telling different stories within a single broader narrative, and using those stories to create empathy within an agreed-upon historical framework, are powerful skills. Indeed, one of the key strategies for Japanese-American redress activists in Washington was—to use my father’s metaphor—selling the same Ford Taurus sedan in two different ways.

For a liberal audience, the main argument went like this: These immigrants and their children were the victims of powerful white men who, in the name of national security, exploited wartime panic and longstanding anti-Asian bigotry among other whites to deprive Japanese-Americans of their civil liberties.

For conservatives, the tougher audience, it went this way: Japanese-Americans were content to obey the law and grow artichokes and strawberries. They were exemplary models of enterprise, the free market, and family values—until they were deprived of private property rights and denied due process by an overbearing federal government.

Together, these arguments succeeded because both narratives underscored the ideals that presumably governed American history, and how internment undermined those ideals.

"78% of teachers identify preparing students for citizenship as the main reason to teach history."
Source: EdWeek Research Center

This should not be confused with warping history as if for some kind of novelistic experiment, or perverting it for political control. In his 1946 essay “The Prevention of Literature,” George Orwell wrote that totalitarian governments approach history as “something to be created rather than learned.”

But in classrooms, it has always been a struggle to teach history in a way that resonates with students. The CEO of Baltimore City schools, Sonja Santelises, thinks she’s found a way to do that: Help them see themselves up close in their hometown’s history.

Motivated partially by Baltimore’s often-negative portrayal in the media, Santelises recently oversaw the implementation of BMore Me, a social studies curriculum. The basic idea is “using the city as a classroom.”

They’ve explored how local geography impacted the Industrial Revolution in Baltimore. They learn what the history of certain neighborhoods reveals about the nation’s history of red-lining black families away from valuable land and capital. And they’ve heard stories from a community elder about singer Billie Holiday, who grew up in Baltimore, and from D. Watkins, who went from dealing drugs in the city to teaching at the University of Baltimore.

Santelises said the city curriculum’s emphasis on this approach that allows students to see themselves in history puts their own lives and people they know at the center of what can feel detached and distant. The consequences for this approach, if done right, can be profound, she argued.

“What makes people proud to be American? Well, part of it is that you’re validating people’s stories,” Santelises told me. “You’re validating their role.”

What’s also central to this approach, Santelises says, is that it allows children to see complexity in history and not just (in the case of black Americans, for example) one long and painful struggle against oppression.

“We don’t have to have a perfect or one story,” Santelises said. “That’s not the goal.”

In 1945, a young Army captain spoke at a service honoring Kazuo Masuda, a Japanese-American soldier who died in combat in Italy and whose family had been interned. This Army captain said men like Masuda were heroes, distinguished by their sacrifice and love of country, not their race.

That captain’s name was Ronald Reagan. Decades later as president, he was initially opposed to redress for internment. But when Reagan was reminded of that moment, he changed his mind. It was crucial for Reagan to see himself as a character in a crucial moment in American history.

The arc of that narrative can be questioned. Why did it take this chance moment in history to shift Reagan’s views? Why did men like Masuda have to prove their loyalty to the land of their birth? What about those Japanese-Americans who out of principle resisted military service?

Trying to answer those questions adds to the story I just laid out rather than subverting it. Still, it’s one story. History doesn’t always provide such dramatic, clear narratives. Similarly, what if such historical inquiry like the kind Santelises supports for her city’s students can’t be scaled up or made to work well elsewhere?

To such questions, Santelises responds that the approach in general can apply in all sorts of places for all kinds of students.

“Once you’re grounded and validated in the power of your own story,” Santelises said, “that’s what makes you want to go and learn about other people.”


Vol. 39, Issue 17, Pages 4-5

Published in Print: January 8, 2020, as Why Do We Study History?
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