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Social Studies Project

How History Class Divides Us

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 23, 2018 18 min read
Social Studies Project

How History Class Divides Us

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 23, 2018 18 min read
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Americans are increasingly polarized and public distrust in government is at record levels. What if the inability of Americans to agree on our shared history—and the right way to teach it—is a cause of our current polarization rather than a symptom?

In September in a room where someone had conspicuously placed a Confederate flag for at least part of the proceedings, the Texas board of education sat through two days of public hearings on a “streamlining” of its 2010 social studies standards.

Panels of teachers had proposed hundreds of changes, but the most controversial was to delete a line of the standard on the Alamo referencing “all the heroic defenders who gave their lives there.” Swift condemnation from politicians and the public followed, forcing the panels to restore some of that language even before the hearings concluded.

Much has been written about the Alamo’s relative historic importance in the story of the United States, but that wasn’t even the point of this debate. What was truly at stake were the underlying values proponents felt it signaled: What defines American thought and action? What can students take pride in?

It’s easy to lose sight of the connection between what students learn in history and the civic ideals and values those topics communicate, especially since they tend to be treated as different disciplines in K-12 education.

But the Texas debate reminds us that history and civic values are deeply intertwined, and gives rise to this interesting question: What if the inability of Americans to agree on our shared history—and on the right way to teach it—is a cause of our current polarization and political dysfunction, rather than a symptom? It’s a question that gets right to the issues of what constitutes facts, how to interpret them, and how they inform contemporary debates, all of which are key themes as America experiences a kind of civic crisis.

Public trust in the government is near its historic low. And in 2017, Americans were far more politically polarized on topics like immigration and healthcare than in the early 2000s, according to Gallup. Journalists are now routinely assailed by politicians. The bruising confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court led The Washington Post to speculate that even “our least damaged institution” might now be viewed with increasing levels of skepticism.

“If this polyglot country doesn’t have a set of ideals and a broad narrative, we don’t have much of a hope,” said Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford University, whose recent volume attempts to connect the dots between history education and citizenship. “It is not popular to talk about in an era of identity politics, but history teaching in school has a civic purpose, not only a disciplinary purpose.”

About This Project: Citizen Z

U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis now, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job. To better understand the role of education in the current crisis, Education Week consulted experts, visited classrooms, and conducted surveys. This article and the state-by-state survey that accompanies it mark the official publishing launch of that initiative. Look for more pieces from our Citizen Z project in the weeks and months ahead.

It may seem counterintuitive to argue that schools’ role in helping remedy this toxic situation for future generations depends at least in part on how they teach about the past.

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, though, students encounter U.S. history far more frequently in school, including generally a year in high school compared to just a semester devoted to civics.

Data: Most States Require History, But Not Civics

High school students spend far more time in school learning about America’s history than they do learning about its civic values, according to a 50-state survey by Education Week.

A selection of the survey results are below. For the full state-by-state breakdown, click here.

As the Texas debate situation illuminates, what students learn about U.S. history varies depending on where they attend school, and is frequently filtered through the political and demographic makeup of different communities. The tension over Texas’s history standards is partly explained by its rapidly changing demographics, where Hispanics—some of whom can trace their roots to the opposing side at the Alamo battle—are expected to become a plurality of the population within the next five years.

The 2010 standards in that state, written largely by a conservative-leaning board, make some assertions that have led even right-leaning reviewers like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to label them “a string of politically and religiously motivated historical distortions.”

This operates on the left, too. Almost as frequently criticized around the country as the Texas standards, including by historians, is Howard Zinn’s 1980 volume A People’s History of the United States. The popular history, told through a Marxist perspective, is favored by teachers because it purports to tell the story of ordinary Americans from the “bottom up,” rather than merely the lives of its powerful leaders. But it, too, has faced criticism for botching its chronology of events and relying exclusively on secondary sources, skewing its portrait of history.

Now multiply all the varying perspectives by the sheer number of U.S. history materials available to schools. In a survey by the Education Week Research Center, principals named 34 different core texts for high school U.S. History, though most came from just three publishers.

Nearly all history teaching materials and standards are shaped by the civic pressures of their times, said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history of education at New York University, and that is partially why debates about them continue.

31 states require at least a yearlong history course, but only 8 states require a yearlong civics course.

Take an old controversy from the late 1930s through the 1950s, which occurred when the American Legion, a veterans’ group, took issue with social studies textbooks written by the education professor Harold Rugg. Rugg’s books explicitly embraced the New Deal and critiqued social stratification and income inequality, leading to the Legion’s charge that they were “subversive” and “un-American.”

“All textbooks should inculcate in the youth of our nation a genuine love for America and a desire to protect and defend our priceless ideals, institutions, and heritage,” one of the Legion’s 1941 pamphlets protested.

Initially, the books survived many of those criticisms, but fell out of favor as America entered the privation, nationalism, and fear of socialism spurred by the second World War and, later, McCarthyism.

That the current debates in history education often echo these themes tells us some important things: Americans have never been all that united as to what belongs in or out of history classes, or even which specific civic values those classes are supposed to inculcate.

If anything, such tensions seem more on the rise now than ever before.

In Florida, frustrations about history textbooks have helped give way to a new curriculum-challenge process in that state. There, in an echo of the American Legion’s concerns, petitioners argued that the lack of stories of American exceptionalism—the idea that the nation is unique in its fusion of republican values and personal freedoms—could harm schools’ ability to instill civic values in students.

Many historians feel that’s the wrong approach.

“Our goal should not be to get anyone to have a certain view of America, but that is in fact what most history tries to do. Look at the names of the textbooks: The Triumph of the American Nation. A physics textbooks is not called the ‘Triumph of the Atom,’ ” said Zimmerman.

“The problem is the contradiction between a lot of the democratic rhetoric many of us use in class, and the actual practice, which tends to be flag-waving,” he said.

Another concern: the influence of postmodernist thought in much historical debate. In brief, it’s a notion borrowed from language theorists that no textual interpretation can be “privileged” above another. That, some historians say, might be fine for literature classes. But it’s disastrous in historical thinking and even more so in public life, where it presages the idea of “alternative facts,” to borrow a phrase that’s emerged in recent political discourse.

See Also

The four textbooks at the heart of the Charlotte County, Fla., challenge.
The four textbooks at the heart of the Charlotte County, Fla., challenge.
Curriculum Citizen Activists Push to Revise History Textbooks
History-minded residents of Charlotte County, Fla., are among the first to test a state law that permits citizens to challenge the curriculum taught in their schools.
Stephen Sawchuk, October 23, 2018
8 min read

“Americans can argue over different interpretations because history and civic issues are complex, and there are different ways to think about them,” Wineburg said. “But the basis has to be an agreement of what constitutes facts.”

Take the original alternative fact in U.S. history: the Lost Cause, and how its mythology led to the ruinous teaching of the Civil War and the Reconstruction for more than a century.

Texas’ 2010 standards misrepresented the causes of the conflict, listing sectionalism, states’ rights, and tariffs alongside slavery—even though the historical evidence is indisputable that slavery was the cause animating all the others. (The state school board has given preliminary approval to revise that language.)

As several historians who testified at the Texas hearing pointed out, the consequences of keeping students ignorant of hard truths aren’t theoretical: They are civic in nature.

Third-grade students, from left to right, Peyton C., Landen H., Jeremiah W., and Sophie M., participate in a social studies lesson focused on the history and symbolism of the American flag at Freedom Elementary School in Colorado Springs, Colo. The school district is focused on teaching students to do history rather than passively receive it.
Students work on their notebooks as 3rd grade teacher Christine Bedwell teaches her American flag lesson at Freedom Elementary School.
A notebook displays Sophie M.’s work for a lesson about the American flag.

Keffrelyn Brown, a professor of cultural studies in education at the University of Texas, Austin, who helps prepare teachers there, said the incoming candidates she works with often hold simplistic, myopic perspectives on race—the idea, for example, that racism is something that only occurred in the past or is limited only to certain individuals.

That, she told the Texas board, “does not help us to see how racism is structural, and it is institutional, and it continues to play a role.”

It also inevitably shapes how those prospective teachers approach the job, she said in an interview. Teachers’ understanding of the legacy of slavery and racism affects the daily choices they make—for example, whether they choose a curriculum that’s more representative of the students they teach, or how they discipline students.

And all of those decisions in turn affect how their students will begin to make sense of themselves as citizens in the world.

A quarter of all students, and nearly half of all black students, had 'below basic' knowledge of civics, according to the 2014 Nation's Report Card.

“Schools have historically served as a place where kids get socialized—what it means to be a part of this thing we call the United States,” Brown said.

There is probably no easy way to settle what belongs in and out of history class.

But there is a burgeoning movement among some educators to move past textbooks and standards as the best way to connect history to citizenship.

Sociologist James Loewen’s 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me, recently released with a new introduction, is known for punching holes in textbook narratives, most of which he found embraced the idea of “a more perfect union” while skirting the country’s uneven progress towards its ideals.

But the most provocative argument Loewen made in the book was that the textbook format itself was guilty of instilling a dangerous quietism in students, undermining their preparation as young citizens.

Most textbooks, he noted, contain no footnotes, no way for students to trace the author’s historical arguments, analyze them, or contest them. So why, Loewen asked, would students bother to feel invested in interrogating the complexities of American values if they had few opportunities to contest the textbook narrative?

“They present history to get students to ‘learn’ it. They should help students learn how to learn history,” he said. “We aren’t just learning about the past to satisfy our curiosity—we are learning about the past to do our jobs as Americans.”

Lindsey R. listens during social studies class at Sabin Middle School in Colorado Springs.

Different curriculum efforts, including the Evanston, Ill,-based DBQ Project, the UC-Berkeley History Social Sciences Project, the Choices Program at Brown University, and the Reading Like A Historian project, begun by Wineburg and colleagues at Stanford, have all set out to do what Loewen has called for.

They prioritize students doing the work of history, by putting primary sources at the center of the history classroom and having students grapple with those sources, often by using a provocative question as a starting point.

In essence, this approach theorizes that the most effective history education isn’t dependent on a textbook with a narrative favoring those on the right or the left. Rather, it is helping students view history as an evolving tissue of stories and interpretations and to draw their own conclusions after weighing the evidence.

Students have to research and evaluate biases within competing accounts, and ultimately to advance a historical argument using the documents.

The questions that shape this sort of teaching are not softballs. They get at both key historical events and the thorny topics that continue to shape contemporary thought: Was the New Deal a success or a failure? Were African Americans truly free under Reconstruction? What was the nature of Lewis and Clark’s interactions with Native Americans?

Countless historians have bemoaned that much of what students learn about their country is closer to mythology than to history.

U.S. history teacher Brandy Reed, though, is determined that won’t be the case in her classroom.

On an unusually warm October day, the teacher at Galileo School of Math and Science in Colorado Springs School District 11 is beginning a lesson centered on this question: Did Pocahontas save the life of the English explorer and colonial governor John Smith?

All of her 8th grade students have seen the 1995 Disney musical (“Didn’t she talk to a tree or something?” one young man whispers early on in the class). So some of what Reed does in her lesson is make sure her students know how the film diverges from the historical record. Pocahontas didn’t marry Smith; she married a tobacco planter. She converted to Christianity, and she died in England, far from her relatives and customs.

But at the heart of Reed’s lesson, adapted from the Reading Like a Historian project, students must grapple with two primary sources—two different accounts John Smith wrote years apart. The first describes how Smith was briefly held in captivity by the Powhatan Indians, a difficulty that was apparently amicably resolved through an exchange of goods. Pocahontas only shows up years later in his second telling, which depicts the tribe’s aggressive chief ready to kill him and his salvation by Pocahontas’ intervention.

In preparation to analyze the texts, Reed asks her students a series of questions about the point of keeping a journal, like the one that Smith used.

Journals, the students discuss, can be used to remember details and record feelings, but they’re stumped about who else the audience for a journal would be. “Himself,” they say.

But then Reed tells a funny personal anecdote about keeping a diary as a teenager where she wrote unflattering comments about her stepsister—until that stepsister read it, at which point Reed started to write much nicer things.

“Oh. Maybe Smith thought someone would read his one day,” a student pipes up.

Reed beams. “So, 17 years later, why would you tell everyone you almost got clubbed to death? Stories change over time, and I want us to think about why,” she says.

Ultimately, in reaching their conclusions, Reed’s students will have to sort through a variety of threads, including the cultural tropes Europeans held at the time of “good” and “bad” Native Americans; the political pressures surrounding interactions with Native Americans; even how Pocahontas’ later fame in England might have shaped how Smith portrayed her. But it will be up to students to decide where they think the evidence points.

In what’s sure to be one of the lesson’s most eye-opening moments, Reed will also pull out one of the districts’ former textbooks, from 15 years ago, which presents the Pocahontas-saves-Smith legend as fact. And initially, it is not always easy for students to confront the notion that this story—and indeed, much of what they will learn in U.S. history—is contested, Reed said in an interview.

“Their brains explode, and then they get mad at me because I’m the one who ruined the fairy tale,” she said.

For more than eight years, Colorado Springs School District 11 has prioritized social studies teaching deeply rooted in primary sources.

And educators here do it precisely because of its connections to good citizenship.

“As historians, we grapple with questions of significance: Why is this important, and why does it matter today?” said Joan Jahelka, the district’s social studies facilitator, who since 2011 has helped the district adopt a number of primary-source tools, and provide training for teachers.

A third of all Americans cannot name a single branch of government.

It is possible, she says, to begin this type of teaching early. So even 3rd graders in Becca Daugherty’s class at Fremont Elementary examine replicas of a ship’s manifest in a unit on immigration. And in Christine Bedwell’s class at Freedom Elementary, they’re discussing the Pledge of Allegiance, its author, and whether students who aren’t religious should be required to say the words “under God,” which were added to the Pledge in 1954.

Third-grade student Emma P. works in her notebook as Bedwell discusses the history and symbolism of the flag.

What’s more, the district’s commitment extends to all students. Grappling with primary sources is an expectation for everyone, not just those selected for gifted classes or Advanced Placement exams, as is typically the case.

At Sabin Middle School, in two 8th grade social studies classes taught by veteran teachers Michael Butler and Scott White, students grapple with a 1756 letter from an English indentured servant, Elizabeth Sprigs, who was sent away by her father to the American colonies for disobedience. It’s an affecting account, but its language and syntax challenge the young historians. Their goal: To look for evidence showing that Sprigs was miserable.

So the teachers take time walking through the tough vocabulary. Then, students must break down the letter into different sections, highlighting key clues in the text.

Students say that learning this way is more difficult than answering questions out of textbooks. But they appear to retain it longer, and are skilled at making connections to other key historical periods.

“It’s sad to hear of the conditions she’s in. It’s almost unbelievable,” said Deja, who draws a parallel between Sprigs’ travails and the enslavement of Africans in the United States, which she studied a few years earlier. “If I did something bad I’d be grounded. I wouldn’t be sent away.”

Her tablemate Kilie said she doesn’t mind taking more time to understand the documents than a textbook account. “If it’s harder text, I feel like I understand it for longer,” she said.

Sabin Middle School social studies teacher Michael Butler leads a discussion based on source materials that are projected on the screen in Colorado Springs.
Butler’s lesson at Sabin focuses on a 1795 letter from an English indentured servant girl. The highlighted words on the screen mark vocabulary words that are more challenging for the middle school students.
Sabin Middle School student Marvionna J., center, works with classmates Marcus Q. and Aaron A. to identify evidence from the indentured servant letter.

The connection the teachers make is that this teaching isn’t just more interesting and engaging for students. It’s that they are also learning the tools that make for good citizenship.

“I tell students that this is the most important class they’re going to have all year,” White said. “It’s going to teach you how to think about what people are saying to you.”

“In reality, students are learning to discern truth,” Reed said. “It’s a gift they take with them the rest of their lives, the gift of questioning.”

District 11 is probably unusual in the strength of its commitment to having students do history, rather than passively receive it.

But other teachers who subscribe to the approach make similar arguments.

“We want to build social agency,” said Kristin Palomares, a teacher in the Whittier school district in Southern California, when asked why she felt a primary-source-focused approach improved upon a textbook-based one. “An important factor in that social agency is being able to communicate effectively and engage in civil conversations.”

On any given historical or civic topic, students’ initial reaction tends to be anecdotal and personal, Palomares said. Staying rooted in primary sources, especially when students learn how to draw from competing viewpoints, dispels some of that emotion.

A Coronado High School student Logan B. speaks with social studies teacher Mel Johnson during a world history lesson in Colorado Springs.
Logan puts on his backpack as he gets ready to leave the social studies class at Coronado High School.

“Whether you read a speech or a Tweet from a president or what your aunt put on Facebook, it has a perspective and a context of where it originated. Where is it coming from, and what is it doing?” said Patrick Sprinkle, a New York City U.S. history teacher. “The work of good citizenship is understanding a text’s origins and its purpose. It’s also the work of good historians.”

More than a third of Americans cannot name a specific right articulated in the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

John Cain, a 20-year veteran teacher in the Copenhagen, N.Y., school district, teaches his students to use the same tools to evaluate internet research as they do when grappling with primary sources.

“We go behind the scenes to figure out exactly why that website is operating and what the goal is, and a lot of times leads us to the conclusion of whether it’s valid or not,” he said. “There’s going to be a bias and a clear purpose it’s trying to accomplish. We ask the same questions as we would if we had a photograph of the Dust Bowl in front of us.”

A sobering message from Wineburg’s more recent research, however, is that the ability to evaluate print sources critically doesn’t automatically translate into the online domain.

A history education rooted in facts, evidence, and well-argued positions might be a beginning step toward healthier, more productive, and more engaged citizenry. But it is hardly an inoculation. Rather, it is more like the first in what has to be a sequence of booster shots.

Can Americans reach a shared agreement that facts matter, and that historiography is worthy of reasoned and respectful debate?

For many in history education, that remains an open question.

No one is seriously pushing for national history standards, after a federally financed 1994 attempt fell afoul of that decade’s culture wars. Texas’ continuing debate illustrates that state-set benchmarks are not always a guarantee of quality. And local challenges to history curricula seem poised to expand, as in Florida.

More concerning, Zimmerman said, is whether Americans, for all their lip service to informed citizenship, really want to center history education in debate—rather than in a who’s-who game of names, dates, and places.

It’s hardly a norm across the country, nor is there a consensus outside of K-12 education of why or how it matters to citizenship. In the end it comes down to this: Do Texas citizens really want to debate the Alamo? Would they be comfortable if students reached a different conclusion about those events?

“I fully support a debate about questions like ‘Were the Alamo defenders heroes?’ ” he said. “But if we say [unequivocally] that they are, we preclude that.”

Illustration: Stephanie Shafer for Education Week
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2018 edition of Education Week as How History Class Divides Us


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