Social Studies

Is a Comprehensive U.S. History Course Still Possible? Scholars Weigh In

By Ileana Najarro — November 16, 2022 5 min read
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How do you teach an inclusive U.S. history course? What does such a course look like? And how do teachers put one together when facing legal restrictions on how they can discuss race and gender in class?

These were some of the key questions addressed by a panel of researchers and historians earlier this month. They are also some of the most pressing ones for K-12 social studies teachers, as a growing number of state leaders work to limit or ban classroom instruction and school library books that provide context for discussing the various perspectives at play in history.

The panel was held as part of a conference hosted by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition’s conference at Yale University.

While panelists cited these legal barriers and other challenges when trying to teach U.S. history from a pluralistic point of view, they, like other historians, have hope that such an instructional approach will take hold in more classrooms. That’s especially needed, they argue, because of the importance of teaching historical thinking skills, which hinge on understanding historical context.

“The crucial thing about a history class is that the emphasis is on context,” said Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association in a separate interview with Education Week. “And so what you’re helping students to do is to understand that every concept, every event, or every process, cannot be understood outside of a context.”

What does it mean to have a pluralistic U.S. history course?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, scholars debated whether historians were losing a cohesive narrative of American history as they began diving into the history of social groups, said Eric Foner, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University at the panel discussion. But practitioners of social history argued that the big textbook narratives were inherently limited, one-dimensional, and couldn’t incorporate the real diversity of American society.

In one of his own books, Foner found a way to balance the need for a cohesive narrative with the need for more inclusiveness: He focused on the theme of freedom and the nation’s contested narratives about freedom. He delved into questions such as who is entitled to freedom and what kind of social arrangements are necessary to enable people to enjoy it, among other things.

“These ideas are inherently contested,” Foner said.

That emphasis on the tensions is crucial, fellow panelists argued. It can raise some real questions for students about what it means to be in a society that values freedom when the freedoms of some people are in conflict with the freedoms of others, said Mia Bay, a professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania.

A pluralistic history course is “not just the kind of standard vanilla multiculturalism, which talks about one group after another,” said Grossman. There needs to also be an exploration of power, conflict, and division.

Why not all U.S. history courses are yet truly inclusive

Pluralism may be a good ideal to strive for, but some scholars insist there needs to first be a fundamental rethinking of how the field still centers some groups versus others.

Ned Blackhawk, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, called for a recentering of American history through the lens of Native Americans—essentially the inverse of what’s more common today: incremental inclusions of Native American and other perspectives in broader American history courses.

Bay in Pennsylvania, who teaches both American history and African American history, said she’s seen a stark difference in the narratives each course covers with respect to Black history.

“I always find teaching African American history so much more depressing than teaching American history, which is strange because it’s all coming at the same time,” she said.

In African American history students assess the fight for social and political progress as well as the attempts to reverse that trajectory. But American history textbooks tend to emphasize the American promise of e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.”

K-12 educators in particular now face the added challenge of laws and other efforts to limit instruction that digs deep into contested narratives and historical tensions.

Paul Ortiz works as a professor of history at the University of Florida. He hears students demanding that their families’ full histories be taught in school. Yet the state has a law in effect limiting certain discussions of race and gender in K-12 schools.

“The reality is I have many former students who are teachers in Florida who tell me we can’t say a word about Black history that’s really meaningful, beyond just kind of a glossy kind of thing,” Ortiz said.

Florida’s law in particular prohibits instruction that students must feel bad about something their ancestors did.

To that, Grossman said: “What you tell the students is you are not responsible for what your ancestors did. You are not responsible for what is going on now. You are responsible for what will happen tomorrow. And you have to learn history in order to be a responsible citizen who has an impact on what happens tomorrow.”

Why it matters to push for inclusive history courses

Some historians stressed that there’s also a safety imperative to ensure inclusive courses are taught.

Erika Lee, a professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota, said there is an almost complete lack of Asian American history in K-12 education and textbooks.

“Researchers have found that when Asian Americans were included in the textbooks, they were either primarily depicted as victims with little to no agency or as new immigrants who have made no contribution to the country,” Lee said. “The consequences of this invisibility, this erasure has laid the foundations for ignorance, for hate, and for violence.”

A growing number of states are now looking at requiring Asian American studies in K-12 schools, but there is a long road ahead to make such courses the norm nationwide.

Ensuring that students walk away with the ability to understand the past from the perspective of people who lived it and how human agency effects change, is a necessity not just for the sake of a good history class, Grossman said.

“You’re not going to heal any sickness you have, unless you understand its existence and its history. And that includes the disease of racism and power relations in the United States,” he said.

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