Social Studies Opinion

What Did You Learn in History Class?

By Nancy Flanagan — August 06, 2018 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It was one of those ubiquitous memes--a Venn diagram with two circles completely separated. In one circle was this: People who think everything’s fine and this is all a big overreaction. In the other circle: People who paid attention in history class.

I wasn’t really thinking about the way history is taught when I posted it. I was mostly focused on the first circle, the one where the vocally apolitical among us, the people who are not immediately suffering or outraged, feel justified in ignoring the big, dangerous political storms over the horizon but approaching fast.

I was channeling George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

To my surprise, the (long, convoluted) conversation turned instead to a critique of the way we teach history and civics in American schools. Many of my friends are educators, and even those who aren’t had plenty to say--good and bad--about social studies instruction in public schools.

The comments ran the gamut from ‘History curriculum in the United States is heavily whitewashed’ to ‘I could write a book about what a disaster my public school education was--didn’t learn a thing.’

I agree with the first comment--our history textbooks are often shamefully bland or misleading or flat-out wrong. And teachers can compound the problem by injecting their own biases, or trying to smooth over the rough and painful edges of reality with happy talk about cherry trees and the noble and perfect leaders in our past.

It’s worth noting, however, that there are K-12 teachers who begin their courses by pointing out that a textbook is merely one version of history--and the truth will never lie in the pages of a book written not to offend. There are social studies instructors who believe their job is to get students to ‘think like a historian,’ a building block for responsive citizenship. There are history teachers who expose students to the controversies that have made this nation what it is--both better and worse.

It’s the people who issue blanket condemnation of public schools and blame teachers for the lack of civic engagement that drive me nuts. Criticizing public schools is cheap and easy.

Unlike the ever-present adulation of STEM programs (and the job prospects they supposedly produce) you probably haven’t heard much lately about the importance teaching democratic citizenship or civic engagement in our schools. Once cornerstone values of public education--remember the Melting Pot?---we tend to see public education as job training or credentialing today, rather than the place where opportunity is born, and children of all economic backgrounds and ethnicities rub shoulders.

Teachers today are fearful of deviating from the textbook and state standards and opening discussions in secondary classrooms around bits of information (say, for example, the U.S. turning away ships full of Jewish refugees during WW II) that might portray America as less than enlightened. It takes courage and skillful teaching to examine our national flaws--although other countries do it, in their formal state curricula.

Even though the Michigan Merit Curriculum currently directs teachers to teach topics like genocide and mass exterminations, there are forces at work as I write, determined to whitewash my own state’s social studies standards. And what’s happening to the concept of a vigorous free press is terrifying.

My own K-12 formal education was in a school system that didn’t even have a high school until 1962. My HS did not have much of a reputation for scholarship. It was on the blue-collar side of town and hadn’t any benefactors or wealthy and vocal parent groups running the show.

I got a fine education there, with teachers who encouraged us to be critical thinkers and good writers and achievers. Only about 10% of my graduating class went off to four-year colleges, but we were prepared. I certainly learned, in my Civics and History and Government classes, to ascertain just what is happening in my country right now--to understand it and to label it.

And yet, I agree with this statement from one of my commenters: ‘Our public schools shouldn’t leave gaps to fill, or worse, lay a base of knowledge that supports white supremacy. Our children of color have been and are still being failed at a tragic level. Especially when it comes to teaching history that denies their truth.’

Becoming genuinely educated is a personal responsibility, one that never ends. But we can’t blame children for not rising above mediocre--or worse, deceptive--instruction. That’s what we need to pay attention to, right now.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.