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How To Revive History by “Teaching the Conflicts”

Illustration by Amanda Duffy.
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Click here to read more from Slate’s History Week.

More than a decade ago, the first Bush administration asked historians to draft guidelines for what all schoolchildren should know about the American past. The resulting curriculum guide, however, drew fire from critics for being politically correct—paying more attention to slavery and McCarthyism than to battlefield triumphs or great inventors like Thomas Edison. The historians and their defenders replied that they weren’t trying to prescribe a fixed catalog of facts to teach but rather important themes in the American past and habits of mind necessary for thinking about history, and that it was necessary to teach the bad as well as the good.

The debate over how history should be taught—and what role if any it should play in instilling patriotism in children—has continued. Under the current Bush administration, Sen. Robert Byrd sponsored an initiative to fund collaborations between secondary schools and professional historians. Bush’s National Endowment for the Humanities’ new “We the People” program promotes history education that celebrates America’s past and its democratic system. To many historians’ surprise, the federal funding available for history has surged. But how it will be spent leads invariably into politics.

Slate’s editors thought that the political questions about the teaching of history deserved some informed debate. Most people can probably agree that history should neither be an uncritical celebration of bygone heroes nor a bill of indictment against dead white men; its purpose is neither to build self-esteem nor to indoctrinate. But the middle ground between these poles is a difficult one to map. Should history be used to promote patriotism and a regard for American democracy? If so, what’s wrong with its being used also to instill pride among blacks, women, or gays? How much should history education focus on heroes and how much on debunking myths? Does knowing history make us better citizens?

With these questions as merely a guide, we’ve asked Diane Ravitch, author of The Language Police, and Jon Wiener, professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and author most recently of Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower, to debate the issues.

Dear Diane,

Debates about how much American students know about their own history, and about how our citizens should be taught what they don’t know, are anything but abstract ones these days. Before we get down to the business of discussing those questions, let me set the current scene. President Bush campaigned in 2004 with the argument that we were fighting in Iraq for freedom and democracy, and that America was on a historic mission. Some opponents expressed skepticism about that, but the president’s re-election suggests that a majority of voters accept what historians might call this Wilsonian vision as a justification for war. They did this despite the fact that past wars often turned out differently from what presidents promised at the beginning, despite what we might call the lessons of history.

While “the lessons of history” provide no simple solutions to today’s problems and policy conflicts, an effective democracy requires some knowledge on the part of its citizens of the nation’s past. Of course, “the lessons of history” are often disputed—the causes of the Civil War, the legitimacy of dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what we learned from Vietnam. That is why the best approach in the classroom is, as educators say, to “teach the conflicts.” Teachers ought to say where they stand, and why. But they also have an obligation to be fair—to present the best arguments and evidence for the interpretations they disagree with. Then we should invite students to think for themselves.

“Teach the conflicts” was first proposed by Gerald Graff almost 20 years ago; his strategy applied to teaching not just history but all of the humanities. At a time when the humanities were engaged in a protracted battle between traditionalists and postmodernists, Graff offered a way out; he argued that honesty requires teaching about debates among schools of interpretation. Not surprisingly, some traditionalists objected, on the grounds that teaching the conflicts was a subversive way to advance the forces of relativism—and some postmodernists objected on the grounds that traditional approaches to “truth” had been rendered obsolete. Yet teaching the conflicts indisputably makes for great pedagogy because it calls on students to engage in critical thinking themselves.

The first thing that students need to learn about the history of the American ideals of democracy and freedom, in my view, is that democracy and freedom are not fixed, unchanging qualities given us by the founding fathers. The meanings of democracy and freedom have often been debated; our history is the history of those debates, of battles over the way freedom and democracy should be defined—and practiced. And of course some issues are no longer debated—whether slavery is good for Africans, whether women should vote. Still, the debates about those issues—the pro-slavery argument, the argument against women’s suffrage—remain a significant part of our past and ought to be part of the curriculum. (Also they can be fascinating: Should women be protected from the “filth” and “degradation” of election campaigns, as a California man argued in 1879?)

Over the past 25 years, “the new social history” has radically transformed our ideas about whose voices are part of the debate. Today, students study not only political leaders, military heroes, and captains of industry, but also working people, slaves, women, immigrants. Today, we know something about how freedom was defined by newly freed slaves in the years following the Civil War and how advocates of women’s suffrage challenged the notion that “all men are created equal.” Today, we teach that history is made not only by the powerful, but also by people who once were barely visible to historians—by slaves, by striking workers, by housewives.

The fruits of a comprehensive yet subtle focus on conflicting conceptions of freedom are nowhere clearer than in Eric Foner’s new textbook, Give Me Liberty. The book (which is based on his 1998 book, The Story of American Freedom) waspublished last summer and already has been assigned at more than 200 colleges and universities. Students should study three dimensions of freedom, Foner argues: the changing meanings of freedom; “the social conditions that make freedom possible”; and the limits of freedom in different periods, the forces that made it possible for some to enjoy freedom while others did not.

The point is not to avoid teaching about American ideals, as some critics of this approach might charge; the point is to make sure to teach about the gap between ideals and realities as well. The Declaration of Independence described liberty as an “inalienable” right, yet the founding fathers accepted the existence of slavery. The Spanish-American War was fought in the name of democracy and freedom, but it ended with a horrifying campaign of counterinsurgency against Filipinos and the establishment of American economic domination and a long-term military presence in both the Philippines and in Cuba. The debate in the 1890s between imperialist and anti-imperialist ideals, between Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” and Mark Twain’s withering contempt for the war camp, takes on a striking relevance today with the Iraq war: Did we fight to bring freedom to the people of the Philippines?

The goal of teaching history through debates is not a celebration of American virtue but a more complex appreciation of changes over time in the meanings of democracy and freedom. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and to working through some of the thorny specific issues teachers and textbook writers and standard-setters face.