How Do You Teach the Warts of American History?

 

trailoftears-432x330The United States has its fair share of skeletons in the closet. Racist, imperialist, sexist skeletons. While conservatives may be annoyed at how much liberals like to harp on (and occasionally exaggerate) those particular stories, they are still historical facts — and conservatives aren’t scared of facts.

Here’s my question: what is the right way to teach the “unsavory” parts of American history? There has to be a way to avoid the two extremes of stupidity: on one hand, the “God’s Chosen Nation” model, in which George Washington is practically canonized and no one who carries the stars and stripes can ever do wrong. And, on the other hand, the cesspool of self-loathing that liberals seem to prefer, in which we belabor every injustice ever perpetrated in this country and George Washington gets less coverage than Squanto.

How do you teach the whole picture and help students be proud of our country without closing their eyes to our warts?

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  1. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Try to be objective.  For instance, the left, when reporting on the Indian wars, conveniently ignores the fact that the Indians would attack settlements and massacre the settlers.  This was a normal part of Indian culture, but not something the settlers were willing to put up with. 

    Point out that Plenty Coup, chief of the Crow made a point not to attack Americans (they warred with other Indian tribes, however, they weren’t pacifists!), and the Crow kept their land.

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  2. user_959530 Member
    user_959530
    @

    The conceit on the right is to convert patriotism into perfection and hagiography.  The mistake on the left is to bemoan our inability to perfect ourselves.  Both force you to downplay, or even omit, past events.  

    The answer to your question is to talk about all of what happened, whether it be inspiring, embarrassing, reprehensible, world-changing, mundane, idiosyncratic.  Don’t omit facts to serve your contemporary political purposes.  Present the wide variety of views among historians about the events of the past.  Provide students with a bibliography on each topic so they can read more and learn more about past events if they choose to do so.  Above all, don’t hide things from students of history, because if they are serious, they’ll discover the dishonesty of a one-sided approach, and will no longer trust or respect you as a teacher.

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  3. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Fantastic question, Lady Randolph.   Thank you for posing this.

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  4. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    And there’s always the old “times were different” angle. I know a lot of people dismiss this position as being an excuse, and obviously it can be taken too far. But humans are what they are, and even the brightest and most revolutionary people have blinders that their culture and their upbringing put in place.

    The fact that we can now look back and recognize our past mistakes is an argument in favor of our goodness, not against it.

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  5. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    I like Bucky’s approach and would add a couple more pieces.  The first, and most important, is that students need to be given some grounding and context so historical events are not just seen as unconnected happenings.  It is important that they understand the unique principals of the American founding.   As Frederick Douglass said, the principals embedded in the Declaration made everything else possible, no matter the shortcomings in actual practice at any time.

    The second is factual differentiation.  To take the example from the image above, The Trail of Tears is a very different story from what happened with, for example, the Commanche.  The Trail tribes had adopted the ways of the white settlers and then were betrayed and evicted (David Crockett was the only Congressman with the tribes in or next to his District to vote against the eviction), while the Commanche were a nomadic, barbaric, raiding tribe in the middle of the US which refused to give up their ways.

    Third, for more advanced students do role playing with only the facts available to people at the time and be forced to make decisions.  The ending of the war with Japan is a good teaching tool.

    • #5
  6. Lady Randolph Inactive
    Lady Randolph
    @LadyRandolph

    Bucky Boz:
    Provide students with a bibliography on each topic so they can read more and learn more about past events if they choose to do so.

    I like that. Providing students with the materials to draw their own conclusions, especially primary sources, makes history real: not just something a teacher talked about, but something they discovered for themselves.

    If they can read what Thomas Jefferson actually wrote, and not just what some “expert” says about him, that is going to give them a much more realistic understanding of the past.

    One of my favorite professors at Hillsdale, Dr Stewart, chucked the “required” textbook and gave us instead a huge binder full of primary sources. It was fantastic.

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  7. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Of course that still leaves us with the problem of how to undo the damage done by our institutions of higher learning.  A study a few years ago of students at Ivy League colleges found they knew less about US History as seniors than they did as entering freshmen!

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.:

    And there’s always the old “times were different” angle. I know a lot of people dismiss this position as being an excuse, and obviously it can be taken too far. But humans are what they are, and even the brightest and most revolutionary people have blinders that their culture and their upbringing put in place.

    The fact that we can now look back and recognize our past mistakes is an argument in favor of our goodness, not against it.

    But what are our blinders today?

    • #8
  9. user_1016012 Inactive
    user_1016012
    @Clay

    Arahant:

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.:

    And there’s always the old “times were different” angle. I know a lot of people dismiss this position as being an excuse, and obviously it can be taken too far. But humans are what they are, and even the brightest and most revolutionary people have blinders that their culture and their upbringing put in place.

    The fact that we can now look back and recognize our past mistakes is an argument in favor of our goodness, not against it.

    But what are our blinders today?

     I suspect you’ll have to wait to find out….

    • #9
  10. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Along with “all of the above,” teach world history.  That is, teach it in context.  Our dark spots look very dark when compared to what should have been.  Our bright spots look very bright indeed in the dark saga of human history.  Both matter.

    • #10
  11. Betty Inactive
    Betty
    @BettyW

    Teach history in a class called The Human Condition; reveal all the recorded horrible things humans have done to each other, and in what time periods.   USA wouldn’t looks so bad then. Also, include the current slavery, etc. going on.  Then teach the good, and how some of the bad was changed.

    • #11
  12. user_989419 Inactive
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    As long as you avoid the warts-only approach, you’ll be doing a great service.

    “Children, we’re beginning our section on Christianity.  Today we’ll be covering the Salem Witch Trials, and tomorrow we’ll cover the Inquisition.  Test on Wednesday.”

    • #12
  13. user_142044 Thatcher
    user_142044
    @AmericanAbroad

    Agreed with much of what was said so far, especially about context and objectivity.  Quick example:  many students learn slavery exclusively through a study of the American South.  Thus, they emerge from the unit thinking that the US is a uniquely monstrous force in history.  This is ahistorical and misleading.  It is indoctrination, not education.  A proper unit on trans-Atlantic slavery would look at the whole picture,  It would look at how slavery was practiced in Africa, Brazil, and American South in the same time period.  This allows students to develop their own critical thinking abilities to compare and contrast and make judgements of their own.  We have to be truthful, but we also need broad context.

    • #13
  14. Knotwise the Poet Member
    Knotwise the Poet
    @KnotwisethePoet

    I teach history in high school, so this question definitely hits home for me.  I think I agree most with those who say context is needed.   The U.S. has committed many sins, but when you look at the whole of human history, or record is still pretty remarkable.  That stated, a big challenge I have is simply time constraints.  It’s hard to help students develop truly nuanced views of a subject when you’ve got a ton of history to cram into your year.

    • #14
  15. Knotwise the Poet Member
    Knotwise the Poet
    @KnotwisethePoet

    I teach history in high school, so this question definitely hits home for me.  I think I agree most with those who say context is needed.   The U.S. has committed many sins, but when you look at the whole of human history, our record is still pretty remarkable.  That stated, a big challenge I have is simply time constraints.  It’s hard to help students develop truly nuanced views of a particular event or issue when you’ve got a ton of history to cram into your year.

    • #15
  16. user_959530 Member
    user_959530
    @

    Lady Randolph: One of my favorite professors at Hillsdale, Dr Stewart, chucked the “required” textbook and gave us instead a huge binder full of primary sources. It was fantastic.

     I had professors at UGA who took a very similar approach – loads of primary sources with a few secondary sources for context.  My class on Medieval Monasticism was the best.  The tutorial on 20th Century Middle East history I took for two months in Oxford through the study abroad program is what gave me the idea for the bibliography.  Reynolds’ pocket guide to writing history is also a wonderful resource for any history student.

    • #16
  17. user_959530 Member
    user_959530
    @

    Rampolla* not Reynolds

    • #17
  18. user_959530 Member
    user_959530
    @

    Knotwise the Poet: It’s hard to help students develop truly nuanced views of a particular event or issue when you’ve got a ton of history to cram into your year.

     Looking back on K-12, I think the best thing that can be done is to focus the assignments on the proper method of writing history papers.  Forcing students to go through multiple drafts of the same research paper is probably the best tool to accomplish this.  The problem, at least with the A.P. curriculum, is that it’s too focused on the textbook and on the test.  You don’t learn how to research, how to “mine the footnotes,” and how to engage with other historians.  A research paper is probably the only way to provide that kind of instruction in a high school setting where there’s a lot of material to cover in a survey course.

    • #18
  19. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Use lots of primary sources for one. Samson Occam’s sermons, slave narratives (Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, et alia), first-hand accounts of the Revolutionary  and Civil Wars,  first hand accounts from the Trail of Tears and from the Indian Wars. I found this immensely helpful to counter the PC-narrative in college.

    • #19
  20. user_648492 Coolidge
    user_648492
    @MichaelBrehm

    In my Freshman American History class in college, My professor had an exercise where we read the textbook accounts, primary sources and lectures on a given event. Afterwards he had us write two short essays about the subject, one pro and the other contra based on those same  resources. This professor was an outspoken conservative and I think this was his means to  inoculate his students against indoctrination attempts they may face later in their educations.

    • #20
  21. user_105642 Member
    user_105642
    @DavidFoster

    Much to be said for primary sources.  Re the history of slavery, which of course was by no means an American-only phenomenon, the French writer and pilot Antoine de St-Exupery wrote about slavery that he personally viewed in Arab countries in the 1930s.  I excerpted his comments here:  The French Aviators and the Slave.

    • #21
  22. user_105642 Member
    user_105642
    @DavidFoster

    Re the comments by Leigh and Betty—I think most Americans, especially most young Americans, have much feel for just how common horrible things have been throughout history.  They are told about specific nightmarish episodes, but not given much background to see them against…for example, the Third Reich, but nothing about the depredations of Imperial Japan; American slavery, but nothing about Arab slavery; European violence against Indians, but nothing about Indian warfare against other tribes.

    A blogger commented about her initial reactions after 9/11: “I guess I thought they were all gone, those types of monsters, stranded on reels of black and white film.”  The monsters are still there, though, have always been there, and probably *will* always be there.

    • #22
  23. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    You have a limited amount of time (and attention space) to teach the basic history that every citizen needs to understand how the nation works.

    As such, you start with the principles. How the nation was founded, then the constitution, and how it was negotiated, and what it means.

    Then, you can move on to how powerful men over the years violated those principles.

    But always, bring it back to the principles, and illustrate how the “warts” were violations of those principles.

    The left teaches the warts first as “proof” that the principles themselves were always a lie, if they ever teach the principles at all.

    That’s what you are fighting.

    • #23
  24. Nick Stuart Inactive
    Nick Stuart
    @NickStuart

    One of the benefits of being a Calvinist (I knew there had to be some) is a firm belief that humankind is Totally depraved. 

    We all sin. Even George Washington. Even your Jr. Hi. youth minister who got herself in a family way somewhere between the abstinence lecture and the altar.

    • #24
  25. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    Find someone to blame the bad stuff on. I mean, come on, that’s what the consultants would tell you.

    But if you want to approach it seriously, I’d say that before you stand before students, remember that the reason we study history is so we can learn from it.

    Learn from the good, learn from the bad.

    • #25
  26. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Bucky Boz:

    The answer to your question is to talk about all of what happened, whether it be inspiring, embarrassing, reprehensible, world-changing, mundane, idiosyncratic. Don’t omit facts to serve your contemporary political purposes.  

    And then let your students make up their own minds.  They’ll get it wrong (probably) at first, but that’s okay.  Opinions mature.

    • #26
  27. billy Inactive
    billy
    @billy

    Glenn Beck wrote an American history that attempts to fill the role you are looking for Lady Randolph. I haven’t read it but I’ve heard him interviewed about it.By his description, it is meant as a celebration of the ideals of America while detailing her most notable failures.
    He wrote it as an inoculation for college-bound kids against the anti-patriotism of their future leftie profs.
    Sounds like what you’re looking for, but again, I haven’t read it, so I can’t really vouch for it.
    Miracles and Massacres: True and Untold Stories of the Making of America

    • #27
  28. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    I would put it to a kid this way, starting out: You can accept all of it or none of it. If you take pride in your ancestors’ good actions, you must also take shame in their misdeeds to be honest. From there, you can emphasize justice or mercy, but extend to other peoples the same measure for their own inheritances.

    • #28
  29. user_48342 Member
    user_48342
    @JosephEagar

    I was raised in a very patriotic Mormon family.  We learned that God has a place for America in the same classes where we learned that Mormons had to flee the U.S. because of religious persecution, only to be gobbled up by an imperialist federal government anyway.

    The two ideas don’t conflict as much as you would think.  Just because God has a special place for America doesn’t mean America is perfect.  Rather, it means that to fulfill its greatness, America must constantly work to correct its flaws, in a process that involves both victims and perpetrators.  The expulsion of sin then becomes an opportunity for celebration (perhaps excessively so), not for shame.

    • #29
  30. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    The way to neutralize the Left’s sweeping stereotypes and slanders is by drilling down to actual events in detailed narrative rather than making sweeping generalizatons anchored to few or no facts. Jamestown is a great place to start. The Governor and the community in general sought good relations with the local natives. In exchange for favors the settlers would build European-style houses for chiefs, for example. It was the governor’s black sheep nephew, arrived from the mother country in bad odor, who put together some ruffians and sabotaged relations with the idea of getting a better price on farmland after scaring away (or worse) the local tribes.

    The natives were sweethearts in their own right. Settler families would often open their doors to traveling natives around Jamestown, and some holidays were organized to include settlers hosting natives in their homes to share in feasts. So naturally the first major native offensive began on such a holiday, with natives murdering or trying to murder their hosts.

    We should teach Jamestown and the Massachusetts Colony and the Trail of Tears and all the rest honestly and from both sides. The truth is almost always a surprise and more human.

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