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  • You Want History?

       September 06, 2011

    I was reading this article about the new Texas history curriculum and it made me think of the bigger overall question of what should we teach about American history? It seems like there's a big debate over whether American history is the story of American exceptionalism or the story of American imperialism. That's all well and good, but I don't think grade school and high school history should be about teaching kids what to think, it should be about teaching them how to think and getting them interested to learn more on their own.

    The other thing people miss out on when they compile a list of things kids aren't taught is that the school year is awfully short for 300 years of American history. I feel like kids learn a shallow version of history that doesn't have the carrots that would tempt them to dig deeper into the subject. I remember my sister talking about an awesome class at the University of Wisconsin called "Representative Americans" that really stuck with her. The basic premise of the class was to look periods of American history through individuals. When I looked up information on the class today, I found out that it's what inspired Stephen Ambrose to become an historian. That's the kind of history and reaction I think kids should have.

    History is awesome when it's not used as political propaganda. I mean, it's got everything: passion, adventure, war, inspiring struggles and devastating tragedies. It's the ultimate reality show. And even better than that, it's not simply "this is what happened and here's how you should feel about it". It's "here's what happened, what do you think of that?"

    So anyone, let me get off my high horse and actually answer my own question. I'd spend a lot of time on the Constitutional Convention, using a book like The Genius of the People as a guide. I'd teach about westward expansion using stories like those in Blood And Thunder. I devote time to slavery with a book like Lest We Forget. I don't have a go to Civil War book, but obviously that'd be a part of it. We'd have a unit on immigration and industrialization, with the immigration section tailored to the community (i.e. in Wisconsin we'd probably learn more about Polish, German and Scandinavian immigrants than the Irish). Finally, we'd study WWII with a great book like Ambrose's D-Day, which isn't really just about military history, it's really about how the history of America prepared her to win WWII.

    I'd actually stop at WWII. I'm not sure you can teach kids history more recent than 50-years old. It's too soon to not be politicized. Maybe rather than having a formal book-centric section, we'd explore more recent history through the eyes of parents and volunteers. That'd be fun, right?

    I don't think it's particularly important for kids to know the names of certain famous people or the dates of certain famous events. It's memorizing stuff like that that makes history boring. But maybe that's the whole point of the ideologues, make it boring so that kids never question your version of it.

    Posted by kris at September 6, 2011 07:45 PM

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    #  September 8th, 2011 12:11 AM      james
    Isn't all history politically influenced? There are 2 sides to every story. And the victors write the history books.

    Take someone like Ward Churchill. He was run out of town because of his 9/11 essay. But the guy's main scholarship is focused on the Native American view of US expansion. And it's not a crazy viewpoint, it's just another perspective.

    Schools teach kids how to memorize, not how to think. That's what needs to change - we need our high schools to be more like our greatest universities, encouraging students to think, and to act, with no consequences for a "bad" or "wrong" thought.
    #  September 8th, 2011 7:12 AM      kris
    Right, there are MORE than 2 sides to every story, which is again what makes history so interesting and what makes it so great for kids to study. I mean, you can't really have an opinion about math, but you can learn to reason and think in a whole different way via history.

    I chose a book like Blood & Thunder as an example precisely because it does present history from a number of different viewpoints (and even viewpoints within viewpoints!).




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