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A historian's thoughts on teaching history
But first, a disclaimer ...
First, a disclaimer!
I rarely offer my personal opinion on current affairs, especially in politics. For one thing, it goes against the grain of my journalistic beginnings to take sides. Early on, I was taught to be objective first, and present a variety of perspectives—all the facts, without preference. When I later became a teacher, then a biographer and historian, my training stuck with me. If you believe, as I do, that a balanced view of history is crucial to being a thoughtful citizen on any walk of modern life, you understand that a teacher begins to lose credibility incrementally, the moment he or she professes a preference for one historical actor over another.
Most of my fellow historian doubtless think I am hopelessly old-fashioned—set out your agenda early and often, they argue. Choose your side. Grab your audience, build an argument. Be sensational, even notorious, even if you have to stretch the facts a little bit—emphasize what is timely and relevant, ignore the inconvenient pesky facts. If you don’t, no one will listen to you. Those talking heads on TV do it with such ease. Like the examples of journalists and politicians before them, they are more concerned with ratings than accuracy, with generalizing than being carefully specific.
Until now, I have resisted that temptation. But the recent hubbub over Florida’s revisions to standards for teaching of African American history has left me puzzled and more than a little discouraged. I am a former high school teacher and college instructor in world history, and more recently, a researcher and biographer of African American political figures from the late 19th century. My research has often sent me sifting through years and decades of misinformation imposed by those who started out with a specific mindset—in the popular jargon, an ideological agenda—and gradually “revised” the past to fit their desires and expectations, cannily cherry-picking facts that suit their agendas and often ignoring any puzzle piece that does not seem to fit.
And I see, with increasing anguish, that those days are still not behind us. Now Florida’s teachers are being asked by leaders with few scruples, apparently, to teach with both their hands and tongues virtually tied, in the name of—what?—preventing indoctrination? How is this anything more than political correctness gone completely mad?
When I was growing up, I was a better than average student, I think. I listened to my teachers, thought about the subject matter, and then read a lot on my own. I trusted them to give me the basics and let me continue after I left their classrooms. They helped build a foundation but did not finish the job. For it is a lifetime process. If neither my textbooks nor my teachers were infallible. I never expected them to be. If not all of my teachers were great, some were; most of them tried very hard, and I appreciated their efforts. They simply motivated me to keep learning. After college, I taught in graduate school for a while, and tried to pass along the same gift. I don’t know if I succeeded. But I hope so.
Years later, I was briefly involved in public secondary education for a semester, when the buzzword in Virginia was “standards of learning”—the dreaded SOLS—and the state’s exams to determine just how well its public schoolteachers had imparted the kinds of “facts” the state board had determined should best be spoon-fed to its students—and regurgitated on SOL exams. It was annoying, and a bit disheartening—requiring teachers to devote much valuable classroom time “teaching to” the standards, rather than allowing students to talk about what they might be learning, and how they interpreted it, and challenging them to expand their limited knowledge.
But rather than rely on teachers to follow the textbooks the state had already approved, the state now decided to cherry-pick facts and trends not always so obvious in the textbooks. Make sure they learn this—and, sotto voce—don’t bother worrying about the rest.
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Don’t get me wrong: the state does have, and should have, a vested interest in what kind of public education a student receives. I just wish it would show a little more enlightenment and less fireworks along the way. My quarrel back then, and now, was rather with the role being assigned, increasingly, to teachers—as well-programmed robots who can’t be trusted well enough to let them do their real job: guiding the students by using a wide variety of materials and with luck, a little common sense. Far better just to tie the teacher’s hands …
Today, the process is becoming even more specific—not just what textbooks should be used as broad guides, or what non-textbook facts should also be emphasized, but what accompanying worldview those facts should be couched in. Trying to tie the teachers’ tongues, too. In Florida’s case, the current controversy has emerged from an earlier obsession with stamping out any possible reference to “critical race theory,” whatever that is.
The problem with all of this, I find, is that most public schoolteachers are inherently generalists—they are charged with helping students build a basic foundation, on which the students can gradually begin to construct the walls and upper floors of their educational “house” and finish it in college, with the help of research driven specialists. And when schoolteachers are unable to use certain tools—or told which tools they may not use—the foundation is almost certainly going to lack a few bricks.
That is my theory, anyway. It is beset by other troubling trends—especially if agenda-driven courses are taught at too early an age, when most students aren’t really ready to deal with the fine print and the footnotes, because they still haven’t yet mastered the broad outline. In my experience, admittedly dated, very few high school students—even at the upper levels—were actually equipped to do much college-level work. Having now learned that tens of thousands of Florida high-school students are clamoring to get into Advanced Placement courses in specialized areas—the latest, AP Psychology, has apparently become so popular that many secondary psychology teachers are at risk of being laid off because of repercussions from the “other” culture war topic (discussion of gender identity)—I am mystified. The folks who push AP Psychology insist that the “AP” designation will have to be withdrawn if Florida tampers with such topics in the existing course—and demand for a generic, vanilla-flavor psychology course is apparently low indeed, so the courses are likely to be dropped.
I did not have the benefit of AP courses in my small rural high school. To get any credit, I had to pass an AP exam, with success based on my performance in my general coursework. [I still got almost a semester’s advance credit…] Taking an AP Psychology exam would have been laughable, in my case, with no psychology course available.
But that is a horse of a different color, as my schoolteacher grandmothers and great-aunt would probably say. And besides, that horse is out of the barn …
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This latest new push revolves around how slavery writ large should be viewed retrospectively in teaching elements of African American history: specifically, how any skills acquired by enslaved persons during their enslavement should be interpreted.
As benevolent side effects of their regrettable involuntary confinement, thereby justifying their enslavement as a way of “teaching them to become productive citizens”? Or as one more proof positive of racist intent and nefarious motives from the first moment black people became slaves? God forbid the whole truth might lie somewhere in between, where it lies mostly, I think … an essentially bad system we are well shed of, with a few positive elements thrown in.
From a public relations standpoint, Florida, for better or for worse, has now thrown its educational lot into what I see as a foolish no-win battle over a culture-war “trophy." Of course, Florida is not alone, only a lot noisier about it. I am still not convinced that Florida set out to defend slavery, per se—but by seemingly attempting to rationalize (if not legitimize) slavery, even in one line of a much longer curriculum, it misses the greater point. Slavery itself was always an unfair system imposed by one economic and political class on a captive audience, who were forced to work in exchange for food and housing, deprived of freedom and almost never properly prepared for any other kind of independent life.
Whatever “benefits” most slaves might have received in exchange for their forced service were very rarely worth the psychological and physical trauma of their enslavement: abuse, exploitation, separation from their families, lack of hope for any better life. At least an incarcerated prisoner could dream of being let out of jail. Most slaves had no realistic hope of being discharged, no matter how much they might fantasize. Benevolence was rarely a factor in the equation. If some slaves had it better than most, they were still treated as property, not as human beings. Racism aside, the system was unfair, inhuman, and regrettable.
I know, this sounds suspiciously like critical race theory … but bear with me. Opponents of this single point—slave skills as a benefit—are now having a field day, if you will pardon the pun, with what they trumpet as the thin substance of the whole new curriculum. Imagine telling students such patently fabricated nonsense! “All lies,” bellows the loudest but least articulate of them—a lawyer who should know better but, sadly for all of us, chooses her words with reckless abandon. In love with overheated speechwriters, she seems to know alarmingly little about history itself, if an awful lot more about confrontational politics and naked ambition.
For despite her strung-out rhetoric, there is some lingering truth in the historical argument she rejects outright—proof too small to be used as much of a debating point, perhaps, yet still worth reflecting on. Across the South, most slaves were indeed used as field hands or as unskilled manual laborers, with a smaller group serving as household servants: neither much of a resume after emancipation. Such “skills” would only help them continue then in a new kind of voluntary servitude—doing the same jobs they had always done, often for the same people, with minimal pay but now not even the pretense of benefits, no safety net.
But hold on a minute. Some slaves—a small fraction, admittedly—entered freedom with more useful tools, and parlayed them into productive lives. In North Carolina, for instance, some of the more successful slaves—those with more prudent masters—were regularly allowed training in very useful life skills: masonry, carpentry, crafting furniture, land management, blacksmithing, even apprentice training as jewelers and watch repairmen. More than a few of them were privately educated, at least in basic reading and mathematics—despite strict laws against educating slaves—and given charge of responsible tasks by their masters, sometimes also their fathers.
Some of the most entrepreneurial of these slaves were even allowed to practice these skills in the public marketplace before emancipation, “leased out,” as it were, and splitting their earnings with their owners, often using their savings to purchase their own freedom and over time, the freedom of family members. It was a risk some owners were willing to take, despite prevailing laws and overwhelming public disapproval.
This kind of data is inherently problematic, of course, and critics who are consumed with blaming all the evils of modern society on slavery would rather not deal with it—or worse, even acknowledge it. Admittedly, this kind of proof is visible almost exclusively to researchers who carefully examine census records, memoirs, and other post-emancipation records, and “drill down”—not the preferred choice of a simplistic demagogue on either end of the spectrum.
In teasing out and constructing biographies of Reconstruction-era legislators, ministers, journalists, and politically influential African Americans in the 1870s and later, I have done a lot of such research, watching how a number of successful freedmen turned skills they had involuntarily acquired during enslavement into a measure of prosperity after emancipation. Maybe they were actually the “talented tenth,” as W. E. B. Du Bois suggested—many of them favored “outside children” of their owners—and would have succeeded anywhere, anyway. I wonder.
Granted, I would never be so foolish as to imply that it ever made slavery worthwhile for them—a shallow, indefensible value judgment—but I do suggest that like imprisonment, enslavement could sometimes point motivated people toward more productive lives afterward. There were no job training programs waiting for freed slaves. As prisoners discharged from jails would demonstrate, what freedmen made of themselves after slavery—how productive they were as newly free citizens—was often the best measure of how much they had learned while enduring pain and deprivation.
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You can probably tell by now that I have very little patience with today’s politicians of any ilk—self-important people who could not make an honest living anywhere else, especially not as teachers, but are still convinced they have the God-given right to tell everyone else how to live their lives because they have the power to do so,
There are lessons aplenty here for everyone, whichever side of the political spectrum you might gravitate toward—and regardless of how you feel that American history should itself be “taught.” I myself lean toward a neutral, balanced presentation of facts—presenting all sides of an issue, as fully as possible, without hot-button words, while trying very hard not to advance my own viewpoint. I favor allowing the students to feel qualified to make a dispassionate, reasonable judgment about what they choose to believe, after they have been taught as much of the basics as they can absorb. Whether the subject be slavery—as it so often is this year—or the Constitution, or the Supreme Court, or past military wars, or voting rights, or abortion, or U.S. treatment of Native Americans, or Chinese immigrants, or any other sensitive issue.
Yes, I know that puts me in the distinct minority. So it may be a good thing I no longer teach. The essential truth is that education is an infinitely complicated process—and no matter how fair or balanced a dedicated teacher tries to be, on any subject, not all sides of an issue can get equal treatment or satisfy those who are already wearing blinders.
There isn’t enough time in the day. Just getting and holding the students’ attention is difficult enough. And even if there were enough time, all it takes is one angry parent who feels that his child’s class discussions are slanted either way to get a teacher in hot water—reprimanded, perhaps punished, or even dismissed—for stepping outside the guidelines. Providing appropriate added context—food for thought, most often through class discussions after brief introductory lectures—is not an acceptable excuse for “wrong-speak.”
Now I suspect many of our would-be leaders who mandate or create overly-specific teaching standards—without having ever tried to teach to them, or even comprehend them—are not really interested in education at all. To them, it is just another tool for getting votes—and getting even with opponents. They are basically bent on superimposing rigid, narrow viewpoints on the textbooks and reading materials the average schoolteacher might be assigned to use, and in effect, daring the schoolteacher to improvise, even a little. Their political campaigns are carefully designed to thwart the obviously insidious desires of all those radical leftist schoolteachers out to hijack the minds of students, without benefit of ever sitting down and listening to those teachers first. They are more intent on simply preaching to the choir—to the voter base of whichever politician mandated the standards. The context can just be damned … too many words …
And what of their much-maligned opponents? Those who so loudly oppose these new teaching standards and specific curriculums, for whatever reason? They are often far less interested in what the students might actually hope to learn than in demonstrating how strident they can be in competing for kidnapping the minds of their parents on the way to the ballot box. I shudder to think of how little they actually know of the history they claim to embody and represent as they preach to their own choir.
You could hold a gun to their heads and they could not come up with even a basic reasoned, persuasive argument, only with parroted polemics. Much like their adversaries, they too wear braces on their brains, in that wonderful quotation from Around the World with Auntie Mame.
Too often, teachers are trapped in the uninformed crossfire between both kinds of politicians and the less thoughtful parents and voters they seek to lure into their particular webs. But the real victims in all of this? The students—who can so easily detect and reject phoniness and “noise” in the substance of what they are being taught, and tune it out—and go away even less convinced of the worth of continuing their true education. In most cases, they simply revert to living out what they hear at home, or read on the Internet, not pausing to build on substantive knowledge and using it to change the world around them.
The facts of the past cannot be changed, no matter how hard we try. Only the future can still be shaped. But without truly understanding the complexity of the past, no one can hope to make that leap. Yet it is still possible to misrepresent facts in the past for political ends, in easily digested sound-bites on TV or tweets on social media. Sadly, this does no one any good—not the student, nor the parent, nor the voter, nor the teacher, nor even the cunning politician who plagues us all. For it is simply mandating education devoid of any real content—full of bluster, not understanding—and pretending the job is done.
I keep hoping that we will come to our senses as a society and remove education from the political arena. That the sensible voters will tell our demagogues “enough,” and turn them out. That is unlikely, of course. So I despair when I see education regularly treated as a political football by both sides—cheapened, debased, perverted. I think, therefore, that I am happy to be out of the classroom … however much I may miss it.
All that productive time now wasted, with nothing to show for it but even emptier minds ahead … and too many more politicians in the making.
Next time: Sifting through the past for nuggets of truth—and a completed puzzle