William Bennett’s recent online piece in the National Review has me feeling just a little defensive. There is nothing really new in the article. Bennett begins with the standard observation about the state of history education:
This year’s National Assessment of Education Progress (our “Nation’s Report Card”) revealed that over 50-percent of our nation’s high-school students — our population reaching voting age — are functionally illiterate in their knowledge of U.S. History. Tragically, students do not begin their education careers in ignorance: if you track education progress in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades with the Nation’s Report Card, you will see students know more in the 4th grade, less in the 8th grade, and are failing by the time they are high-school seniors. Relative to what they should know at their grade level, the longer they live and grow up in America, the less they know about it. How did this happen? Why is knowledge of and about the greatest political story ever told so dim?
There is no serious attempt to examine the long-term trends in education or whether high school students are any more or less "functionally illiterate" than they were 50 or 100 years ago. No surprise as that is not Bennett’s intended target. Rather Bennett mourns the apparent displacement or loss of a heroic story of American history that at one time reigned supreme in textbooks and in the minds of students across the country. According to Bennett, we are in need of a heroic vision of our nation’s past to combat a palpable national feeling of self-doubt owing to the war in Iraq and distrust of public officials. On this view, the teaching of history is therapeutic and offers Americans a clear vision of their mission:
If we rededicate ourselves to studying our history and our people rightly, if we take the time to look at the entirety of our firmament, we will see what our Founders saw we could be, what foreigners who came here saw all along, and what we ourselves can — even today — see once again: that we have something precious here. That something is called America, where young men and women sign up to protect her each and every day in the uniform of our armed services. And it is worth the time of every young man and every young woman in our nation’s classrooms to study why.
First, I do agree that the study of history can lead to the type of national outlook that Bennett desires. Passionate teachers do indeed have the potential to stir students into action or to cause them to broaden their perspectives in various ways. My problem with Bennett’s charge is not in terms of what can result from the study of history, but in reference to my responsibilities as a history teacher. In short, I do not believe that it is my job to teach heroes. Or to put it another way, I do not present historic individuals as heroes or villains. History teachers need to provide students with the tools to make those decisions themselves. I want my students to engage in critical thinking that goes beyond the overly simplistic categories of heroes and villains; they need to be able to sift through contradictory evidence and learn to draw conclusions based on that evidence. Let me give two examples that may help elucidate my point.
First, students in my survey course in American history just completed essays that examine Thomas Jefferson’s views on freedom and slavery. Students have read through the Declaration of Independence and other public documents in which Jefferson spoke out against slavery as well as accounts from Notes on the State of Virginia and other correspondence regarding his slaves and race. I am not asking them to take a stand for or against Jefferson or to decide between the extremes of condemnation and acceptance. What I want them to do is to make as much sense of Jefferson’s views of freedom and slavery as possible. My students tend to struggle through this exercise because they are naturally drawn to one side or the other. What would be the point of such an exercise if I started this lesson by introducing Jefferson or any of the Founders as heroes? Students come to the full range of conclusions by the end, but they must be able to support their conclusions through interpretation and not in spite of it. Most of them end up with a fairly sophisticated view of Jefferson that steers clear of the extremes on both sides. Some of them even get to a point where they can acknowledge the need for additional time in order to arrive at a more sophisticated conclusion.
In my course on Lincoln and the Civil War students have read a great deal about his views on slavery and attitudes regarding race and equality. The Lincoln that I introduce to my students is not Lerone Bennett’s or Thomas DiLorenzo’s "tyrant" or Carl Sandburg’s "great emancipator". Again, my students must understand the evolution of Lincoln’s views along with his various roles as lawyer, politician, and president. Lincoln clearly evolved in certain respects and this adds another dimension to his character; the extent of that evolution can be debated endlessly. Right now we are examining Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass with a particular focus on the latter’s influence. At no time do I use terms such as hero and villain in discussing Lincoln. Our goal is to better understand Lincoln and not to praise or demonize. What would be the point since you don’t even need a history class in order to accomplish such a goal.
If we take on the complete study of our country again — the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly — we will realize that for every anti-hero that we can be criticized for, there are hundreds of heroes; for every dark moment, there are thousands of rays of light to be seen through the passing clouds.
Bennett may be correct on this point, but it is not my job to steer them in any one direction. My students are intelligent enough to arrive at their own conclusions.