Whose Heroes?: A Response To William J. Bennett

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.

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13 thoughts on “Whose Heroes?: A Response To William J. Bennett

  1. Rebecca

    I’m just finishing up a series of lectures on the Jacksonian Era, and I hope that my own ambivalence about Jackson and his age got across to students. After all, the Jacksonian period was one of high political involvement, the implementation almost across the board of universal white male suffrage (a really stunning innovation in terms of the rest of the world at the time), and the birth of a modern, recognizable political party. It was also the age of an expansion of slavery and of the brutality of Indian Removal. I think you’re right, Kevin, there are no heroes or even anti-heroes here–Jackson and his era had their high points and low points, and the best we can do is teach students what happened and why. I’m not sure what Bennett wants from us, but if he wants me to be uncritical and celebratory of Jackson, he won’t get it.

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  2. matthew mckeon

    Kevin,
    A lot of Bennett’s speech is boilerplate. Americans don’t learn anything in school, our precious, precious heritage and patriotism is being lost, etc. etc. Exactly the same speech he’s been making for about thirty years. I believe that particular speech(how ignorant American students are)is a precious part of American heritage passed on through the generations, the latest generation always failing to measure up.
    It’s driving force is a ideological distaste for public education, a political vendetta against the national teachers’ unions and anxiety about the alien immigrant hordes destroying about culture and heritage. In other words, it’s the latest version of Henry Cabot Lodge’s first oration to the Immigration Restriction League in 1907.

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  3. Ken Noe

    What I got out of it was, poll numbers for Bush and the war would be higher if history teachers were teaching feel-good heritage instead of history. But since they are not, go buy my newish book, America: The Last Best Hope. After all, I have gambling bills to pay.

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  4. Kevin Levin

    It is no doubt the same claptrap that Bennett has been spouting off for some time, but it did give me something to talk about today. In the end Bennett isn’t really interested in history education; rather, he wants all students to hold to the same set of beliefs with no questions attached. This suggests to me that he doesn’t understand history education nor does he understand the historical process.

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  5. Larry Cebula

    You know Bennett has had another losing streak at the tables when he republishes his old editorials. The sad thing is that he was once one of the more thoughtful voices on the right. I guess if we live long enough many of us become caricatures of ourselves.

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  6. Rob Wick

    I’ve struggled with where I stand on this (although it isn’t with Bennett, at least not from an idealogical standpoint), because it seems the fringe on both sides are crowding out the middle (surprise surprise). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with teaching history along the lines of Niebuhr’s view of irony and how America sees itself (and how it should really be seen) but it seems those who lean further left than myself would make history all about Columbus and his deadly blankets or that America is best exemplified by the Trail of Tears and tons of broken treaties with native Americans, and that we as a people can never rise above our past experience with racism. I also can’t see anything wrong with trying to use history to instill some patriotic pride in our citizenry as long as it doesn’t vault into nativism or xenophobia, which Bennett would allow it to do.

    I do have one question. Several hundred years ago in a past life, I was student teaching American History. While your students sound exceptionally bright, I had to explain to mine what the term diplomatic relations meant. Don’t you think the vast majority of students, who care more about cars, friends and sex (not much ever changes) have little interest in learning about what happened in the past? In other words, aren’t most students more like mine was than like yours are.

    Best
    Rob

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  7. Kevin Levin

    Rob, — I teach the entire spectrum of students. I bet they are not much different from the students you taught.

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  8. John Maass

    I would point out here that Bennett’s remarks fall into what used to be called the Whig School of historical interpretation. There are some who still adhere to this method of teaching/studying US History, which is based upon the premise that American history (or western history to some) is the story of progress, and that history is a path to either perfection, achievement, or some ultimate lofty goal down the road. This philospophy of history (I hate that term but it seems fitting here) came about in the late 18th c., or early 19th c., and as students of American religious history remind us, it is heavily influenced by Protestant Millenialism. One advantage of this approach is that it fits well with a narrative approach to writing or teaching history, as students can “see” that such and such happened, then this happened, followed by that….on and on. Not much interp. needed here, or critical thinking.

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  9. Kevin Levin

    You are absolutely right. Interstingly enough, you will also find shades of this view in the writings of Immanuel Kant.

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  10. matthew mckeon

    Re: Larry and Rob,
    Being the first person to introduce students to a topic of history can be exciting. I passed out pictures of Lee, Sherman and Forrest and asked the class to guess what kind of men they were. I got some interesting responses.

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  11. Matt

    Sounds like Nietzsche’s idea of a monumental history to me.

    “That the great moments in the struggle of individuals form a chain, that in them the high points of humanity are linked throughout millennia, that what is highest in such a moment of the distant past be for me still alive, bright and great–this is the fundamental thought of the faith in humanity which is expressed in the demand for a monumental history.”

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