Teaching History Without the Negative Stuff

As many of you know the state of Texas in the process of redefining its social studies/history standards.  [See here and here]  This will impact the rest of the nation since the textbooks that will be ordered to meet the agenda of this curriculum will likely be distributed throughout much of the rest of the country.  The ongoing debate about what to teach has little to do with understanding the past or training students to think critically about historical studies.  Rather, the debate is being driven by political hacks who know next to nothing about what it means to study the past.  Consider the following short video.

It’s hard to take seriously the notion that what should drive our study of the American past is the overarching assumption of its “exceptionalism” and “how unique it is”.  According to this Texas Board of Education member, the solution is to simply delete those aspects of our history that detract from this exceptional image.  It’s certainly one way of going about it, but than what are we to make of her call to get rid of the word “propaganda” from the curriculum/textbooks?  What else should we call this approach to history?

I don’t mind admitting that I am an enemy of the notion of ‘American Exceptionalism.’  It’s not simply that I fail to see how it applies to American history, but that it has nothing to do with my role as an instructor of history.  I’ve said before that I do not consider it my responsibility to influence students in how they judge the collective moral status of the United States through its history and current policies.  In addition to the concept of exceptionalism I also steer clear of any notion of America as “God’s Chosen People” or the notion of an inherent “Evil Imperial Empire” that is espoused by some on the extreme Left.  That said, I do deal with the historical roots of the idea of American Exceptionalism going back to the Puritans’ notion of a “City Upon a Hill” through Manifest Destiny as well as its later manifestation in the form of the “White Man’s Burden.”

Can someone please tell me what is gained by teaching American history this way?  How does it help our students to engage with the rest of the world on a level of cooperation and mutual respect?  All I see is a curriculum that promotes arrogance along with the biases of a cultural exclusivist.

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14 comments… add one

  • J. L. Bell Sep 18, 2009

    I think this “exceptionalist” approach to national history, trying to sanitize it before letting young people see, actually reveals a lack of confidence in the country’s heritage. If its proponents truly believed that America is special and a Good Thing, then they’d be willing to let young people study the past without omissions or varnish and reach the same conclusion.

  • Crystal Marshall Sep 18, 2009

    It can be said that every country has its unique points of history. What makes United States’ history stand out as exceptional, however, is not what happened to Americans, but rather how Americans responded to those events.

    As an illustration: I am currently in an honors seminar at my college studying Emer de Vattel’s Law of Nations, the definitive work on nationhood and its relation to other regimes in the Enlightenment/Revolutionary War era. In fact, many of the Jefferson’s ideas espoused in the Declaration of Independence can be traced to the influence of Vattel’s work. So in this sense, the ideas of the Declaration itself may not be truly “exceptional”; but that the American colonies acted upon those ideals, and succeeded in gaining improbable victory, is unique. How many other societies have rebelled against their mother country and established a form of government, however imperfect, that has endured for over 200 years and provided freedom and opportunity for millions? There is something about the American spirit–whether due to Providence, sheer determination, or luck, whatever you may call it–that stands against the backdrop of history.

    It is not only the United States’ successes, but also her failures, that make her unique. And the way in which she has responded to her failures, in both just and unjust ways, is unique and provides a means for deeper reflection and comparison on responses of different societies to similar situations.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 18, 2009

      Hi Crystal,

      It’s great to hear from you and I trust that you are enjoying your college experience. I think you at least give us a more sophisticated notion of the meaning and significance of American history that take us beyond such simplistic notions as exceptionalism. I guess I tend not to view history through a moral prism, though your use of “unique” does not necessarily imply a narrow moral view. I am much more comfortable trying to understand this nation’s history as part of a much larger web of events.

      By the way, that was an excellent guest post you wrote over at RW’s blog. Well done. Best of luck to you and don’t be a stranger. :)

  • Craig Sep 18, 2009

    Kevin,
    Is it that you don’t use the American exceptionalism as an interpretation to consider; or that you don’t discuss American exceptionalism at all? Sort of hard to consider Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and Reagan in context without that “City upon the hill” thought in perspective.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 18, 2009

      Craig,

      As I stated in the post, I don’t push the moral claim that the United States is exceptional, though I do discuss the history of American Exceptionalism in its various forms.

  • mike Sep 18, 2009

    I am proud to be a Texan today. Too many want to run our country down from their places of authority in the public school class room and the college lecture hall. While America is FAR from perfect. She is the best place on Earth to live or we would not be discussing how to keep people out! I E-mailed the Committee over Christmas. It is on every school calendar in the state and children ought to learn about it. I have no issue with learning the other holidays but to add them and remove Christmas from the TEKS is going the wrong way. I don’t expect more liberal minded folks to agree with me. Still I am Proud of what I heard from the Committee today.
    Kevin I am proud you don’t push a Moral Claim and I pray you’re never forced to either. That is your choice and freedom to do so.

  • Greg Rowe Sep 18, 2009

    Kevin,

    I’ts been awhile, but a change in teaching assignment and building curriculum for two electives has taken much more of my time than I thought it would. :/ It’s left little time for blogging, commenting or hitting the social networking sites, but I decided to “veg out” tonight, if intellectual discourse can be considered vegging out.

    As a teacher in Texas, I am deeply concerned about how new standards (we call them TEKS [pronounced, most often, like "teaks], Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) will affect history education in this state. I also see your concern in that what goes on here will affect the rest of the country because Texas is such as huge textbook market. What bothers me most is this has become more of a political arguement than an educational one. Conservatives control this state, liberals are kicking against that wall and moderates are lost in the shuffle. I’m aware of only one person on the State Board of Education with any teaching experience, though I do not recall that person’s name, but, unfortunately, that person does not represent my region of the state. Neither does the member in the video.

    Personally, I tend to agree with Crystal’s commentary regarding American “exceptionalism.” Sure, we’ve got warts and we’re still working to remove many of them, but the fact that, as a nation, most of us are willing to admit our shortcomings and attempt to work on those has been our best trait. Yes, there are folks who would derail this process based solely on political leaning, attitudes regarding race or some other brainless application of confused logic without checking the facts. Too often people rely on limited and/or biased sources of information and believe them to be the only ones available, both historically and recently. This, perhaps, is one amazingly unexceptional thing about Americans as a whole.

    My belief is we have to encourage students to look for questions, not answers, about history. It’s the how and why of what happened in history, not the who and when, that are most important. If students understand how and why things happen in history they will easily recall the who did or said something and when it was done. This is what I see as being the biggest problem with history education standards. Explaining how and why are relegated to something we do “if we have time” after we teach kids what they are supposed to know in order to take some mind-numbing state exam.

    BTW, if you want to look at the actual drafts of the new standards, you can find them at this link: http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index2.aspx?id=3643. They are at the bottom of the webpage.

  • Harvey Sep 18, 2009

    To teach history fairly and objectively must be extremely difficult. I agree with Crystals statement, “It is not only the United States successes, but also her failures, that makes her unique.” I believe the best history teachers present the facts, good and bad, and then guides his/her students to think for themselves without injecting their own bias. This has to be hard, especially if the teacher is very passionate toward one political view, either right of left. To take out the “negatives” about American History is stupid, just as taking out the good and positive aspects of our history would be. This only does a disservice to our children. We learn more through mistakes and failures than through successes.
    So to all you history teachers who strive to teach objectively and without bias you have my utmost respect.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 19, 2009

    Greg,

    Nice to hear from you as it has been much too long. I tend to agree with much of what you have to say. For me it comes down to trusting my students to arrive at their own conclusions. My job is to give them the analytical tools and a sufficient amount of documentation to allow them “be their own historian. Thanks for the link and best of luck in the classroom this year.

  • Bob Pollock Sep 19, 2009

    Crystal, Thank you for your comment. Your thoughts very much reflect my own on this subject.

    Mike, Who are these “Too many [who] want to run our country down from their places of authority in the public school class room and the college lecture hall” ? Would they be the ones who avow that Lincoln wanted to be King? Or that Grant was just an average General?

  • matt mckeon Sep 19, 2009

    As a veteran high school teacher, I can’t get the students to actually read anything out of the textbook or care about it, so I feel my students are fairly safe from propagandizing from Texas. To be honest with you, I can’t bear to read it either.

    Wrapped up with considering history in a professional way, is the fact I love the United States. I try to get the students to think of being American as something they have to live up to, something positive, a responsibility, not an entitlement. My crackerjack moralizing doesn’t have much impact either.

  • matt mckeon Sep 19, 2009

    My point is, after school they have to be Americans. What kind of Americans do you want?

    Do you teach about heroes? Is history and historical events driven by great figures? A good historian will say no, that in fact that’s the wrong question.

    But we do quite a bit about heroes in my class, whom I define as someone who had to struggle, who had to bleed for what we enjoy today. Elizabeth Bentley the millgirl, Alice Paul, Medgar Evars and Martin Luther King, what else can we call these people? Most people go through life without having to pay a personal price for their beliefs or morality. But at some point we all have exchange comfort for doing the right thing, that’s the price of progress. If my students could get that from history class, I’d die a happy man.

  • Mike Sep 21, 2009

    Bob Watch Fox news and you will see it weekly.

  • Josh Pyman Mar 30, 2011

    I can’t believe they’d even consider Exceptionalism. I come from England, and we learn about all the history. Of course, countries tend to skate over their faults, but that shouldn’t be necessary in this day and age.
    At our school, we learn that the British ruled and dictated (often brutally) India. That we also had a huge slave trade going on, or that we governed North America for a long time. We’re not proud of it, but it wasn’t us who did it, it was the people alive at the time. Like WWII, it wasn’t good at all, but it wasn’t the Germans alive today who did it.
    I just hate the idea that you would ignore parts of history because they don’t fit in an ‘Exceptional’ America.

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