Does Your Dentist Teach History?

A couple of years ago I had a parent contact me about the textbook I was using to teach my AP American History course.  I had just switched from The American Pageant to Eric Foner’s new book, Give Me Liberty! The parent was concerned about the political bias of Foner as well as the overall narrative that his child would learn over the course of the year.  I am a huge fan of parents who take an interest in their child’s education so I agreed to meet with him at his earliest convenience.  We never met in person to discuss his concerns, but we did exchange a number of emails.  The first thing I did was ask the parent to give me an idea of what exactly he found troubling.  Shortly thereafter I received a response that focused on the amount of coverage on issues of race.  I read the response carefully, but had difficulty pinpointing the exact problem so I followed up by asking for specific references.  His response was interesting.  The parent pointed to two sections, one on Reconstruction and the other on Jim Crow, which he believed constituted too much attention.  In addition, he also made it a point to remind me that he was not asking me to swap Foner for a book by Rush Limbaugh.  This last comment took me for a bit of a loop.  It concerned me that Rush Limbaugh would actually be considered as an alternative to Foner or for that matter any trained historian. I thought about how to respond to this last comment as I did not want to offend the person, but I finally decided to assert myself since I was hired to teach the course and my school gives me complete freedom to choose appropriate texts for my students.  I said that it was good to hear that he was not making such a suggestion since Rush Limbaugh is not a historian and Eric Foner is one of the most respected scholars in the field.

In addition I asked if the parent’s concern about Foner’s coverage of race extended beyond the number of pages.  In other words, was there a problem with the interpretation itself.  I went on to offer an explanation as to why I chose this particular book.  In fact, one of the reasons I chose this particular text was the amount of coverage of racial issues, which I explained was important to understanding crucial aspects of American history, including the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and countless other subjects.  As a historian, however, I understand that thoughtful people can and should disagree about the way in which information is presented and interpreted.  Unfortunately, our conversation never addressed these issues.  I should point out that this parent is well educated and a very successful lawyer.  We eventually met a few weeks later during a parent-teacher night.  We chatted for a bit, but the topic never came up.  I encouraged the parent to contact me at any point regarding concerns about the textbook or any other materials covered in the course.  That never happened and his son went on to score a 5 on the AP Test.

I have no idea what prompted the initial email from this parent.  If I had to guess I would explain it as evidence of the so-called “Culture Wars” and an overly-politicized process of history curriculum development.  Much of the public discussion is mired in political talk of conservative v. liberal and questions about whether to teach a narrative of American Exceptionalism v. American Treachery.  Neither debate is of any interest to me in the classroom.  My guess is that this parent picked up this narrative at some point and decided to find it in the book I am using.  I have no doubt that in a 1,000 page book you can find an argument to support just about any position in this ongoing public discussion.  However, it is interesting that once the discussion was taken out of the realm of politics and steered in the direction of historical interpretation my parent apparently jumped ship.  Perhaps he was too busy, but I tend to think that this individual was simply ill-equipped to engage in such a discussion concerning the historiography of Reconstruction and Jim Crow America not to mention the kinds of issues that serious history teachers think about when it comes to presenting this material in their classrooms.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I feel sorry for my fellow history teachers in Texas in the wake of what will likely be changes to the state’s history curriculum.  I am troubled not because the committee took a conservative turn, but by the process itself.  We ought to have the same reaction if the tables had been turned and the Democrats held a majority.  Listening to committee members discuss their concerns and what they believe constitutes a correction to the current curriculum is disturbing not because of who and what they want to include or delete, but for the almost complete lack of serious thought about what it means to engage in serious historical thinking.  No one is talking about how to teach critical thought about our collective past; rather, it’s simply a matter of what kind of sponge you want to come out of the system in the end.

Based on what I’ve seen and read so far I can’t help but think that we are dealing with a board whose members are about as qualified to intelligently discuss these issues as the parent that I tried to engage a few years ago.  Yes, no one is at a loss for explaining how they view the sweep of American history (i.e. divinely inspired, fallen, cursed, blah, blah, blah.) but no one on this board seems to have any training as a historian or even as a history teacher.  That’s a failure of the system itself and hopefully it can be corrected in the near future.  Georgia recently revised its history curriculum guidelines and had no difficulty whatsoever in bringing in a range of experts to discuss these issues and consider their observations and recommendations.

I engage in healthy debate on a regular basis about the materials I use in class and about how go about teaching my subject.  I am constantly revising how I practice my craft.  My community of peers includes historians and fellow teachers and not the local butcher, electrician, priest, rabbi, and dentist.  Here’s a thought: How about forming committees of historians and history teachers to make these decisions?

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13 comments… add one
  • John Maass Mar 22, 2010 @ 11:17

    I know nothing about TX and it’s state govt., but it would seem to me that the state would have a board as part of a dept of eductaion to make decisions about textbooks.

  • John Maass Mar 18, 2010 @ 18:12

    I think it worth stating, as a former teacher and grad student who also chose which textbooks to assign, that the overly-politicized process of history curriculum development is caused, in part, by the bent of those who write the books, not just parents who suppossedly pick up the book and look for things to get upset over. Can we really divorce the realm of politics from historical interpretation? I don't think so. One could also say that a page count does in some ways point to interpretation, as Foner would not have devoted a certain number of pages to a topic he felt was tangential to the interpretation he makes.

    I did not use Foner's textbook when I taught, but did review it. It was not much different than the others, and usually prof's and TA's chose on personal taste, where I was. Because of this, I can't say if Foner is more or less biased than others.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 18, 2010 @ 20:37

      I agree that it is impossible to completely divorce politics/bias from historical interpretation. We have to make choices and many of those choices reflect our identity/backgrounds. That said, it seems to me that there is a difference between the process that was carried out in Texas and how good history teachers and historians actually go about practicing their respective crafts.

      I use Foner's book in my AP class. Now I understand Foner's political background, which I find interesting to a point. I use his point because I think he does a good job balancing the traditional top-down/political history that students need with a heavy dose of social/cultural/women's history. The broad focus allows us to look at a wide range of events and utilize a broad spectrum of sources. I don't see Foner as trying to indoctrinate students but trying to provide what he believes is a balanced and rich history of this nation.

  • Fraser Mar 14, 2010 @ 0:52

    I can imagine the dentist's reaction if someone told him that he doesn't know anything about teeth and any halfwit could do his job.

  • margaretdblough Mar 13, 2010 @ 16:59

    There's always been a strain in the American belief system that sees a complete lack of knowledge of a subject as conveying some sort of superior populist insight. There's a huge difference between that and a healthy skepticism buttressed by willingness to educate oneself of expert opinions. However, what's ironic is that the kind of education that the lame ducks on the Texas board have in mind is very similar to education in totalitarian countries, particularly seeing critical thinking as an evil to be prevented at all costs and treating proponents of contrary viewpoints as non-persons.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 13, 2010 @ 17:14

      Yes, it's kind of like the reaction people have to Forrest Gump.

  • jfe Mar 13, 2010 @ 16:36

    History teachers are at a big disadvantage, because everyone thinks they can understand history—just read a narrative book, right? I doubt if anyone has ever challenged a math teacher over the political background of the textbook author—and, believe me, we have some far out lefties in mathematics! But this just reminds me of DH Hill's antebellum algebra text, and the political undertones to many of the exercises.

  • Michaela Mar 13, 2010 @ 16:22

    Recent studies have shown the decline of education in the Western world. We have every reason to be worried about educating children to be competitive on an international level, especially in the sciences. And then we sit down at home, be it in Texas or in my home town Bremen and go back to what somebody's gut feeling is on this, consulting no expert whatsoever. You can't learn science by using parameters from religion or without understanding evolution! We should not streamline education to prevent our students from asking questions. I am not so sure that preventing a child from learning the full picture and all sides, regardless whether one side is presented 43% and the other 57% , is very helpful for becoming a soldier in Afghanistan, a doctor without borders, a historian or a neuroscientist. Because after all “being right” and “Christian” does not get you much more than what your parents think. But questioning every detail of your education, your country's history, a mathematical approach, a scientific theory, exercising criticism, particularly self criticism, and peer review is what gets you a break through. Understanding how you and the other side operate culturally and intellectually makes business deals and military contracts that give prosperity and peace to all nations. Education should be about curiosity, patriotism should be about understanding all sides of your history and living up to it, and religion should be about deciding if you want to follow one particular faith and respecting others. None is about being brainwashed. The Texas board is laying the foundation to create the authoritarian character.

  • Becky Goetz Mar 13, 2010 @ 15:02

    Actually, a panel of primary and secondary school teachers originally reviewed the curriculum and wrote a proposal for changes. This proposal was evaluated by outside “experts” appointed by members of the SBOE (these “experts” included David Barton of Wallbuilders). It was then that the proposed curricular standards were bowdlerized beyond recognition. The dentist, Don McLeroy, has been known to boast that experts don't know anything and he is always happy to defeat them. (He was defeated in the GOP primary by a perfectly reasonable Republican named Thomas Ratliff. He's now a lame duck, like Cynthia Dunbar.)

    • Kevin Levin Mar 13, 2010 @ 15:07

      Thanks for the additional information, Becky. I knew that McLeroy had been defeated, but unfortunately not soon enough. It's good to know that qualified people are involved in the process, but what good does it do if their suggestions/reviews fail to influence. What's the point in having them involved at all? It's extremely frustrating as someone who takes his job seriously and who spends a great deal of time fine tuning what I do.

  • Matt McKeon Mar 13, 2010 @ 14:17

    I guess the most extreme member of the Texas Board is being replaced by a moderate Republican who promised that he will listen to school teachers and principals in making text decisions.

    • Matt McKeon Mar 13, 2010 @ 14:18

      “I guess” I mean I heard on the news. So a move in the right direction.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 13, 2010 @ 14:32

      I guess I am much less concerned with where individual members fall on the political spectrum as opposed to whether they are qualified to discuss anything having to do with the teaching of history.

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