Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Civics and History in the Classroom

The teaching of US history has always been... well, not a hot topic, exactly, but always one that is simmering on a back burner. From the occasional reaction to one brand of civic illiteracy or another (no, that's not an actual power of the President) to the eternal complaint that schools are teaching students to hate America, the civic conversation is always drawn back to the question of how the US story is taught.

Right now, Mike Petrilli (Fordham Institute) is rolling out a new book featuring a gaggle of conservative folks opining on the subject. That, unfortunately, has given the NY Post the chance to run the "Public schools are teaching our children to hate America" line again. But there are also more thoughtful takes like this hefty one from Eliot Cohen, who also contributed to Petrilli's book.

The blurb from Petrilli's book suggests that after A Nation At Risk, conservative's great ideas like school choice and rigorous standards were on the rise, but then, disaster-- "Today, these gains are in retreat, ceding ground to progressive nostrums that do little to boost the skills and knowledge of young people."

Well, no. For one thing, the "rigorous" Common Core standards weren't particularly rigorous at all. And for another-- well, Petrilli himself hits this point in an amazing quote he gave to the Post:

“Today we talk as if it’s all about college and career readiness,” education scholar Michael J. Petrilli told The Post. “But going back to the 1780s, the argument in favor of having public education at all has been first and foremost to develop democratic citizens.”

Well, yes. "College and career readiness," the current polite euphemism for the much-unloved-especially-by-lots-of-conservatives Common Core Standards, have come to dominate education and have led to things like reducing history and civics to make room for more test prep intensive reading and math studies, and they do so because guys like Mike Petrilli and his thinky tank have burned massive piles of money and exerted mountains of influence trying to make it so. And if that's not enough, there's this one, from the same article:

“We just don’t teach our young kids anything,” Petrilli said. “Teaching ‘reading comprehension’ with no content is as boring as it sounds, and as ineffective as it sounds.”

The Post writer explicitly lays the blame for all this on Common Core, but he never does get around to noticing whether or not Petrilli was one of the leading cheerleaders for Team Core.

Meanwhile, with the new book, Petrilli et al are pushing the idea that education is about character, job preparation and learning civic pride. Cohen makes a similar point in a much less book-blurby manner. This has been jump-started, perhaps, by the 1619 Project, which has made a lot of conservative white folks sad by centering slavery and black folks in the retelling of the story of the US. But before that it was Howard Zinn etc. A lot of folks (not all of them white) think schools should inculcate pride and patriotism.

I was one course shy of being a history minor. I taught the US literature sequence for most of my career, which means lots of US history as well. There are some real challenges in teaching history, and I'm not sure these guys recognize any of them. Let me walk you through my list.

The Level of Interest

Near the very end of his article, Cohen writes, "There is no more natural subject of fascination than history, particularly the history of one’s own country, and particularly if that country is the United States."

Nope. What my students told me, frequently unasked, year after year, decade after decade, was that no class was a bigger waste of their time than history. As someone who had to teach history to them and provide a context for everything we read, I fought against that attitude my entire career. "It happened before I was born, so who cares," is a widespread attitude (and one that many people never grow out of).

This, as I told them every year, is nuts. Human beings are hardwired to do history. My example to them-- You went to a party Friday night and while you were there Chris and Pat had this huge fight and maybe broke up. So how does everyone spend the next week, starting roughly fifteen seconds after they leave the party? They talk to each other and try to decide what the fight was about and how exactly it happened and what exactly they said to each other and if they really broke up and what this will mean to everyone who knows them going forward and what things can be most or least blamed for the fight happening in the first place-- plus, depending on whether you're friends with Chris or Pat and what parts of their relationship you've seen with your own eyes and whose second-hand versions you've heard, you may have different answers to all these questions and the debates over those answers may rage away for the rest of the year, resulting in multiple versions of what "really" happened (and can any such thing really be knowable, anyway)?

And that, boys and girls, is doing history. And human beings absolutely can't not do that.

Writing and reading about history was an integral part of my class (my honors students were required to do a paper about local history from primary sources). Did I convert anyone? I wouldn't want to bet my farm on it. The best I could do was try to sell the notion that things that had happened in the past were, in a way, still happening to all of us now, so maybe we should care about understanding a bit better. But there is a big obstacle to creating interest in history--


It's a Catch-22-- warehousing facts is the most boring part of history, but you can't have an intelligent discussion if you don't know that World War I is not the one with Hitler or that the Confederacy did, in fact, secede over slavery. Americans are so historically illiterate it is sometimes staggering. And what we don't know isn't as bad as the stuff we're sure we know that just isn't true, like the Civil War settled the problem of slavery, so we don't have to think about that stuff any more.

Our Stories Are Complicated, Just Like Humans

The nation's story is filled with tensions between contradictory ideas and impulses. It's not just the classic obvious "all men are created equal but we're going to own slaves, too" stuff. The Puritans believed that the trappings of earthly success were bad, but they also believed success was proof that you were among God's chosen. Their faith was backward and repressive, but it made them tough enough to survive unimaginable hardship. They came here to establish religious freedom, except not really because they executed people who believed differently. And that's just one tiny slice.

But as a culture, we aren't keen on human complexity these days. The urge to cast everyone as either 100% hero or villain is amuck, and so counter to actual humanity that it can never be satisfied. Cohen notes the need to populate patriotism with heroes and bemoans the tendency of modern historians to focus on the feet of clay. But even that framing misses the point. People are not all one thing or another with perhaps a foot or an eye or a spleen that is something else. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, and we're only just beginning to really grasp how vile his treatment of one such slave was. Thomas Jefferson was a sneaky, underhanded, manipulative politician. Thomas Jefferson wrote one of the most brilliant, enduring political documents in the history of the world. All of these things can be true at once.

Humans are a mess, and what they look like depends on where you stand. Everyone is a villain in someone else's story, and a hero in some other person's. For important historical figures, this is magnified a thousand-fold. Cohen and Petrilli both acknowledge as much by nodding toward Hamilton, a work (both the biography and the show) that captures that messiness. Sort of. Because the show invites us to avoid any judgment because we just like the guy so much. And "how likable was this guy" may not be the best historical question.

The Audience

What these conservatives would really like to do is tell the stories, acknowledge the flaws, and find the country inspirational and patriotism-worthy anyway. We did some awful things to some folks, but we kept trying to get better and we're still admirable. Which makes more sense if you are not talking to the actual family members of the people we did awful things to. But in most classrooms, we are in fact addressing those folks, and I don't know a good way to say, for instance, "Yeah, we bought and sold your ancestors as slaves, and then stripped them of freedom with Jim Crow laws, but that's not as important as the progress we've made." Particularly when that framing suggests that you black students are not really part of the "we" that is this country.

It's a tough sell to get folks all patrioted up for a "we" they were never part of, that they were in fact excluded from. There's something to be said for the idea that the country set out some ideals that it has had a hard time living up to, but the story is of a country that has tried to do a better job of living up to those ideals.

And if you're going to try to sell American exceptionalism, the idea that this has always been a city on a hill and just better because it just is--well, that's a tough sell in the face of a lot of misbehavior. And it's a super-tough sell to tell someone, "You are so blessed to have had ancestors who had the chance to be oppressed here in this city on a hill."

So the answers...?

As I cycled through the various isms of US history, I always told my students the same thing-- "I'm not here to tell you these folks or right and I'm not here to tell you they're wrong. I just want you to understand how they saw the world and how they thought humans were supposed to live in it. I want you to see why someone might look at the world this way." And I stayed as true to that as I could for thirty-some years (and when I couldn't I said, "Look, I have my own definite ideas about this, but that's how I think about it.")

In the last few years, this was more of a challenge. Students were more comfortable being outwardly prejudiced, more confident about a fact-free point of view. My commitment to letting them find their own way, to making them feel safe to be who they were in my classroom more frequently came up against my desire to say, "Do you hear the stupid baloney coming out of your mouth?"

Like many teachers, I feel the urge to laugh whenever someone talks about how schools indoctrinate students. Please. I can't get that kid in fifth period to stop smacking the kid in front of him on the head. By the time they got to me in high school, their beliefs about big things like country were already shaped. The best I could ever do was get them to look at other ways of looking, to imagine what other beliefs are possible and, sometimes, to plug in some actual historical perspective in place of unexamined empty containers of other people's ideas.

But teach them to love the US? Heck if I know how to do that. I suppose simply repeating, over and over, that Team USA is the Best might make a dent. But I'm not sure that it's a teacher's job to make students love something. They can make it possible to love something, because the best way to fall in love with something is to know it. Propaganda is about arranging it so that people only know certain parts, and that makes them more inclined to tilt one way or the other. But if we're going to lay out a complete picture, we have to let go of a particular desired outcome. What I told students for decades was, in essence, that I wanted them to understand the thing I was showing them, but how they felt about it was going to be up to them.

If you believe the USA is truly a lovable country, deserving of patriotic devotion, then that has to be enough. Lay it all out and leave students to make up their own minds. If you are arguing that the presentation must emphasize this or highlight that, your desire to have the presentation tilted betrays your lack of belief in the ability of this country to inspire the emotions you are hoping for.

1 comment:

  1. I sense a bit of the Pondiscio influence rubbing off on his colleague.
    Hopefully the "skills" side of the pendulum starting to swing back to the "content/procedural knowledge" side. Now if Petrelli agrees we need to dial back the 'proto-adult' view of children we will be making some serious progress.