This academic year, millions of elementary, middle and high school students are enrolled in American history classes. Depending on the politics of their state department of education or local school board, they may learn about how Christopher Columbus discovered America and how a bit over a century later, a friendship between Native Americans and English settlers resulted in the first Thanksgiving dinner.
Attempts at making history conform to the facts rather than patriotic mythology are being met with strong resistance.
A textbook published by McGraw-Hill Education drew criticism in early October after a social media post quoting how the textbook referred to Africans who came to America as workers rather than slaves went viral. In Oklahoma, Rep. Dan Fisher (R-OK) attempted to defund the Advanced Placement U.S. History program, claiming in a Feb. 17 legislative committee meeting that the new curriculum that characterized “America as a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”
Fisher’s bill embodies a common misconception that history must be taught as a single narrative that favors American exceptionalism over factuality and the incorporation of multiple viewpoints. When one considers slavery, the extreme suppression of Native Americans and the very recent legalization of same-sex marriage, it is difficult to argue that America’s past does not include instances of oppression and exploitation.
Instead of relying on textbooks, evaluating primary sources from the time period is an excellent strategy to provide multiple perspectives, like those of a slave or an adviser to Abraham Lincoln. Historians use the study of writings from a specific time period, known as historiography, to learn about the past. While some educators use this teaching style, an implementation of document-based learning by states and school districts would ensure that all students have access to an array of viewpoints. Boiling the perspectives and causes of historical wars down to a few sentences in a textbook deprives students of the opportunity to understand the complexities involved with conflict. Many college classes use historiography by incorporating various perspectives and media. If younger students learned about major historical events through multiple accounts, they would develop analytical and critical thinking skills that could benefit them throughout the rest of their educational career. Document-based learning is also an excellent way for students to learn to identify biases and develop news literacy skills.
Students are frequently taught that America is unlike other countries because it is a melting pot of cultures, backgrounds, religions and political affiliations. However, by presenting history as a single narrative, schools are doing a disservice to students. Creating opportunities for students to draw their own conclusions about historical events through discussion and document-based education can ensure America truly lives up to its diverse values.