Telling the Truth about American History

I hope that was a provocative title.  That’s why it is there.  Some will think that it is a simple and obvious standard and that “lying about American history” is the alternative.  Others will think it presumptuous to assert that there is “a truth” about American history.  Still others will be puzzled by the premise that anyone who has access to this “truth” would be moved to tell it when there are so many other important things to do in history class.

My own view is that there is not “a truth,” although certainly there are inaccuracies and distortions.  Narratives don’t become “true” just by avoiding falsehoods.  There is a lot more to it than that and I would like to leave you feeling that this standard—that the truth should be told about our history—is a poorly constructed standard.  We can do better.

Let’s begin with these two paragraphs from a fascinating New York Times study of American history texts by Julia Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars.

Conservatives have fought for schools to promote patriotism, highlight the influence of Christianity and celebrate the founding fathers.

The left has pushed to encounter history more from the ground up than from the top down, with a focus on the experiences of marginalized groups such as enslaved people, women and Native Americans.

This one clip casts the differences among American history texts in Texas and California as the product of political ideology, which is true as far as it goes.  But, as is always the case in these matters, there is an interplay of what is salient (or not) and what is to be said about the salient issues.  I call that “position.”

Let’s begin with the obvious notion that you can’t treat the whole story of American history.  That means that some things will be included in some texts and not in others.  We will leave for another time the question of how textbook companies make such decisions.  If the local decision-making bodies are ideologically skewed—the State Textbook Commissions or the local school boards—they will want certain crucially important things to be dealt with.  You can look at those two quotations from the Times article and see clearly what events or evaluations of events would be emphasized.

Further, note that there is no need for either version to take aim at the major emphases of the other version.  Conservative texts—Texas, in the New York Times study—will spend very little time on “marginalized groups” and what they do say will be from the perspective of the marginalizing groups, i.e. the dominant groups of the era.  Similarly, liberal texts—California, in the New York Times study—need not attack patriotism or Christianity.  They can simply ignore them or call them by other names, say, “nationalism” and “religious influences.”

So…given a deeply polarized nation and the local choice of texts, you would expect to find just what Goldstein found.  

But it gets worse.

What if “liberal and conservative” were not the principal division?:  What if it were social class. [1]  Edgar Litt studied how the same text was taught in three school districts, one working class, one middle class, and one upper class. [2]  In this one text in three settings, the lesson that was taught in the classroom was that the duty of each citizen was to “obey” (in the working class district); to “participate” (in the middle class district); and to “lead” in the upper class district).  These three lessons came out of the same textbook.

But it gets worse.

Textbooks are going away.  The availability of primary sources online enables any teacher with a perspective and a little bit of academic freedom to create (“curate,” the article says) his or her own texts.  I did that myself in my last few years as an adjunct professor at Portland State University.  The “textbook” I used in my American Government classes was an amalgam of the standard chapters the company offered or, in the cases where I had better stuff to use, material I provided myself.

I felt very good about it.  In my own judgment, I was providing educationally superior materials to the kinds of students I was most likely to have.  The basis of my choice was pedagogical.  I wanted a particular outcome of my teaching and I wanted to use the materials that were most likely to achieve that outcome.  They were not biased against any political philosophy (left or right) or keyed to any perspective (central groups, marginal groups).  They were chosen to provide a context in which a careful consideration of our government could be made and which lampooned superficial and uncritical assessments of what we had to work with.  I justified it to myself at the time and would justify it today if there were any occasion to, as choices required by my own understanding of my responsibilities as a teacher.

Using my own experience only to make the point, the problem textbook publishers are facing is that they are not the only game in town.  Not only are they, as always, in competition with other texts, but they are in competition with no texts, with what each teacher can come up with as independent assignments.  “Read these sources,” such a teacher might say, “and draw your own conclusions about that era of American history.”
But teachers are not free either so long as their students are going to be taking standardized tests devised by panels of educators who, themselves, have ideas about what knowledge and what skills the students should be learning.  In a better designed world, the textbook publishers and the student evaluators would be the same people.  They are not.

But it gets worse.

The value of “what is true” has been trashed recently by conservatives, most notably President Trump.  No fact can be so well established that it cannot be called “fake news” and be rejected wholesale by the Know Nothing Party. [3]  On the question of evolution, for instance, the state of Georgia had labels printed and pasted them in biology texts where evolution was discussed or presupposed.  The labels said, “Evolution is only a theory.”  So students learned to distinguish between “theories” and “facts,” rather than between “well supported theories” and “poorly supported theories,” —which is the crucial distinction.

In the current division of the country into hostile tribes, the value of loyalty to the group has risen dramatically and the value of “truth” has consequently declined.

I don’t think it can get worse than that.  That is the thing that needs to be fixed.

[1]See his 1965 book, The Political Cultures of Massachusetts.

[2]  Litt was much more sophisticated than I can afford to be about what “class” means and how they can be distinguished.  I’m in a hurry.

[3]  There was a party that was popularly called that, as you probably know, but in using term here, I do not mean to refer to the Republican party as such.  I mean to refer to the most loyal followers of President Trump, for whom no evidence matters if it leads to the wrong conclusion.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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