EdWeek just published an article by Stephen Sawchuk, How History Class Divides Us. Reading it at the elegant Ascension Coffee in Dallas yesterday, I chose not to give in to my impulse to alternate between shouts of “Amen!” and “Damn straight” (over and over again). I’d like to maintain my access to Avocado Toast on Hippie Bread + pourovers.
Mr Sawchuk kicks off by noting the recent controversy at the State Board of Education over the history teaching standards related to — what else — The Alamo.
My faithful readers will not be surprised we’re going to turn to Mike Judge, the Oracle of Austin, to illustrate this point.
A 2004 King of the Hill episode, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Alamo,” told us everything we need to know about how culture wars over history textbooks have led to the dumbing-down of content.
Hank is outraged when Bobby brings home a new Texas history textbook whose entry on The Alamo is:
The Alamo was a mission in present-day San Antonio, population 1.5 million.
Hank goes to the principal and then the school board, and is told that the reason the content on The Alamo is so weak is because of “objections, mostly by lawyers.”
This episode tracks pretty closely controversies over textbooks from the 1930’s, as traced by Mr Sawchuk:
Americans have never been all that united as to what belongs in or out of history classes, or even which specific civic values those classes are supposed to inculcate.
He then takes us to several schools that have essentially discarded history textbooks in favor of an approach that focuses on careful reading of primary sources. The idea is that by learning that there are often competing contemporary versions of events as well as perspectives students will build their critical thinking abilities — with the hope that these skills will assist them better understand current events. (For more real-time tracking of culture wars in public schools, Cato publishes the Public School Battle Map.)
How does this relate to civics? Well, it may suggest that learning to discuss controversial topics in history is a good practice for discussing controversial issues that arise in civics. Furthermore, students who have a good understanding of the historical context of the founding and the form of government that emerged from it may lead these facts becoming more “sticky.”
Civics and history are deeply intertwined subjects. Poor history learning undermines civics education. It does more than just remove context and facts from discussions — it robs students of the opportunity to practice moral reasoning.
It is impossible to get all parents to agree on the scope of history books. This inevitably leads to dumbing down of the content in those books and further perpetuates the problem.
First, I think there is a possible policy solution. Allowing parents the opportunity to choose private schools will lead to better sorting in terms of ideological pre-commitments. Before you object that this will only make polarization or national instability worse, I’d recommend you take a look at Corey DeAngelis’s recent paper on the role of private education enhancing the stability of nation-states.
Counterintuitively, forcing a single narrative on all students will actually lead to more cynicism about “fake news” and facts in general. And to respond by removing all controversy take the life out of history. Better to deal with those controversies in communities where there is trust and solidarity, rather than in courtrooms where there is only coercion and constraint.
Second, as discussed in Mr Sawbuck’s story, there are curricular resources that can make history class better, as well as prepare students for civics education. For parents, teachers, and students who want to fall in love with history, my personal recommendation is the Gilder Lehrman Institue . It offers rich resources for primary-source based curricula, outstanding teacher development events, and online courses. GLI’s online library has over 60,000 American history primary documents digitized and available for free.
Learning both sides of a story builds empathy, moral reasoning, and maybe even the ever-elusive unicorn of education-reformers, critical thinking skills.
It’s time that we, like Hank Hill, take history seriously.