As some pundits and politicians spend the summer writing, and sometimes passing legislation, about the teaching of history in schools, it feels like a good time to reflect on the roles that history plays in our public identities. But first, I want to share something about my past.
I’m not sure I should admit this, but as a kid in early 1970s Boston there was nothing I desired more than a tri-cornered hat and colonial knickers. I wanted to be an American Revolutionary War minuteman. This is odd, given I am the son of two parents who were strongly opposed to the Vietnam war. Yet, as a child growing up in Boston at the time of the bicentennial, the American Revolution was everywhere. For me, a child under ten, the Revolution was a story of freedom from oppression. As geeky and awkward as images of me in knickers must be, I thought it was very, very cool.
While not everyone played history dress-up, the urge to celebrate history as a story of civic pride is familiar. Many of us love to feel like we are part of something good, noble, and bigger than ourselves. Tales from the past can serve that purpose, linking us to grand events. The problem, of course, is that real history gets in the way. Among the parishioners whose donations supported the construction of the very steeple in the Old North Church, where the lanterns made famous in Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” were hung, were many who made their money in the capture and enslavement of human beings – this would have rocked ten-year-old me to the core. But because it would have been upsetting doesn’t mean the facts should be covered up. Rather, the juxtaposition of the history of rebellion against tyranny and participation in the commercialization of human bondage might have offered a mirror with which to better understand the violent opposition to desegregation that dominated local news when Boston prepared to celebrate the 200th anniversary of our independence.
Studying real history, not glorified or beautified narratives, can help us better understand ourselves. Censoring the way we teach the past is not only dishonest, but also dull. Too many young people hate history class. Their textbooks, often at the behest of politicians, are crafted to tell heroic narratives, requiring varnishing of the past and omitting inconvenient truths. This summer, we’ve heard a range of justifications for the denial and trivialization of the histories of people whose stories challenge national and regional narratives. Ten-year-old me would have understood those desires.
One thing kids hate more than a poorly taught history class is hypocrisy. They can smell it from miles away. They know when they are being lied to, and they turn off or turn away. One of the most popular history books of recent generations is “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” I know that a lot of people get angry at the title, but it’s hard not to understand the appeal.
A lot of young people who don’t like history class love science. What is science if it is not a search for truth? Good scientists don’t try to prove their hypotheses. They don’t change the results of their experiments because they don’t get the results they want. A hypothesis is to be tested, not proven. Students in science classes are primed to develop inquiry skills and learn that sometimes it is okay to be wrong. In fact, being wrong in one moment leads to the advance of knowledge.
Other kids prefer reading and discussing literature. While some marvel at the structure of sentences, most readers I know are taken by the relationship between what they read and their own lives. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop explained that “Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange…Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience.” Exploring the similarities and differences between the worlds we are introduced to in literature develops our perspective-taking skills and our ability to empathize and understand others.
If through exploration of art and literature, we enlarge our imaginations, what, then, is the purpose of history education?
In her epic poem, On the Pulse of Morning, Maya Angelou wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” History, if taught well, helps us understand how we got to now. While some might dismiss the past as the past, it is also the brick and mortar of our present. But, it is more than that. It provides a window, to use Dr. Bishop’s apt term, on human behavior. While we might be inclined to claim the glory of the past, no study of history is complete without understanding the power and inequities of the period. More than that, the framework that provides a throughline to the human experience is the ways that people respond to the events that surround them. Sometimes we humans are amazing, showing unrelenting resolve and compassion, other times our cruelty can shatter our imaginations.
If we only share what is noble and good from the past, we can be sure that our understandings will be simplistic, inaccurate and leave us unprepared to navigate the world we live in.
As appealing as it might be, we cannot go through as a child in a costume. Rather, we need to come equipped with a window and mirror, and understand how to use them.