I’m sure there was never a time this was not true, but it is a great time to be a history and social studies instructor. We are living during an era of incredible debate about what kind of American history to have and which kind to teach. Between the 1619 project, the 1776 Commission Report, and Critical Race Theory, there are numerous choices regarding which lens in which to ‘see’ history at this moment.
I don’t think history is an easy subject to teach or to learn. A lesson of being a human being is it is often hard to put oneself into other people’s shoes and feel all their emotions — good and bad. It is often easy to have our own perspective and a lot harder to look at things from an alternative view.
The best history teachers tell stories and try to get their students to know why something happened and how it affected people at the time. Moreover, they try to get the learners to think about the effects of time — how things relate from past to present. As I have become a more mature instructor, I have learned the facts and dates are very important, but it is much more about what people endured — their joys and their sorrows.
And also — their courage.
It is true that each generation worries about losing their history. For example, earlier this month to honor National Constitution Day, I placed the words to the Constitution’s Preamble on the screen without telling the students what the document was. I invited them to read the words and write down what things stood out to them. We had a great discussion, but very few students identified those words as being from the Preamble. In eighth grade, thanks to an awesome instructor, my class was required to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Today, not many students recognize those words either, nor how important they are. When we lose the words of the country, we put ourselves in a perilous situation. Ronald Reagan once said, “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.”
All of us have seen polls to suggest Americans are ignorant of their history. Pundits seek to blame teachers which is not always fair. History can be a hard subject because we always feel we have more time to get to learn it. No so.
The great writer and philosopher, Will Durant, has a great quote about how some people teach history and how it is viewed by others. He says one cause for our pessimism is the way we think about history as turbulent streams of conflicts happening over and over instead of examining the day to day activities of people over time which can offer understanding and meaning to life. He finishes his thought with this: “The history of civilization is a record of what happened on the banks.”
Teachers need to talk to their students about those mighty streams of conflicts, but also discuss what happened on the banks of those streams. How people got along, held things in common, shared a series of destinies, stood up against injustice, and worked to be the best they could.
It seems at times people in charge of curriculum want to be down in the weeds instead of on the banks. A smart and invigorating teacher should give as much attention to George Washington as they do to Booker T. Washington; to talk about the heroism of Clara Barton is to also speak of the tough leadership of Rachel Carson on environmental change and Delores Huerta on immigrant rights. We need all perspectives and shouldn’t settle on just one way to teach the history of the country.
I worry sometimes, with only weeks to teach a collective American history class, how much I might be leaving out. However, if I have taught students to think, and to feel, and to understand what life was like in a particular era, I am accomplishing something.
President Harry Truman is correct when he said the most important history is the history you don’t know. We have a duty to study and learn. It is true, a greater appreciation of history comes to us with time. We marry, have children, lose loved ones, go off to war, work a job, and witness more history over the span of our lives. Such is what makes conversation and learning around the family table so unique and interesting.
A final thought, many of these curriculums and suggested ways of teaching are bereft of heroes. That is tragic and wrong. We need heroes to enrich our souls like we need blood to pump through our bodies. We learn from great examples.
Ultimately, an understanding of history is about honesty and appreciation.
And so it should be — all of the time.
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and CCC&TI. He can be reached at email@example.com