To Calm the Storm Over the Teaching of History, Look to These Three Values

Parents and schools are at war over how to tell the American story. Optimism, inclusion and honesty could help

When teaching about America, optimism is important, but so is honesty: American Progress, by John Gast

Education has been at the center of political conversations for much of the past year. Parents, teachers, politicians and journalists disagree on how the story of America should be taught and have launched a thousand anecdote-laden opinion pieces about critical race theory, the 1619 Project, “wokeism,” patriotism and propaganda.

I’d like to step back from these incendiary debates and take a fresh look at how we should handle civic and historical education. What values could guide an approach to education that is broadly liberal (in the 19th century sense) and also a good fit for the citizens of a diverse and pluralistic democracy? There are three core values that I believe can help change the highly polarized and politicized conversation we’re having today. These are optimism, inclusion and honesty.

As a hobby, I collect old textbooks, particularly those on civics and American history. What characterizes these books, especially ones from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is their optimism about America and Americans. Reading them is a genuine culture shock, given today’s cynical and pessimistic milieu.

When the greatest generation—the generation that went on to lead America through World War II and the Cold War—was in school, the curriculum was very big on American potential and American freedoms. We do want people to feel good about the country and their community. We do not want people to feel alienated from their society. We also want Americans to feel hopeful about the future. A teaching of civics and history that paints our country as irredeemably bad is going to be rejected by citizens who like their country.

History’s Missing Players

Not surprisingly, these books don’t feature many Black people, and it is hard to feel good about your country and hopeful about the future when you’re left out of the picture. The photos in a civics textbook from the 1930s, for example, feature only white children exhibiting the virtues of daily exercise. Immigration is looked upon with suspicion. Native and Black Americans are treated at best with a stiff politeness or with demeaning compliments. A history of Virginia textbook from the 1890s clearly limns out the tropes of the Lost Cause, which rejected Reconstruction and obscured the causes of the Civil War. So, optimism alone can lead to an unthinking jingoism, and is not a sure guide for a better approach to education.

This brings us to inclusion. If optimism worked for some people learning the story of America, it was because they could see themselves as part of that story. The stories that move us are often ones we can imagine ourselves in, which requires finding characters we can relate to. The wholesale absence of people of different backgrounds, depriving them of any role in the story, is not a formula for universal optimism.

Granted, what constitutes “people like me” is murky—it should not be restricted to the arbitrary categories of race, class or gender popular with some theorists, though these characteristics can’t be ignored either. As philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah points out in his book “The Lies That Bind,” the group identities that matter, how they matter, what meanings we assign to them and which ones we choose to affirm are not straightforward. So, for example, while Appiah is British and Ghanaian and has a very different biography from mine, I feel a strong affinity for him because we have both been trained as philosophers.

A Lesson from ‘Hamilton’

There are creative avenues to inclusion that get at the real complexities of group identities. For example, in the hit musical “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda focused not on the fact that Alexander Hamilton was white, but that he was an immigrant from the Caribbean coming to New York City to make something of himself. This clearly resonated with present-day New Yorkers, as well as many across the country. As this example shows, a nuanced approach to inclusion requires thinking about not just the race or gender of figures in the history books but also their passions, personalities and ways of dealing with the world.

It’s easy to agree in the abstract that history should be optimistic and inclusive. However, we cannot simply wish such a history into being because it fits our current political needs. We have the history that our ancestors passed on to us, and it has a great deal of pain and injustice in its pages.

This brings us to the thorniest value—honesty. This is the value that’s needed to make optimism and inclusion sing in harmony. Attempts at optimism and inclusion can be dishonest. An optimism that is uncritical of America’s failings is simply lying. An inclusiveness that tries to force a narrative of togetherness that is not felt by many Americans is also lying. The key, then, to achieving this value is dialogue.

Multiple Viewpoints

We don’t have access to facts of history that come without a perspective. By this I don’t mean to open a philosophical Pandora’s box by denying objective truth or declaring everything subjective. However, if we compare the study of history with, say, physics, we can see the difference. When describing the motion of a particle, we don’t account for the particle’s own point of view on the matter because it doesn’t have one. Our fellow human beings most decidedly do, so we must take that into account when describing their actions in the history books. And we need to address the perspectives of both the past and the present.

Students in freshman philosophy classes might be taken with the idea that the perspectives of other people are never truly knowable—we can’t climb inside another person’s head—but we have a serviceably good substitute. If we want to know what other people think, we can ask them, or in the case of historical personages, read what they wrote. This is why honesty is so entwined with dialogue.

If what we are looking for is an inclusive and optimistic rendition of history, we also need one that is as close to true as possible, and we arrive at that truth by checking our interpretations with others. We arrive at that truth by comparing our perspective with the perspectives of others. This is not to say all perspectives are of equal weight—empirical facts put hard constraints on what is plausible to believe.

It is worth remembering that optimism is forward-looking—a country can have many difficult moments in the past but a brighter future. The complicated story of our country is full of bumps, and in looking back over the past 250 years, we may not all see it the same way. But having an honest conversation that’s based on a confident and inclusive optimism about who we are and where we are going is something we can accomplish. As a country the U.S. has a great deal to feel good about—we’re healthier, wealthier and freer than our ancestors ever were. I would also humbly suggest that we are more just with each other.

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