Why We Should Teach Historical Thinking and not Patriotism in School

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

There is no patriotic math, no patriotic science, and no patriotic English, so why does President Trump want patriotic history? The President recently announced that he was forming a national commission to address what he characterized as "left-wing" indoctrination in our public schools. The President claims that our schools are teaching students to hate our country by focusing on the negatives such as slavery and systemic racism that "Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse." The President's displeasure stems from the recent 1619 Project published by the New York times 400 years after the first enslaved Africans were brought to British North America. The 1619 project points out how the nation's "original sin" of slavery can still be felt in American life through institutional racism and discrimination of African American people. The project consists of a series of essays, poems, and photographs that explore the legacy of slavery and Black Americans' contributions as significant forces in the shaping of American history. The project's creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, developed the 1619 project to correct what she believed to be the prevailing historical narrative that celebrates American exceptionalism and self-perfection while perpetuating national amnesia about its not so laudable past. However, the 1619 project is not without critics. Several professional historians dispute some of Hannah-Jone's more controversial claims, such as the reason colonists declared independence from England was to preserve the institution of slavery.

Unfortunately, history teachers have been caught in the middle of this political fight and are left scratching their heads, asking the question, "what history do we teach?" This is a significant inquiry and reflects the challenges teachers face when teaching in a diverse society. This is not the first time history teachers have been caught in the middle of a debate about what to teach. In 2014 the College Board, creators of the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam, reworked their standards to give history teachers more guidance in preparing their students for the end-of-year exam. Critics of the changes argued that the standards dwelled too much on the negative side of history, and left out prominent Americans and events like George Washington and the Holocaust. This prompted an excoriation from conservative politicians, the Republican National Committee, and the National Review magazine. However, there was broad support for the changes from professional historians who pointed out that the new standards incorporated the latest scholarship and provided a "complex, unsettling, provocative and compelling" truth of U.S. History.

In an ideal world, we would teach everything, the reality is teachers have precious limited time, and just as significant as what we leave in the curriculum is what gets left out. As a result, teachers can never fully satisfy all constituents. No matter how significant the historical event or person is, something or someone is going to be left out of the curriculum. That is why teaching history has become a political minefield, in which teachers have to be very careful where they step. To illustrate the point, the President has threatened to withhold federal funding to any school district that teaches the 1619 Project. That is a heavy burden to put on teachers who just want to provide a balanced American history perspective. But perhaps we could look at the subject differently. Instead of approaching the curriculum as a form of patriotic education, we should teach our students to do what professional historians do, think critically about the past.

In the almost 20 years I have been teaching high school history; I have approached my subject as an academic discipline. By this, I mean that there is a body of knowledge and content that historians are required to know (historiography). There are established methodological approaches to interpretation and writing about the past (colloquium and seminar). Historians understand that history is fundamentally an argument, a debate about the past. For example, no one would deny that Thomas Jefferson was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence. That is a verifiable fact. What is up for debate, however, is what Jefferson meant when he wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Did Jefferson believe that the words he wrote applied to all people to include people of African descent, Native Americans, and women? What makes this all the more enigmatic is that Jefferson held in bondage hundreds of slaves over the course of his lifetime, including having an amorous relationship with his dead wife's half-sister, Sally Hemmings. Does this mean that we should just throw away the document and cancel future 4th of July celebrations? That Jefferson was a hypocrite, and the Declaration of Independence should be excised from the national cannon? No, I don't think we should. As Harvard Professor Daniella Allen points out, "I muck the stalls. I find a diamond. I clean it off and keep it. I do not abandon it because of where I found it."

To think critically about the past, historians develop historical habits of mind to interpret and derive meaning from the historical record. To make a reasoned argument, historians have to think critically about source evidence, or lack thereof. They have to be able to contextualize the past, understanding that the times and circumstances in which an event took place have importance. In their search for truth, historians seek to corroborate source material so that they can understand the big picture. In other words, historians are a lot like detectives who try to piece the past together, sometimes using only scant sources of evidence. Historians try to make history intelligible by considering the causes and consequences of historical events. They know that as much as things change, some things are persistently stubborn and linger through time. Historians employ historical empathy to understand historical actors and divergent points of view and appreciate our shared humanity. All of these skills have real implications for living in a modern democratic republic, especially in a time when "fake news" and deep fakes proliferate social media and the web. In my mind, this approach is a much more productive and satisfying use of students' and teachers' time. Instead of teaching students what to think, we should focus on teaching them how to think. Teachers can hone students' historical thinking skills by engaging them in various approaches that require students to think critically about the past rather than just regurgitate a laundry list of facts. Some of these approaches include document-based questions, short and long-term research projects like National History Day, inquiry learning, and project-based learning, to name a few. Students who are engaged in this type of education have the opportunity to evaluate the evidence and decide for themselves.

The move to create patriotic education is, in my mind, dangerous to a free people. Those who lived in the past are no different from modern actors, they are complicated and messy, and we should be preparing our students to sort through the complexity. Any attempt to sanitize and whitewash history, to distill it down to a good v evil narrative is being naïve at the least, or disingenuous at the worst. As Albert Einstein pointed out "Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth."

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