“My child came out of high school knowing more about Harriet Tubman than about James Madison,” said my highly agitated neighbor. “The teacher had them read Howard Zinn, but none of the opposing points of view.”
My neighbor was responding to an opinion piece I wrote that appeared in the local newspaper a few weeks ago. I had decried the trend in education towards standardization, while suggesting that it is less important in the 21st century for students to know the same things than it is for them to become discriminating consumers of information. My neighbor feels that it is a serious problem for kids to graduate from school with large gaps in their knowledge of important concepts and events in our civic history.
For parents of school-age children, dissatisfaction with public education is the great equalizer. Some schools fail in providing resources, some lack in discipline, some provide discipline at the expense of instruction, some provide inadequate instruction, some offer appropriate content but the design of the instruction is so lacking that students are essentially denied an education. But regardless of the particulars, regardless of the socioeconomic environment in which the school operates, regardless of the expectations of students’ families, conscientious parents know that public schools could do better. On that we all seem to agree.
And we should be dissatisfied with our schools. There is far more at stake in education than in any other publicly funded program. Those of us with children are obviously concerned about our own loved ones’ welfare, but all of us should be concerned with the way the next generation is being prepared to assume an active role in shaping society.
I am dissatisfied with the state of public education. I happen to agree with my neighbor that understanding the contributions of James Madison is important. He was a visionary, instrumental in the creation of a government that operates under the rule of law while remaining flexible enough to adapt itself to changing times. Madison’s legacy can be an effective means to understanding key concepts in American self-government. I believe my neighbor and I agree that students must have information they can use to make sense of the world. I’m just not sure that there is only one way to give students what they need.
Traditionally, American history textbooks have adopted an approach to teaching that emphasizes the virtues of American civic values and highlights the achievements of American heroes. For most of the life of our nation, the canon of American history has been a kind of roll call of presidents and generals with great deeds and sterling character traits thrown in to support their inclusion. Impressive and occasionally stirring, this version of history makes quite a fuss over phrases like “we the people” while focusing all its attention on the actions of a few in the political or economic elite.
While many voices have offered alternative points of view over the years, in recent decades, Howard Zinn’s bestselling book A People’s History of the United States has been particularly influential for many classroom teachers. Zinn barely mentions the familiar roster of names – Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, et al. He focuses on the stories of those who shaped the country from positions of disadvantage – Indians, slaves, immigrants, the working poor, women. Many of these stories illustrate the shortcomings of the American promise of equal opportunity, but also stand as examples of heroic courage against adversity. For years as a high school history teacher, I used excerpts from Zinn’s book to supplement textbooks that glossed over the experiences of the millions who persevered against long odds in the “land of opportunity.”
In recent years, the trend in history education has been to focus a bit more on the diversity of the American people and thus touch on some of the experiences of being disadvantaged in a country that prides itself on equality. There are a number of reasons for this change. Perhaps the most significant are the increasing sensitivity of policymakers and textbook writers to the growing diversity in the country itself, and the desire on the part of educators to engage students with stories about people other than the usual cast of “dead white males.”
But rather than constituting a radical kind of reform in the way we teach, this infusion of new characters into the pantheon of heroes is accomplishing little more than adding a few ingredients to an innately bland concoction.
The problem is rooted in the fact that the traditional history curriculum has revolved around stories about heroes – but real life is more complex than that. Lincoln the hero may be used to represent the government (finally) exercising its moral authority by ending slavery, but Lincoln the man was a cunning political operative who was effective because he kept his own morality in check except where it advanced his political agenda. Still, the hero story works because Lincoln was in a position of power. He had an impact because he used the system to good effect. His story both ennobles the man and reinforces the idea that ultimately the system works.
These new characters, such as Harriet Tubman, are being used to play the roles formerly occupied by the powerful and well-connected. But Tubman was, under the established rules of her time, a criminal. Certainly she was a hero to many in her lifetime and even more since, but at the very least she was a different kind of hero, whose story brings into question the very institutions that traditional history courses have celebrated. For her, the system did not work. By aiding in the escape of slaves, she was repeatedly violating the law and contributing to the escalation of tensions that led to the bloodiest war this country has ever fought. Let’s set aside the issue of whether her actions were morally justified – most modern students of history would agree without hesitation that they were – and consider some of the other far more interesting issues that her story raises.
What is our responsibility as individuals when confronted with a state of affairs that is both immoral and protected by the law? What recourse is available when the rule of law is inflexible? At what point do we abandon reliance on the political system to solve problems and act to take matters into our own hands. How do we choose between personal safety and dangerous action undertaken in defense of others? How do we reconcile ourselves to the probability that aiding some will put others in harm’s way? What does it say about our country that a person who would once have been considered an outlaw is now presented as a hero? What does it say about how history itself is reconsidered with the passage of time?
Because life, and therefore history, consists of so many stories with untidy details and open-ended questions, teachers and students have an incredible opportunity to explore issues that matter, and which go far beyond the celebration of American institutions and values that has been the substance of traditional history courses. But by and large, educators are not seizing this opportunity. And so instead of questioning the intellectual content of our children’s education, we are left debating whether ignoring Madison to spend more class time with Tubman is a good trade-off.
The canon of knowledge we expect our children to learn in school is loaded with political messages. It is time we recognize that if we leave the selection of knowledge up to others, we will always be subject to being either misled or dissatisfied or both. As long as we are content to teach history as a parade of heroes, the only question is whom do we want our children to admire. The real questions should involve why we admire the actions that we do and what we ourselves would do if our principles were put to the test. What we learn is just the first step on the path to discovering how to use the knowledge we have gained.