A different vantage point

I was about 20 years old, on a break from college and sleeping late in my old bed in the room where I grew up. The President of the United States was in town that morning. In fact, he was to deliver a speech on the campus of the university that was located less than a mile from my parents’ house. When I awoke that day, it occurred to me that a short late-morning walk would allow me to see a real live president – something I had never experienced before.

I arrived on the university quadrangle where the president’s speech was already underway and saw that the crowd of people in attendance completely filled the immediate area. I was not going to be able to get within 200 feet or so of the dais, and I wanted a better view than that. So I reached up and grabbed the branch of a nearby tree to pull myself up to a better vantage point. I had barely put my weight on the lowest branch of this tree when a man appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.

He was dressed in a dark blue polyester suit, with sunglasses and an earpiece, and bulges under his jacket that made me think I was better off not finding out what exactly was under that coat. He said to me, “If you don’t get out of that tree, you’ll be shot out of it.”

I thought, just for an instant, of mentioning the name of Zacchaeus, the man in Jericho who climbed a tree in order to see Jesus as he passed through town (according to Luke 19:1-10). I was sure our born-again Christian president would have appreciated the reference. But I had a powerful feeling that the man in the polyester suit was not going to give me credit for paying attention in church. So instead I slunk to the ground, and spent the rest of the speech scanning the crowd and nearby rooftops for federal agents and snipers.

I thought of that sunny morning many years ago after reading reports last week that former president Jimmy Carter had taught a Sunday school lesson to a record-breaking crowd in his hometown of Plains, Georgia the weekend after his announcement that he had cancer. The overflow was so large that they were relocated from the church grounds to a nearby high school, where Carter, not wishing to disappoint visitors, traveled and taught a second lesson. I didn’t hear any reports of congregants climbing trees, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.

The passage of time can change perspectives dramatically. I am certainly not the same man I was in 1979, and neither is President Carter. But as a historian, and a history teacher, I have come to learn that the passage of time can create something rather wonderful.

When we are young, history is entirely made up of things that happened to other people – most of them long dead. But the longer we stick around, the more history includes events we experienced ourselves. Sometimes we discover that we are even included as participants.

One of the curious joys of my career as a U.S. history teacher has been teaching the about years that I actually lived. Often I found that the events most meaningful to me were not even mentioned in the textbooks. The primary sources I used for these years were not limited to instructional materials provided by educational publishers or uncovered by me on the internet. They included yellowed pages of books and periodicals I had squirreled away years earlier simply because they had intrigued me, without any thought I might someday be a teacher and use them in a class. My students’ level of personal engagement was about the same between the Reagan years and the age of Jackson. But for me, teaching those different eras was a completely different experience.

Being a history teacher has required me to live in the present while being mindful of the past. It has prompted me to see parallels, make connections, identify meaningful distinctions – and help prepare students to do the same as history unfolds along with their lives.

I remember Jimmy Carter as governor of Georgia, president of the United States, author, international watchdog for democracy, head of the Carter Center. I have shaken his hand and spoken with him as he signed a book for me. (I didn’t mention my Zacchaeus incident.) Carter has been tireless, proactive, and remarkably accessible to the public. I have often thought that if you lived in Georgia in the last 30 years, and you haven’t had a personal encounter with Jimmy Carter, you weren’t trying very hard.

It remains to be seen how history will remember Carter. Most would agree that his post-presidential career has been remarkable. But reviews of his White House years are mixed. At the end of a week of praise for Carter that came on the heels of his cancer announcement, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday printed a letter that pegged him as the “second-worst president this country has ever endured.”

I remember something my sixth grade English teacher once said – one of those ideas so striking that it shook my young mind and took up permanent residence. He was mentioning a new book on an old war and remarked, “Now that the last veterans of the First World War are dying off, it will finally be possible to write an objective account of that conflict.”

Living history empowers us to judge history, and gives us a special perspective on those events that become parts of our lives. Our own history may be the only part of us that is truly immortal. But in time, it ceases to be ours. The judgment of history is never complete. There is always a different vantage point.


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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Once a slave …

The vast bureaucracy of public education is devoted to the transmission of knowledge and social norms that will help children succeed in life as adults. But it is sometimes the unintentional messages that have the greatest impact.

Last week I previewed a short film on the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability.

This landmark piece of legislation was enacted four years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – one of the crowning achievements of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.

It came 102 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a post-Civil War enactment so sweeping in its effect that some questioned its constitutionality. Congress quickly drafted the 14th amendment in part to establish definitively that the federal government has the power to prohibit racial discrimination by the states. It seems like that should have been enough, doesn’t it?

To anyone who believes in progress, it has to be stunning to realize that over a century after the Civil War, we are still today coming to terms with our sad history of race relations.

The idea of equality is as old as this country, but the practice of equal treatment of all Americans remains an elusive goal – and one that experience has taught us is better served when we have laws to keep our actions aligned with our principles, rather than our worst instincts.

The Fair Housing laws place serious restrictions on the ability of professionals working in the real estate industry from assisting sellers or buyers in discriminating on the basic of the qualities and characteristics specified in the legislation.

For instance, if the seller of a house declares to his agent that he does not wish to sell to a member of a particular racial or ethnic group, the agent’s best strategy for avoiding liability under Title VIII is to simply terminate the agency relationship with the seller. The seller has effectively asked the agent to break the law, and the agent needs to back away as quickly as possible.

The historic justification for the fair housing laws is a pattern of long-standing practices that led to segregated neighborhoods and discriminatory lending practices. But the laws go beyond avoiding these effects. They require real estate professionals to stay completely out of any decisions based on the classes identified in the laws – no matter their intent.

So if a buyer asks his agent to help locate a ethnically-diverse neighborhood because he thinks such an environment will be better for his children, the agent will have no choice but to decline. At most, the agent can refer the buyer to public records that may contain the information he is seeking. But any active assistance in decision-making based on criteria such as the ethnicity of a neighborhood may make the agent liable for “steering,” which is strictly prohibited.

It may seem counter-intuitive to use labels like “race” or “religion” in order to mandate behavior in which we ignore such labels, but the practice of equal treatment often requires the unlearning of old ideas, and old patterns of behavior. Sometimes the best way to change a mindset is to identify something as wrong that one never gave a second thought before.

And so it was with some disappointment, but little surprise, that I noticed a troubling line in the video on fair housing laws that I viewed last week. In an introductory passage giving historical context, the narrator stated, “After the Civil War, Congress passed a flurry of laws to give rights to the slaves.”

There are a number of serious problems with this statement.

First, after the Civil War – specifically after the 13th amendment (1865) – slavery was illegal. When the “flurry of laws” referred to in the video was passed, it was for the benefit of American citizens.

Second, in this country, we are citizens, not subjects. Rights are not given, they are (in the words of the Declaration of Independence) “endowed by our Creator.” It is up to our government to respect them, and if needed to protect them.

But most importantly, the statement in the video is paternalistic and perpetuates negative stereotypes. Surely we don’t need to adopt the prejudices of the 19th century ruling class in order to describe their actions. And surely we don’t need to saddle the children of the 21st century with the message that their rights are subject to the benevolence of a few people in power. Enough already.

It is ironic that an instructional video that promotes a kind of blindness towards categories such as race would include a statement that reflects a racist version of equality. I suppose that there are some prejudices that run so deep that civil rights legislation cannot reach them. But can’t we make the effort to keep these kinds of subtle yet damaging messages away from impressionable young minds?


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.


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Jefferson-Jackson Day

Some members of the Democratic Party are backing away from their traditional association with two party patriarchs. In many states, the crucial annual fundraising event is the Jefferson-Jackson Day banquet. But in a pre-election year in which the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is shaping the political consciousness of the nation’s oldest political organization, honoring two old slaveholders seems to many like a nod in the wrong direction.

As with much of our American heritage, the popular image is a shallow reflection of the historical reality. There is much to venerate – and much to revile – in the records of both of these men. All Americans, not just Democrats, need to come to terms with our history of slavery and racial discrimination, and take responsibility for healing the divisions that plague us today.

But there is an even greater problem for the Democrats in highlighting their traditional heroes. Liberals in the United States have yielded control of the language that defines their core values.

Absolute liberty is an ideal – an impossibility in a complex society in which the social contract is built on voluntary concessions of individual freedom for the sake of a collective good. And thus liberty is most easily defined in real world terms in the negative, by describing the fight against restrictions on freedom – those things that exceed the voluntary concessions of freedom that are fundamental to the social contract.

In recent decades, American conservatives have defined liberty as the freedom from excessive government and identified themselves as the enemies of big government – and liberals have essentially acquiesced to this definition. Rhetoric aside, both major parties today seem to be enthusiastic supporters of big government. And if we accept the definition of liberty as freedom from government control, Jefferson and Jackson appear to be odd heroes for either party.   More to the point, even a superficial appraisal of their guiding political philosophies suggests a great divide between the principles to which they dedicated their energies, and the focus and direction of the modern Democratic Party.

In simple terms – in fact, in the terms it was put to me on many occasions by students in my history classes – the question is: Why were the Democrats the party of small government in the 1800s and they are the party of big government today?

I think the most compelling answer is one that unites the modern and the historic Democrats in a common theme that incorporates parts of the legacies of Jefferson and Jackson. But it takes a little lesson in history to see that theme and to understand the connection.

During the presidency of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson was one of the founders of the first opposition political party. The Democratic-Republicans were concerned about the expansion of federal power under our new Constitution. They were specifically opposed to an act of Congress chartering the Bank of the United States. Jefferson and his allies including James Madison argued that the Constitution lists the powers that the federal government may exercise, that there is no specific grant of power to charter a bank, and therefore this act was unconstitutional.

The party in power during the Washington and Adams administration, the Federalists, wanted to put the new nation on solid financial footing, retire the debt that lingered from the Revolutionary War, and establish a stable climate in which business could flourish. The creation of a federally-chartered bank was one important part of that policy, and Federalists were happy to point out that the Constitution allows for some expansion of the enumerated powers of Congress. At the end of a list of legislative powers, Article I, section 8, clause 18 states that “Congress shall have the power … To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.” In other words, Congress may improvise some solutions to national problems, as long as the solution was related to a power specifically granted by the Constitution.

To their credit, the Federalists were early to recognize that the framers of the Constitution could not possibly have anticipated every problem that might arise for the new nation. And to their credit, the Democratic-Republicans, recent victors in a revolution against a national (British) government that was felt to have abused its power, were not about to let the United States slide down that slippery slope. To these 18th century liberals, liberty equated with a weak and limited government.

With the election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1800, the political equation changed. The Democratic-Republicans (by then usually shortened to simply Republicans) would become so dominant in American politics that within a few years the Federalist Party simply disappeared. But its governing philosophy did not. As their political opposition faded, Republicans came to favor a somewhat greater expansion of federal power. President Jefferson did not seek to overturn Federalist policies already in place, and in some cases – notably the Louisiana Purchase – he himself exercised power not specifically granted in the Constitution. As the years of the revolutionary era faded into the past, the growing nation adopted new concerns. Federal support for building infrastructure was a major issue for a country whose frontier line was still east of the Mississippi.

By the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828, the Republican Party had fragmented. Jackson was a champion of government by the common man – then defined as adult white males – as opposed to the elite wealthy class that had produced most of our “founding fathers” and all of the previous six presidents. Supporters of Jackson tended to hold to the Jeffersonian ideal of a smaller, weaker federal government. In time, Jackson supporters came to call themselves Democrats, and this faction is the direct political ancestor of the modern Democratic Party.

Opponents of Jackson tended to favor a more expansive use of federal power, in the service of financial stability and economic development. First labeling themselves National Republicans, and then breaking away to form a new political party, the Whigs, these political children of the Federalist Party finally fell apart over the issue of slavery. In the 1850s, Northern Whigs formed the core of the new Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and the direct ancestor of the modern Republicans.

So, in the 1800s, the Democrats were the champions of smaller government, and the Republicans were the promoters of expansive federal power. What changed? Why did they switch?

For years, the answer I have given my classes is that the United States itself had changed. Instead of a nation of farmers with limited interstate commerce, we became an industrial power with a nationwide economy and a world power in international trade. The path to advancement for a growing number of Americans was as an employee in a factory, not as an independent agricultural producer. The products we consumed increasingly came by rail from corporations, not from the local craftsmen in our own communities.

The party of Jefferson saw the greatest threat to liberty as the unchecked expansion of government power. But by the 1890s, many in the Democratic Party had come to see the greatest threat to liberty as the unchecked greed and economic power of certain large corporations. An out-of-control government was still to be feared, but greater democratic participation could make government into the servant of the people, and government was the best tool the common man had for fighting back.

It took some time for the Democrats to fully embrace this change in philosophy, and to implement it into law. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs during the 1930s solidified the switch, and made the Republicans into the party of opposition. Today, even while in power, Republicans tend to use the rhetoric of an opposing party.

Modern Democrats have a long and complex history – not surprising for a party that traces its roots back more than 200 years. History provides points of pride as well as lessons learned the hard way. Jefferson and Jackson are problematic heroes for many reasons, their support for the institution of slavery perhaps the most obvious one. But if the Democrats can claim their legacy of championing the rights of the common man against threats to liberty, Jefferson and Jackson may still serve as symbols of Democratic ideals. If they cannot communicate this connection into the popular consciousness, it might be better to let those two pillars of party history fade from view.


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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Internet wisdom

“If we have to debate … how we remember the past … I would not call that a very free society.”

– one of my friends on the world wide web

In the 21st century we are awash in information. Knowledge is power, and with power comes responsibility. But information is not the same thing as knowledge. We have to be open to differing interpretations. We have to stop being afraid of unanswered questions.

Technology has given us incredible tools for education. A 13 year-old kid with a smart phone can hold in his hand access to more information than a college professor 100 years ago could have imagined possible. A history teacher now has instant access to primary source documents and visual images that would have taken months of research to locate before. News is instantaneous and interactive. Everyone can be a writer. Everyone can be a publisher. The interface we use to access the scholarly works of tenured academics and the brilliant insights of engineers and philosophers is the same we use to access the rants of every crank with a WiFi connection.

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish well-researched scholarly works from carefully constructed propaganda. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish what we still like to think of as news – an unbiased account held to established journalistic standards – from opinion. Outrage is entertaining. Attention spans are short. After all, if the article we are reading doesn’t captivate us, something else awaits with just the click of a link.

The internet is democratic in the way that democracy should be. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Everyone has a voice. Everyone who can find his or her way to a platform may vote. It is messy, it is chaotic, it is as Churchill said about democracy, the worst system there is except for all the others. [1]

I enjoy it when people express their points of view. I love to hear reasoned conclusions backed by evidence. I respect opinions backed only by sentiment with no other reason. We are, after all, creatures who are both rational and emotional. But I am troubled when people can’t seem to tell the difference. And I am more troubled still when people seem unwilling even to consider the validity of a different point of view.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in the middle of (what turned into) a very silly argument online involving the presence of Confederate iconography at Stone Mountain Park near Atlanta.

It began when a friend posted a report that a leader of the local NAACP chapter had suggested removing symbols honoring the Confederacy from the state-owned park. The most prominent of those symbols is an enormous carving on the side of the mountain depicting Confederate President Jefferson Davis on horseback along with Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Others commented that sand-blasting the carving away would be a bad idea. I offered in jest a more modest suggestion.

Instead of destroying the entire carving (an impressive work of art, to say nothing of a feat of engineering) I suggested transforming the faces of Lee and Jackson to depict two anonymous federal marshals taking Davis into custody on charges of treason.

Do I have to explain that it was a joke? Not a knee-slapping funny joke, to be sure, but a deliberately absurd idea – one that was intended to make people think about the issue from a different perspective. I won’t be offended if you don’t laugh.

However, a number of people who read my suggestion took it quite seriously, and the passion of their responses was impressive, even if the evidence cited to support their arguments was generally unconvincing.

But one part of the conversation was quite troubling to me. I had written, “I think a debate about how we remember the past – and what parts of it we honor – is important in a free society.” In response, another commenter wrote, “If we have to debate to determine how we remember the past (discarding what we don’t like) I would not call that a very free society.”

As a matter of fact, I believe that the freedom to debate is one of the crucial elements of a free society. I think that the ability to judge the past for ourselves is essential to a political system that values democracy. I would expect that as the world progresses over time, as mistakes are made and lessons learned, that hard-won wisdom allows us to change our minds about whose actions are heroic and which causes are just. I hope we have the courage to recognize that it is our responsibility to learn, and to understand, and to decide for ourselves.

In an age of information in which fact is often drowned out by opinion, we have to be critical consumers. We have to exercise the courage to form our own opinions, and to change those opinions when new evidence or insights suggest a different answer.

Knowing the answer is not nearly as important as having the power to find the answer.


[1] Winston Churchill, the former prime minister of Great Britain said on November 11, 1947, “Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.”

Churchill also said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” – a sentiment that often comes to mind when I am on the internet.


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Exceptional history

Last week the College Board, which sets guidelines for the Advanced Placement classes taken by high school students around the country, announced that it will revise its U.S. History curriculum in response to criticism from activists who felt that it inadequately emphasized American heroes. One of the phrases to be added to the new guidelines is “American exceptionalism.”

There is a line that exists between marking one nation, one people, one anything as unique, and recognizing similarities, parallels, and the opportunities to learn lessons in other contexts that can be applied within our own. We cross that line all the time – sometimes holding the things we care about as comparable to this or that, and at other times holding those things as incomparable. The line is under our control and we not only cross it, we move it at will. It is one of the tools we have for understanding the world around us.

But it is a tool that can facilitate misunderstanding as well.

To be completely unique – to be the exception to everything – is to be alone in the world.

But to be a part of the great pattern of human existence, the latest expression of irrepressible human nature, is to be in touch with ourselves, and with each other. As humans we learn from each other. As exceptions, we have nothing to learn. Different rules apply.

There is a limit to the value that can be gained from exceptionalism. There is a limit to the value that can be gained from celebrating heroes. When we place certain human beings outside the realm of normal human experience, we put them on the other side of the line from ourselves. That’s not fair to them or to us, and in so doing we rob ourselves of valuable lessons in life.

I haven’t yet studied the changes in the Advanced Placement course for U.S. History. But my initial reaction to the news I have read is that this constitutes a dumbing-down of the curriculum, a disincentive to question or to dig deeper.

And it is in digging deeper that the story becomes more real, more interesting to students, to scholars, and to the casually curious. Students in my classes over the years were not surprised to learn that George Washington was the wealthiest man in Virginia. They were a little surprised to discover that he achieved this status by marrying the wealthiest widow in the colony. Washington was highly regarded in his own day, but this was to a great extent as a result of careful calculation on his part. He studied and scrupulously followed the rules of etiquette. He entered the military as an officer (he was, after all, born into the class of respectable wealthy landowners) in order to prove his leadership skills and devotion to public service. In an era when to lobby for positions of power and influence was considered crass, Washington did not ask for command of the Continental Army. He simply showed up as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in full dress uniform until the other delegates took the hint. He deserves a great deal of credit for holding together a ragtag army for years while facing a formidable foe, but he lost more battles than he won, and some of his greatest successes in the field were in simply escaping annihilation.

Washington the man, complete with human failings including unbridled ambition, obsessed with his public image, is far more interesting as a figure in history. And it is far easier for students to aspire to accomplishments as great as his were, when we see him as a man, and not a monument.

The problem with heroes is that their great deeds are by definition unremarkable. Heroes do great things. They are not like most of us. Different rules apply.

But wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge that ordinary men and women are capable of extraordinary deeds – that all of us can aspire to do great good? Shouldn’t we teach history in a way that allows students to discover for themselves whether a person’s actions are worthy of admiration, instead of decreeing hero status on a select group of historical figures? Shouldn’t we challenge students to identify the ways in which the United States is like other nations throughout history, and the ways in which it is an exception, instead of starting from a declaration of American exceptionality?


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The mountain endures

In recent weeks, there have been a number of stories in the news about symbols of the Confederacy and the proper placement of these reminders of a particular part of our past. The fact that a flag that was in official service for a few years over a century and a half ago still evokes such strong reactions and such differing opinions today is a reminder of the power of symbols – and of the importance of the way we tell our story.

In the Atlanta area, many have reacted strongly to the suggestion that Confederate iconography be removed from Stone Mountain Park.

For those unfamiliar with Stone Mountain, it is a dome-shaped granite monadnock, five miles in circumference, and rising 825 feet above the surrounding land. From a distance, it looks like a gigantic grey stone bubble rising above the tree tops. For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, it has served human beings as a site for recreation, exploration, exploitation of its mineral resources, and rituals of various kinds, including sunrise worship services.

In 1915, its summit was the site of another kind of ritual – the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in its 20th century incarnation in the wake of the trial and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank. In 1923, the owners of the mountain granted an easement to the Klan with a perpetual right to hold their gatherings there. In the same year, fundraising began to support a massive carving on the North face of the mountain that would feature heroes of the Confederacy.

Today, Stone Mountain and the surrounding land are owned by the state of Georgia, which has extinguished the Ku Klux Klan’s easement. But the massive carving, depicting Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson spreads across three acres of the mountain’s surface. The viewing area for the carving is lined with patios honoring the former slave-holding states. The walk-up trail features a display of different Confederate flags. The streets serving the park are named for Davis, Lee, and Jackson.

In his 1963 I Have A Dream speech, Martin Luther King Jr. called for freedom to ring from a number of American place names, including Stone Mountain, which was then well known for its association with the Klan and its celebration of the Confederate States of America.

Most people who grew up in the Atlanta area have always known Stone Mountain as a Confederate memorial, but few have questioned why this is so. In a region pock-marked with Civil War battle sites, nothing of much significance happened during the war at Stone Mountain. Most Atlantans are dimly if at all aware of the Klan connection to the mountain.

The park has existed from the days of Jim Crow segregation in a majority-white and mostly rural county to become a part of the rapidly-growing Atlanta metropolitan area, in a majority-black county, with residents and visitors from around the world. In my personal experience, it in not unusual to take the one-mile hike to the summit of the mountain and hear three or four different languages being spoken along the busy trail. Each one of these hikers begins their journey by passing a building called Confederate Hall and a row of poles adorned by Confederate flags.

To me, this is a fascinating and puzzling juxtaposition of images. I have never been comfortable with the way many in my home region seem to obsess over and glorify its bloody flirtation with secession, and excuse the Confederacy’s inherent opposition to basic human rights. But the cure for this form of blindness seems not to be to cast light upon it, but rather to let the magnificent nature of the mountain assert its draw. People come from around the world, and the mistakes and pains of the past are ignored in favor of the pleasures and opportunities available today. It was with some satisfaction that I read a few years ago that the former home of the high-ranking Klan member who had granted the easement to the KKK had been purchased by the first black mayor of the town of Stone Mountain.

In recent weeks, there have been calls for the removal of Confederate symbols from the park. As in other places, and as with other memorials, passions have run high. It will be interesting to see how the debate proceeds. As a history teacher, I am always excited when people look to evidence from the past to explain the needs and values of the present.

But in this one particular instance, I think there is no doubt as to the eventual winner of the debate. Sitting atop the mountain, warm summer breeze in my face, I can only imagine the millions of years this massive stone has weathered the elements, the living things that cling to its sides, the noisy bugs that yammer and buzz around it. And I know that no matter the reasons, no matter the passions, the mountain will outlast all of us.

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Standardized history

Last week’s news included the U.S. Senate’s passage of a bill to revamp the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. The new bill would allow for greater decision-making authority for states, but would continue the mandate for standardized testing. Thursday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured a front page story on the disappointing performance of many of Georgia’s charter schools. Charter schools are public schools, and as such must administer the same standardized tests as every other public school in the state.

Education, like any human endeavor, is subject to too many variations, too many exceptions, too many instances of our infinite ability to achieve nonconformity, to be reduced to a formula. It is absurd to say, “the problem with public education is …” anything, because the experience of education is unique to each one of us.

But expecting every one of our students – with their incredible variety of talents, strengths, and potential, to experience education – with its power to expand horizons, to pass through the same multiple-choice gauntlet is surely one of the problems in our schools. And it is not one we seem ready to fix.

Standardizing education makes it easier to measure results – and practically guarantees that results we see will disappoint us.

A little over a decade ago, my state’s education bureaucracy produced a new set of standards, listing the content to be covered in the courses we offered. These standards were brought into play as the No Child Left Behind Act mandated greater consequences for schools, dependent on their students’ performance on standardized tests. Tests would be based on the standards, and teachers were assured that only the specific information listed in the standards would be on the test. [i]

The Georgia Performance Standards for high school history courses were specific, but somewhat arbitrary and often ambiguous. For example, SSUSH18e reads:

Identify the political challenges to Roosevelt’s domestic and international leadership; include the role of Huey Long, the “court packing bill,” and the Neutrality Act.

So to prepare for test questions, students need to know something about Senator Huey Long that would constitute a challenge to Roosevelt’s leadership, something about Roosevelt’s plan to increase the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court that would pose a threat to his leadership, and, well, something about “the Neutrality Act.” But other challenges to Roosevelt’s leadership that did not make this list may be safely ignored.

And anything we may learn about the interesting career of Huey Long, or the social and economic conditions in the Depression-era South, or the unique and fascinating politics of the state of Louisiana that is unrelated to his challenge to Roosevelt’s leadership is irrelevant to our purpose – to select the correct answer on a standardized test. To answer that question, a student would undoubtedly need to know simply that before he was assassinated, Huey Long posed a potential challenge to FDR when he sought a second term, and it might be helpful to remember Long’s catch phrase, “Share Our Wealth.”

Roosevelt proposal of increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court to allow him to appoint members who would vote to uphold New Deal legislation was defeated in Congress. It was widely seen as an attempt to exercise political control over the judicial branch, and cost Roosevelt some political capital. The reasons behind Roosevelt’s “court-packing” scheme, including a long history of constitutional debate over the extent of federal power – arguably the fundamental political debate in our country’s history – are only pertinent as related to the much narrower theme of challenges to Roosevelt’s leadership. Students are expected to know only the political horse-race aspect of this conflict – who won and who lost. The opportunity to cast light on important issues of constitutional law will likely be lost. It’s not going to be on the test.

When it comes to “the Neutrality Act,” we are presumably to ignore the fact that there were several Neutrality Acts passed during Roosevelt’s time in office, each of which took different positions on trade with nations that were at war. During the period of their enactment, both the wars abroad and political postures of Americans with respect to neutrality were evolving. Even setting aside the question of which piece of legislation is referenced, it is difficult to guess whether the drafters of the standards meant to offer “the Neutrality Act” as an example of a threat to Roosevelt’s domestic leadership or his stature as an international leader – or perhaps as a leader domestically in setting international policy.

As written, some of the standards call for some higher order thinking (“explain,” “analyze,” “evaluate”), but every student and teacher knows that the high-stakes test on this material will be multiple-choice, and that a high score will be the result if a student were simply able to recognize enough of the correct answers. Students like a challenge, and for all humans, learning is as natural as breathing. But asking them to do the same monotonous tasks over and over kills enthusiasm, and makes learning seem a chore instead of a pleasure. No wonder test results are disappointing.

Poorly written standards and standardized testing constrain the opportunities for learning. Instead of opening doors for exploring new avenues, public education has been reduced to channeling all students down the same narrow hallway, where memorizing bullet points is the highest order of thinking required, and asking why is an inefficient use of class time.


[i] https://www.georgiastandards.org/standards/Georgia%20Performance%20Standards/United-States-History.pdf


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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