As a young boy growing up in the Texas Panhandle in the 1950s and 1960s, I was indoctrinated into the myths of the Alamo and Texas exceptionalism, although I do not recall learning much about the right of Texas to secede from the Union. Despite learning more about Texas high school football than the contributions of blacks and Hispanics to the making of the state, the conservative orientation of the curriculum did not prevent me from questioning the Vietnam War and embracing the Civil Rights Movement as a first generation college student. And I have confidence that the teachers and students of the Texas public school system will be able to rise above and see through the narrow and partisan history standards adopted by the Texas State Board of Education which have drawn the ire of many historians throughout the nation.
Unfortunately, this debate over standards often rages with little input from history teachers who are expected to implement mandated curriculum. This attitude derives from a fundamental lack of respect in our culture for teachers. Thus, it is assumed that dentists and real estate agents are better equipped to make curricular decisions than are history educators.
Of course, I must confess that I was not too impressed with my high school history teachers, who were primarily football coaches. Class activities were limited to outlining the textbook and preparing reports from Encyclopedia Britannica. One could either take a test on Friday or choose the Southwest Conference trivia option. But in defense of these coaches, it should be pointed out that their employment was dependent not upon their history knowledge, but rather their won/loss record on the football field. Fortunately, even Texas has moved somewhat beyond the stereotypical high school football coach as history teacher.
There are also some credential issues with history educators as often a teacher with a social studies degree may be teaching American history with as few as six college hours of history. Nevertheless, there is a strong movement to enhance history education around the nation, led by organizations such as the National Council for History Education, Society for History Education, World History Association, American Historical Association, and Organization of American Historians. The federally-financed Teaching American History grants provide excellent models of collaboration between university professors and teachers in the schools. Opportunities for summer history education are also available through the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gilder Lehrman Institute.
Perhaps the biggest problem for organizations such as the Texas State Board of Education, however, is a fundamental lack of understanding regarding history as an academic discipline. There is a popular assumption that history must be easy to teach, as it is an unchanging body of knowledge which does not require the analytical rigor of science and mathematics. Yet history is an exercise in interpretation in which we filter the past through the lens of the evolving present. Thus, the Civil Rights Movement and feminism have encouraged a more inclusive history that considers the contribution of women, Latino/as, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Muslim Americans to the building of America. The question is not simply which facts, but whose facts. It is a matter of perspective. The history of Western settlement may differ depending upon whether the story is told from the point of view of a pioneer or Native American. In fact, it seems to be the concept of multiple perspectives that most frightens those seeking to impose absolute standards upon the schools.
For example, it is not unreasonable that consideration be given to the role played by groups such as the National Rifle Association and “moral majority” in the 1980s resurgence of conservatism, but it would be difficult to tell the whole story of American politics in the late twentieth century without also including Ted Kennedy. Likewise, it would be a serious omission to discuss the rise of industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries without taking into account the countervailing power of Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party, which enjoyed strong support in Texas and Oklahoma before the First World War. The discipline offers an excellent opportunity for teachers to instill critical thinking by encouraging students to reach their own conclusions based upon research and analysis of primary documents and sources,
It is the fostering of critical thinking to which the Texas State Board seems most opposed. Rather than encouraging students to investigate the role of religion in the forging of the American nation, students are instructed to accept that the founders envisioned a Christian nation. According to the Texas standards, the Second Amendment is to be treated as an absolute, rather than presenting alternative interpretations and letting students reach their own conclusions. After all, the First Amendment freedom of speech is not recognized by the courts as absolute. It is important to examine the role of Ronald Reagan in ending the Cold War, but it is equally essential to appreciate the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, for American history must be placed within the global context in which students will be living during the twenty-first century.
Perhaps the issue boils down to the traditional nostrum that the purpose of history is to instill patriotism in the youth. Yet to assume their duties as citizens in a democracy, our students must learn to think critically and question the conventional wisdom. It is this type of engaged citizenry, rather than rote patriotism, which will propel the United States forward in the next century.
And this is the type of teaching which I attempt to offer my students. I tend to align myself more with the Howard Zinn school of historiography and an emphasis upon history from the bottom up. It is, however, a perspective which I share with my students, urging them to challenge me with differing points of analysis. I view it as my charge to present students with multiple perspectives. Thus, when we study the New Deal, it is crucial for them to understand the concept of a social safety net program such as Social Security. It is equally important to recognize that the liberalism of the New Deal was questioned by conservatives who believed that the welfare state was undermining American individualism, while critics on the left insist that Roosevelt missed an opportunity to fundamentally alter the face of American capitalism.
If a teacher is going to foster multiple perspectives, one must be tolerant of opposing interpretations. One young man in my class took exception to the caricature of John D. Rockefeller as a robber baron. He wrote an outstanding research paper of approximately twenty-five pages defending the oil tycoon. I composed a five page rebuttal of my own, but he certainly deserved an A for his scholarship. In fact, some of my most memorable teaching moments arise from classroom debate in which students, with whom I disagree, raise challenging questions. This dialogue keeps me on my toes and makes me a better teacher. I hope that my classroom models a civil discourse which is all too often missing in the halls of Congress.
Yet, it is this type of vibrant democracy which the Texas State Board of Education seeks to stifle. For over thirty years, I have taught American history in an independent school, and I recognize that many of my public school colleagues are under greater pressure than I to adhere to state standards. Nevertheless, I have faith that dedicated teachers and inquiring young minds will find ways to subvert the antidemocratic directives of the Texas board. After all, the real teaching and learning begins when the classroom door closes.
Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.
Republished with permission from The History News Network.