I confess to being a history buff. I am a member of Canada’s History Society who avidly reads each issue of the society’s journal, Canada’s History (formerly The Beaver) and I’ve been actively involved in heritage in my community. So the current debate about teaching history in the public schools has caught my attention.
The debate revolves around how to teach the messier parts of the story. This has not aroused much interest in Canada, but in the U.S. it has become a major election issue. Many states have passed bills limiting what schools can teach on various controversial topics including history. According to researcher Jeffrey Sachs, legislation has created a “minefield” for educators trying to teach topics such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, racism and the Holocaust.
Critical race theory, an academic approach that examines how race and racism function in American institutions, has particularly exercised conservatives. The Republican governor of Virginia has set up a hotline to allow parents or members of the community to report the discussion of critical race theory in the classroom. In New Hampshire, a conservative mom’s group is offering a $500 bounty to catch teachers who break a state law prohibiting certain teachings about racism and sexism.
While I abhor censorship I am not entirely unsympathetic toward these concerned parents and legislators. Whites did many horrific things to blacks throughout American history. How do you teach this to white children without traumatizing them? And would anyone want their children to be taught that their forefathers were evil? That is how children would absorb the information if they were guided by what we believe about institutions such as slavery today.
And therein lies a problem. Their forefathers may have kept slaves but they weren’t evil men. With the exception of sadists, most were perfectly decent men engaging in a perfectly acceptable practice. If their society considered slavery respectable then the forefathers, virtually by definition, were not bad men.
To teach history property, lesson number one is that much morality is arbitrary. It differs from place to place and from time to time. Throughout history slavery has been an honourable institution in most places in the world. Today it is a crime against humanity, and children can be expected to judge their forebears accordingly. And thus falsely. Of course teaching them that much morality is arbitrary may in itself create no small protest from many parents.
So perhaps the question really is, can history be taught properly in the schools. Not just a history of names, dates and places—of bare facts—but a history of understanding. It can only be understood if the learner can view events in a particular time and place from the perspective of the knowledge and morals of the people who created those events. And that is a very difficult thing to do.
What then is the point of teaching history to children at all. Historically it has often been an instrument to perpetuate tribal myths. And for many, that seems to remain the goal.
When I ask people that question, often the answer is that children ought to know their country’s history, which is of course no answer at all. Why ought they to know?
According to the American Historical Association, “History must serve, however imperfectly, as our laboratory, and data from the past must serve as our most vital evidence in the unavoidable quest to figure out why our complex species behaves as it does.” The association concludes, “A study of history is essential for good citizenship.”
Academic justifications found on the web include, “Studying history helps us … develop the ability to avoid mistakes and create better paths for our societies,” and “Studying history helps us understand and grapple with complex questions and dilemmas by examining how the past has shaped (and continues to shape) global, national, and local relationships between societies and people,” and “The past teaches us about the present.”
It seems to sum up as studying history helps us to avoid repeating what we have done wrong while perpetuating what we have done right.
Of course I agree with these learned views. But I also believe that history is something that can be learned as needed, as it applies to current issues, something any reasonably intelligent adult can do. Anyone who keeps themselves informed about the issues of importance, including the relevant history, and thinks those issues through thoroughly will be doing their duty as a citizen.
So if the study of history is essential for good citizenship, should we teach it in public school?
If children can be taught the transitory nature of morality, that they need to to be able to get at the full truth, not just absorb a set of facts marinaded in 21st century morals, the education would be valuable for that alone. That ability would allow them to use history appropriately as adults and indeed make them better citizens.
If children are not taught to think with historical perspective, then the answer would be no, particularly if teaching history becomes a highly divisive political football as it has down south. The time might be better spent elsewhere and history left to adults.
As for this history buff, I hope it makes me a better citizen, but for the most part I just enjoy the stories.