Sunday, August 2, 2020

How do we tell the story? Meta-teaching and the Narrative Problem of U.S. History

"Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains. The radical view of American history is a web of lies. All perspective is removed, every virtue is skewed, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history urged in the record is disfigured beyond all recognition." 

President Trump, July 3, 2020, speaking in front of Mount Rushmore.

There is something unsettling about being accused of teaching students to hate their country by the President of the United States.

But Trump’s accusation is an old one among politicians. 

It was there when I first started teaching in the 1990s. I laughed to myself as I watched my high school students fog over at the same moment I knew U.S. representatives and senators were arguing heatedly in Congress about whether we were spending enough time on George Washington or not enough and whether the curriculum was too “grievance-based.” If only you knew, I silently told my students, how political this was--what is going on in this classroom right now. If you only knew that there were senators and representatives that thought I had so much power.

They are right, of course. We do have power, although it's not so simple as they make it seem. The Republic will not come to an end if we fail to teach the Second Great Awakening or spend too much time on Martin Luther King, Jr. or not enough time on George Washington. But it does matter.

George Orwell understood this better than anyone: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”

Orwell understood that the stories we tell shape our understanding of the present moment. If learning about the past always reflects the concerns of the present moment, it is no wonder that our present moment presents challenges for history teachers--even before the pandemic and George Floyd. The challenge is how do we present the “story”--the narrative--of United States history in a way that is responsible to truth, that allows for interpretation and difference of opinion and that doesn’t crush the souls of young people?

I threw in that last part because, frankly, the more I read about things like systemic racism and voter suppression, the harder it is for me personally to be optimistic about our country. But that is my political point of view. And in addition to avoiding politicizing my teaching, I have a responsibility to imbue my students with a sense of hope, power and optimism about their ability to influence the future. 

I recall an interaction with a student from six years ago, when I first made the shift back to middle school from teaching high school. I made some statement about President Johnson (we were nearing the end of our Vietnam unit), and afterwards, a student blurted out loud, “oh phew, I thought you were going to tell us something else bad about what Johnson did.” She was referencing the lesson on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Her comment made me realize how careful I had to be--both about how I presented historical facts and about cynicism. (Consider using this edited-for-brevity version of a New York Times article about the Vietnam War and cynicism with your students.)

Two years later, I was teaching 19th century U.S. history to 7th graders. My unofficial motto for the year became the Russian proverb below.

It was imperative to teach about slavery honestly and fully, but in a way that didn’t “dwell.” I didn’t want the horrors of slavery, and the Trail of Tears and the Blackhawk War to impede students’ ability to see promise and possibility in American ideals. 

So what is a teacher to do?

A strategy that has worked well for me is to make the “battle” about narratives visible to students. In other words: meta-teaching. Let them know how you are thinking about what you are teaching them. They will likely be surprised to hear you talk this way; most teachers don’t tell students about their internal struggles about what to teach and why.

Let students in on a “secret”-- historians, politicians and educators argue about these things. This will intrigue them: kids love to be let in on the arguments adults have. 

It is also a great way to let your students know that you spend time thinking about how to teach them, which also sends a subtle message about your credibility.

Lesson idea: When does U.S. history "start?"

There are lots of places to introduce this to students. One place is at the beginning. Craft a lesson that asks students to consider the “messages” and symbolism of the dates below and what they suggest about when American History begins. Perhaps students could be put in groups and present an argument for why a date below should be considered a “starting point” for our country’s history? Of course, they would require some background information. You could add a few sentences about what occurred in each of these years to help them out or have students look it up, depending on timing. If you like, have students vote on the best choice.

* Inspired by the New York Times 1619 Project, 1619 is a new option. It engendered considerable controversy about the narrative it presents when it was first published a year ago. And more controversy recently, as the editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones debated Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark) on Twitter last week.

If you need fewer groups, you can combine Jamestown or the Mayflower, or omit the latter. If you need more groups, consider an outlier: 1865 as the culmination of the "Second American Revolution."

An activity like this can be a useful entry point into grappling with the overall “narrative problem” of U.S. history: is it a story of progress? of the continually widening base of who can vote and hold power? Or is it one of constant oppression? What does starting with Columbus and/or just before tell us? What do they make of the term, "genocide" that has been used to describe contact with indigenous peoples? What do students think about the taking down of statues of Columbus?

The Usefulness of Gray: Nuance and Messiness in American History



Since I first encountered the quotation above by W.E.B. Du Bois about Reconstruction, I have turned it into a reoccurring theme in my class. I introduce the idea at the end of our first unit, on the post-Civil War West. The phrase, "no villain, no saint" then becomes shorthand for the complication of history: for the problem of presentism, of judging the past based on the present. You can use it when analyzing how Lincoln came to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. It is another way to address the Captains of Industry vs. Robber Baron argument about the industrialists of the Gilded Age. It is useful when they encounter Alice Paul, forging forward with the National Women's Suffrage Parade of 1913 and confronting the challenge of how to involve Black women without alienating Southern women. It is useful whenever we are confronted with the fundamental question of did the U.S. government do the right thing?

As Sam Wineburg wrote, "History as truth, issued from the left or the right, abhors shades of gray. Such a history atrophies our tolerance for complexity. It makes us allergic to exceptions to the rule. Worst of all it depletes the moral courage we need to revise our beliefs in the face of new evidence.” (Quoted in this thoughtful essay about the flaws in countering the "Patriotic/Consensus approach to U.S. history with Howard Zinn's conflict approach.)

As Wineburg suggests, perhaps the most responsible thing we can do as history teachers is introduce our students to the messiness of history. I sometimes joke with my students that the reason I prefer history to current events is that it's been hashed out. But I shouldn't suggest that, because any good history teacher knows that it while it may have been "hashed out" there are a wide variety of "answers."

Using September 11th as a Case Study

It is convenient that 9/11 comes early in this school year. I have been using the lesson described here for the past few years with my 8th graders. I use it on September 11, or whichever Monday or Friday come the closest when it falls on a weekend. It is a great way to discuss with students what should and should not be taught. When I mention that the 9/11 Memorial Museum has a gift shop, they are usually somewhat shocked and sometimes offended. But, I tell them, every museum has a gift shop. Every Civil War battlefield has a gift shop. At this point, I pause to show them the mug I use at school. It looks like the one above and on the other side, you can see that it is from Ford’s Theatre. This mug, I tell them, commemorates the fact that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. That’s sort of weird, don’t you think? They usually nod. This helps all of us grapple a bit with presentism, with the challenging questions of how to recognize, study, or memorialize upsetting events from the past. (See #4 here for a similar thoughts about FDR, his disability and the debate over whether or not to depict that in his memorial.)

So what is the narrative?

Current protests and discussions about systemic racism emphasize that conflict, racism, oppression and inequality have existed from the beginning. Last year in a PBS NewsHour interview about the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones said, "if you believe that 1776 matters, if you believe that our Constitution still matters, then you also have to understand that the legacy of slavery still matters and you can't pick and choose what parts of history we think are important and which ones aren't. . . . And that narrative that is inclusive and honest even if it's painful is the only way that we can understand our times now and the only way we can move forward."

Trump and other conservatives clearly feel that this is degrading to our country's history--that it is a negative look at our history.

I do not support that view, yet I do worry, as I said earlier, about crushing my student's souls. I have always ended my class at the end of the year with an idea borrowed from one of my college history professors who compared U.S. history to a rose: beautiful, but with thorns. That metaphor works for me, even as I struggle with how to put it into practice.

It is not dissimilar from the view of history presented by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. He described the work as "unfinished," and spoke of a "new birth of freedom."

That view--that our nation is flawed and imperfect, but has hope and possibility is echoed by Nikole Hannah-Jones. She points out that "no one values freedom more than those who never had it." It is what Congressman John Lewis fought for his whole life. And that is echoed in the eulogy former President Obama gave last week at Lewis's funeral.

"Now, this country is a constant work in progress. We were born with instructions: to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we are imperfect; that what gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further than anyone might have thought possible."

We all have a narrative, if not explicitly, then lurking in our heads when we teach. Whether you are in charge of your curriculum or it was handed to you, every history curriculum has an implicit narrative. It lurks in between the lessons you teach and the lessons you leave out. The amount of time you spend on one topic at the expense of another. How you introduce each of your units and how you conclude them. As you organize your curriculum for this fall, consider what you will tell your students. And what you won’t. And why.

A few other resources:

  • I've mentioned it before, check out Bruce Lesh's wonderful book, "Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer?" Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 from Stenhouse. I don't spend a lot of money on education books (it all goes to history books) but this one is worth every penny. I have adapted his lessons on Nat Turner, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Roosevelt and the Panama Canal and Civil Rights with much success. Many of his lessons ask students to think about the hidden narrative and how the ways we remember the past have a lot to say about the meaning we give the past. You can see a sample lesson on John Brown that is not in the book here.

  • If you've never perused the materials on the SHEG (Stanford History Education Group), stop everything and check them out. Reading Like a Historian and Beyond the Bubble have lesson for US and World history and are adaptable--I've used parts of these lessons, whole lessons. Such great material for getting students to see the meaning beyond the "facts."

  • Check out this recent article by Kenneth C. Davis: "The American Contradiction: Conceived in Liberty, Born in Shackles" in Social Education. In it, he offers 5 helpful ways to "correct" the narrative about slavery as a subplot and that once it was ended, all was well.

  • Teaching the Highs and Lows of American History - a blogpost I wrote for

  • I haven't turned it into a lesson or used it with students, but former Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, gave a thought-provoking speech on the removal of Confederate monuments which is just as timely today. What an interesting way to start off the school year or a unit on the Civil War! For help with creating a lesson on this (if you do, please share it with me!) see this recent provocative piece by Ed Ayers and check out the work by the American Civil War Museum about Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. There's a section on this website that collects voices of people in the past and present talking about the monuments. See here and here for those.

1 comment:

  1. Your posts are so insightful. I find myself thinking, teaching and struggling with the same ideas in this blog. Thank you so much.