What parents don’t understand about teaching history

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Every effective American teacher seeks the trust of society, parents, and the young people they teach. Public education as a whole depends on these bonds of trust. Our divisive policy regarding how to teach children about slavery, race, and other difficult matters in school shattered that trust.

Anyone who has ever taught for a day knows that trust must be earned. Dealing with a classroom filled with 14 or 16 year old students with varying degrees of attention and preparation on any subject is one of the most difficult and important professions of all.

What American teachers need most is autonomy, respect for the community, the right to be creative in their profession, time to read and, perhaps most importantly, support for their education. intellectual life. Most wouldn’t mind a raise.

The last thing teachers need is to fight what Minority Parliamentary Leader Kevin McCarthy has called a “Parents Bill of Rights”. Such an idea only relates to reality as a political corner. In most education systems in this country, parents are encouraged to visit schools at appropriate times, participate in extracurricular activities, and communicate regularly with teachers about their children’s performance. Teachers often beg parents to get involved in student learning.

The curriculum, however, is another matter. Trained teachers, program directors and school directors are responsible for organizing the content and teaching methods of a subject such as history. To maintain parental and community confidence in the ability of schools to do this well, educators need to be properly accredited, teachers receive ongoing training, and the best and brightest are recruited to teach. But that confidence is now undermined by the absurd claim that critical race theory has plagued our schools via the secret saddlebags of radical teachers and their distant, elitist accomplices in university history departments.

For nearly three decades, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (GLI) and many other institutions, foundations and agencies, including the Federal Department of Education, have sponsored seminars summer who and college history teachers on college campuses, where they are treated like professionals and intellectuals. They discover the mysteries and joys of the original records and documents, and they learn from the best scholarship of the people who wrote it. They attend seminars on Presidential History, the American Revolution, Civil War and Reconstruction, the Golden Age, Westward Expansion, Native American Culture and Dispossession, Gender and History of women, the civil rights movement, immigration, urban history, industrialization, constitutional history, and yes, slavery, abolition and racism as the common threads of the American experience.

If Republican politicians and the parents they deceptively set fire to need a target for their fears, let them blame American historians like me who spend months of their lives helping teachers build better knowledge bases on real history. The best historians of the late 20th and early 21st centuries – far too many to name – have taught teachers in classrooms and on field trips brimming with knowledge, steamy conversations, amazing documents and , above all, of hard-earned, even joyful, work. mutual trust.

So let the Republicans blame us. Bring it on. The American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians have joined a coalition of more than 25 such groups called Learn From History, which seeks to combat deliberate disinformation about the current state of history teaching. . It is a historic war that we must win.

GLI reports that since 1995, approximately 28,000 teachers have participated in its summer seminars (I have taught at least one seminar under this program each summer for over two decades), as well as online courses. and public lectures. Its website has become an alternative Google for history teachers. The numbers can be even bigger for the NEH. Teachers passionate about improving their game benefit from these experiences and learn an inspiring and pluralistic American history; parents and politicians would do well to watch. Come listen to teachers debate the books they read and find out how to create educational stories about the darkest and most uplifting history. Listen to them discover the balance in their own classrooms between the heroic and the tragic, between war and peace, as they wonder how to teach the changing character of racism and the forces of change in history that humans can only hope to resist, if not control. Come feel their intensity, see them come in and out of the irony of madness and human aspirations, as they confront their own assumptions and beliefs.

Parents and Republican politicians should come and listen to serious teachers grapple with the question: what is this thing called “history?” The story is not a fable told to make us feel good or bad, not a toy or a show of progress towards a goal of balance above the human condition. We are always and everywhere in the middle of history; one cannot escape it. In 1935, WEB Du Bois made a compelling appeal, writing on Reconstruction: “Nations stagger and stagger in their path; they make hideous mistakes; they commit terrible wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And will we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all of this, as long as the truth is verifiable? “

Some of the most promising moments in my life as a teacher came when I worked with high school teachers. We are not timed, and everyone has temporarily escaped their normal lives to simply learn together in a rare kind of teaching fellowship. I was once, after all, one of them. I spent the first seven years of my career as a high school history teacher in my hometown of Flint, Michigan in the 1970s. I still maintain that during those years I taught the most important teaching of my life. My students were black, white, and Hispanic, mostly a stable working class, and no one was guilty because they were learning slavery for the first time. My fellow teachers and I have made our way through curriculum revolutions; we are committed to simply providing our students with the means to forge a sense of history, the importance of the past, the way it has shaped us, whatever the subject. No one owns the story, but we are all responsible for it, bound by our humanity to know as much as possible.

In his “Talks to Teachers”, a series of lectures given in 1899 and 1900, the great American philosopher William James drew inspiration from the “fermentation” among high school teachers at the turn of the 20th century, admiring their “search for heart on the highest concerns of their profession. James said that a good teacher needs “tact” in front of “the students”, a lot of “ingenuity” and, most importantly, knowledge of their subjects. “Teachers in this country,” he said, “have their future in their hands. The seriousness that they are currently showing in striving to enlighten and strengthen themselves is an indication of the likelihood of the nation advancing in all ideal directions. James trusted the teachers as he challenged them. He offered several maxims for teachers, one of which lives on in our own historic moment: “Don’t preach too much to your students and don’t abound in the abstract. Rather, wait for practical opportunities, be quick to seize them as they pass, and so all at once get your students to think, feel, and do. Is there a greater purpose for teaching than these three goals? Achieving these goals, argued James, makes teaching a very high calling.

Trust the teachers. Some will stumble and some will soar. Historians have their backs. If William James could trust teachers in the violent racial, ethnic, and class conflict of 1900, why can’t we today? Is our democracy so broken that we cannot do the same?


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