Breaking News: Some High School Students Care About History!

This week students in Jefferson County, Colorado, staged protests over changes to the United States History Curriculum proposed by the School Board. According to The Denver Post, the recently elected board is seeking to promote the “positive aspects” of the nation’s history while deemphasizing “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

Here is the stipulation causing the outrage, which calls for a review committee to oversee and report on the United States History Curriculum:

Review criteria shall include the following: instructional materials should present the most current factual information accurately and objectively. Theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.

Protesting students and teachers are criticizing the proposal as an attempt to whitewash history. They have also taken to Twitter, using #JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory to poke fun at the implications of the new proposal (my personal favorite: “Roe vs. Wade was about the best way to cross a river”). Instead, the students are demanding a more complete story of American history, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Or as Oliver Cromwell supposedly said, “warts and all.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, concerns about political influences in education are nothing new. Last year I particularly liked the frantic claims that Common Core was indoctrinating a generation of Communists or Nazis.

But events like the protests in Colorado raise important questions about the nature of history education and the role political ideologies should play in school curricula. The United States isn’t perfect (I’m Cherokee, I should know), and in an ideal world, why shouldn’t students be exposed to the complete story of American History (or world, European, etc.)?

I understand the desire of the School Board to emphasize what makes America great, and I think it is important to encourage patriotism and national pride. But is it not just as important, if not more so, to promote civic responsibility? Rather than telling their students that America is the best, or America is the devil, shouldn’t we be able to count on teachers to lay the cards on the table and teach their students to form their own opinions based on facts and informed interpretation?

In middle school history I remember having to debate from the Southern perspective on why slavery was a good thing; in high school I had to write an essay on why George Washington was a lousy military commander. At Notre Dame I attended a heated discussion by two scholars (both priests, adding an extra element of intrigue) who debated whether dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was the right decision. All three were valuable exercises in considering alternative arguments and respecting historical viewpoints in context. Not everyone is going to grow up to study history, but shouldn’t everyone be able to consider both sides of an argument and form an informed opinion on their own?

Am I being too idealistic? Is it possible for educators and administrators to leave politics at the door? The Denver Post recently reported that the School Board is revisiting their proposed changes, so while perhaps there is hope, this remains an ongoing issue that cannot be ignored.

This might be a divisive issue. But to conclude, can we all agree that it is a pleasant surprise that there are high school students who actually care about history?

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3 Comments

  1. Wonderful insights, Mike. I agree that examining nuanced perspectives allows students to develop a mature sense of historical thinking. I believe that there should be room for every political belief in the classroom, but students need to be able to form their own values system and articulate/argue those beliefs for the other side, too. On a personal level, I grew up in a very conservative area and was educated by very liberal parents. I have spent my entire life learning how to argue from the other side and develop diplomatic techniques to evaluate alternate interpretations. This sort of “gray” thinking is why I’m studying history at an MA level. It leads to empathy and what ultimately boils down to a greater appreciation for education in general.

    • Thanks Elizabeth. One of the standard selling points of majoring in history is that it helps you develop critical thinking skills from multiple perspectives. If the goal of the Common Core is to prepare students for college or careers, it would seem that such skills would be a top priority.

      Sounds like your educational experiences are what we should be striving for. But I guess it is easier to tell students the answers than to make them form responses on their own.

  2. I remember being a senior in high school trying to decide on colleges and majors. Waiting on photocopies in my schools office, I spied a book one of my history teachers had set down. As an avid reader and lover of history, I leaned over to read the back. My heart dropped when I read “no one likes history. It is boring but must be taught.” The book encompassed a defense of trudging through teaching day to day. This caused me to doubt going for history as a major.

    Eventually I went on to major and graduate with a BA in history. I had to unlearn the majority of my high school history lessons. I remember talking with my advisor in modern European history about the extent of my education on communism, his own area of expertise. In high school, the Cold War was a giant staring contest that the United States won, and proved capitalism good, communism bad. Then we moved on. Obviously it is a much more complex discussion and argument, but my experience truly shows how history isn’t a priority in schools anymore. I sincerely hope this changes.

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