What Should We Teach High Schoolers in American History?


I received at master degree in US History from Harvard University.  That, in itself, does not make me any sort of expert on the subject.  To the contrary, it has only made me more aware of just how much there is to learn, and of how little I know.  Even so, by necessity, I was required to know a particularly high degree of knowledge about U.S. History in general.

Over 20 years ago a man named Howard Zinn wrote a treatise on the history of the United States. He offered it as a particularly honest look at American history.  Although Zinn did not say this, it seems it was intended to counter the accepted texts in existence in American schools.  And therein lies the “problem” that many see in the texts used in our public schools.  There is nothing particularly revolutionary in Zinn’s book.  But it certainly is not a text book nor could it be used very effectively as one.

I very recently saw someone put up a map of the general areas that the native Americans once occupied.  The question was asked why such things are not taught in American schools.  It is not a bad question, in itself, but there is an even more basic question that has to be asked of any published text.  That question is:  “What do we include and what do we exclude in our texts?”

Many decades ago a social anthropologist name Clifford Geertz wrote a scholarly work called “A Thick Interpretation of Cultures.”  His entire point was that history, and related works, needed to consider all facts involved with any situation before coming to any sort of conclusion.  He used the Battle of Waterloo, where Wellington defeated a superior force with a superior field general, Napoleon, and asked a simple question, how?  It was not enough to say bad luck, or a superior battle plan, or any other single thing.  He suggested that something as simple as weather conditions played an important role in Napoleon’s defeat.   The point it, to properly tell the story of this single engagement would, at the very least, require several text pages.  By extension, if every very important situation that has been experienced in the United States is to be faithfully related, we would need text books that would count in the multiple of volumes to discuss any single era, let alone our entire history.

The answer to the question of the map of Native American tribes is simply that a good historian would have to devote at least an entire book to explaining who these people were, how they came to live where they started and where they ended up, along with a lot of details about their encounters with the European settles, French, English, and Spanish.  How do we succinctly explain how the Cherokee nation, originally in Georgia, ended up in Oklahoma?  How do we explain the native cultures of the northeast and their interaction with French and English settlers, their involvement in the American Revolution, their assimilation into  American culture, and so forth?

More recently we could concern ourselves with the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans in 1942.  You would need to start by informing the reader of the fears of the average American, why they feared the Japanese any more than the millions of German-American or Italian-Americans at the same time.  And then finish it up by explaining who the Tuskegee Airmen were, and why they in particular were a breakthrough group in both race relations and military hierarchy.

People love to focus on some of the egregious mistakes the United States has made in its history.  That this mistakes were made is undeniable.  That every American probably should be aware of them at least to some degree, also true.  But when you are teaching 14, 15, and 16 year-olds basic American history, you have to give a rather high-level view of the history, an unfortunately very general view.  I would love to see a more comprehensive view of American history taught, but to do so would require at least two years and not just the single year now required.

I have read a comprehensive study done on texts used in American public schools, and reviewed many of the texts myself.  Their conclusion, as-well-as mine, is these text need heavy revisions.  But those revision do not include a much more comprehensive text, but mostly a more intelligible and well-written text.

The best thing any individual who believes our children are not taught as much history, or some particular history, should endeavour to insure that their own children are taught those portions first, then, see about getting public seminars in that particular area of history which they believe needs addressing.

Teachers can, and many do, suggest readings outside the assigned text.  They typically assign research projects for their students.  But the limit of a teacher’s ability to teach, is the student’s desire to learn.

It is too easy to complain about what you think is wrong.  But it makes a lot more sense to actively do something about it rather than complaining.

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