Who Decides What History We Learn?

         

          Tuesday during class, Dr. Stohr mentioned in passing how difficult it must be to pick which famous figures in history we learn about. This statement sparked my imagination; if I were to create my curriculum from scratch, who would my students learn about? Further, what in general would my students learn about? In a quick google search “deciding what people in history to teach about,” I stumbled upon a WordPress blog from a curriculum creator while reading; this quote struck me. 

“Debates about curriculum content will be fiercer in history than in most other subjects because many people feel their histories are an important part of what makes them who they are, and the range of what can be taught is so broad” (Newmark, 2020).

I couldn’t help but think, “how true” history in a general sense is so broad, and everyone has a different history. If permissible, we would all advocate for our own desired history curriculum. However, each state uses a committee of educators, curriculum specialists, academics, and community members to create its own standards for history (Schwartz, 2021). As we know, politicians too have a say in education and what our students are being taught; I wondered what you all think? Who should have the final say? Personally, I believe teachers/educators should have more say as they are the ones teaching. Further, I think different outside groups that advocate for our populations (i.e., a woman’s rights or Black rights group) can work with committees to adopt a more culturally aware history curriculum. Truthfully, America has had a dark history, but it should not be swept under the rug; instead, we should teach a well-rounded and authentic history. 

 

An interesting extra site to look at:

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/who-should-decide-how-students-learn-about-americas-past/385928/

7 thoughts on “Who Decides What History We Learn?

  1. Aiden, you bring up interesting questions. I, too, recently started thinking more about who we are teaching about in History classes and why. I also have been thinking about the “what” we are teaching when it comes to historical figures. Your article sites Thomas Jefferson and the fact we now know slavery was a signigificant part of Jefferon’s past. Are we to disparage Jefferson because he was a slave owner? I think lately we are applying today’s standards and enlightened ways of thinking to the past and therefore are attempting to change history. I believe instead, we need to, as educators, teach about the climate of the time, what was happening at the time of slavery, why were slaves being used, etc. instead of merely judging the past by today’s standards. I am by no means suggesting we justify the mistreatment and heinous ways enslaved people were disregarded as human beings, however, what I am suggesting is teaching the whole history of the time and not merely judging the history by today’s new standards.

    Through today’s lens, we are attempting to make sense and explain history but the key needs to be education from many perspectives. Monticello’s History online addresses the questions: “How could the author of the Declaration of the Independence own slaves? How could twenty percent of the population of the new United States, founded on the principles of liberty and equality, live in bondage? What was life like for enslaved people in the early republic? Online Exhibition – Paradox of Liberty: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello (https://www.monticello.org/thomas-jefferson/jefferson-slavery/)
    Erasing history is not the answer. Educators and the groups that help influence curriculum need to work together to present an honest representation of history so we can learn from it and benefit from the teachings.

  2. Aiden,
    Great questions and discussion about what history we should teach and who gets the say. I love the quote you mentioned from the blog article. It’s really important to view history from the lens of multiple perspectives. I think the history in our textbooks, although sometimes it tries, often fails to encompass every perspective and remains bias to one in particular. With our various backgrounds as Americans, what we deem historically important may vary. I like your idea to allow outside groups to advocate for different perspectives and histories to be taught. This reminds me of a few of the recent Disney animated movies (Soul, Encanto, Moana, Coco and Raya in particular) who all had cultural committees working on the films to make sure they were culturally and historically accurate. This follows how Disney films like Mulan and Pocahontas were extremely stereotyped and historically inaccurate. It was really interesting to watch the extras about those recent films like Coco and Soul and how they are true to each films specific ethnicity and culture. I think this is a similar way we should craft how we tell our history so that it fairly represents the people who lived it. This means that we allow different cultures of historians to have input. This topic is one that has gotten a lot more attention in recent years and I’m really glad to see committees of people working to let the true story of history shine through, not just the pretty or biased version. Great topic, Aiden!

  3. Hi Aiden,

    I really like how you opened up your blog post by explicitly stating where your imagination took you to very interesting questions, because it made me think more specifically about which individuals I would want my students to learn about. Regarding who should make the final decisions on which individuals should be taught, I agree that teacher/educators should have more say as well.

    Changes in education and in society, as a whole, continue to shape the decisions and, unfortunately, not all individuals are willing to adapt to change. Regarding history curriculum, I truly believe that we live in a world that is moving away from the idea of “traditional.” With this, education should also move away from curriculum about the same individual’s we’ve been taught in the past. Educators, parents, and students are recognizing the poor character of certain individual’s being taught in the classroom. As a teacher, and a role model, we should teach students about the individuals that changed lives in America, and did so with good character such as Cesar Chavez. In other words, we should strive to teach students about specific individuals who made big contributions without the involvement of violence or hate.

    In sum, I believe that teachers/educators should have the overall decision on which historical individuals should be taught to students. I also believe it’s important to consider the students (possibly those in late middle and high school), by allowing their input towards these decisions, noting their thoughts and opinions on which historical individuals were most inspiring to them or how they felt they could relate to a specific individual and — why?

    –Morgan

  4. Thanks for this great, post, Aiden; I especially appreciated the link to the Atlantic article. I think you’re right — teachers and educators need to have input into what is taught, but we also must listen to the larger community and make sure we teach stories not only about heroism and patriotism but also stories about struggle, pain, and oppression.

    The Atlantic article points to what I think is a false dichotomy between cynicism (liberals) and optimism (conservatives) when it comes to deciding what is taught in the classroom. While these two viewpoints might seem to be at odds, I honestly don’t see teaching conflict and oppression as overly cynical. Along with the history of oppression in our country come powerful stories of resistance. When teaching about the horrors of slavery, you also teach abolition, the Underground Railroad. When teaching Jim Crow, you also teach Freedom Riders, bus boycotts. When teaching about child labor, you teach about the rise of unions, how new laws got passed. Yes, awful things have happened, but there have almost always been people working to change that. I think you have to show that progress is slow, painful and bloody work, but yet all the same you show that progress IS possible through collective action and organizing. To me, this is an incredibly hopeful point-of-view, and in my experience, students respond to these lessons not with cynicism but with a deep desire to make change.

  5. Hey Aiden! Thank you for the blog post.

    I think the questions that you have posed are not only relevant to our future instruction but also to what is going on in our lives as UR students. Specifically, conversations that spark some conflict between students and families revolve around the names given to the buildings that have been established. The controversy is that the names we “praise” in naming buildings after them were slaveowners and impose a lot of distress within the Black community and allies.

    To our lives as educators, it’s important that we teach and idolize significant historical figures who made an impact AND were good people instead of sugarcoating the stories and the personalities of people who we were taught to believe were good people like Lincoln and Columbus. That is the concern that I, as well as many other educators, have in terms of history being taught – who decides what history we teach and how we teach it. So, as of lately, I have been thinking about the people that I would like to teach my students about. I believe that teachers should have a voice and flexibility for own decision on what to teach.

  6. Aiden,

    This was a great post that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It really got me thinking about what we have learned in K-12 history and who decides what. I was in public school my whole life while my boyfriend has only ever known private school, but both educations came from Virginia. A lot of times I will ask him something about a subject or talk about something we went over in class and we will have two very different pieces of knowledge on it. There were also some historical figures that I learned about and he didn’t. I feel like no matter the type of education, the state should make sure that everyone is learning the same history! I do think that there needs to be a more well-rounded and historically accurate education being taught, and as you said, we should definitely bring in groups to help give us accurate information on events!

    -Madison

  7. I appreciate your post, Aiden, and the comments of your peers here. These are really important questions.
    I agree that we must teach a more holistic (honest?) view of history. Yes, we know the founding fathers held slaves. We need to view them as humans with flaws. Do these flaws diminish their accomplishments? In the eyes of some, the answer is yes. I do think we can honor and celebrate the accomplishments without honoring the men or elevating their characters (though this is hard.)
    I appreciate the connection to Disney movies past and present and how many are trying to get it right.

    The question that still resonates with me is WHO do we teach about it? It’s a really hard question to answer. E.D. Hirsch, a former UVA professor, wrote a series of books on cultural literacy where he (as a white man) laid out everything students should know before moving on to college, making very specific recommendations for every grade level. His work led him to found the Core Knowledge Foundation. Was he right? Did he know better than the experts that develop national curricula? I’ll let you decide.
    https://www.coreknowledge.org/curriculum/download-curriculum/

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