Balancing Perceptions of Historical Truth in Schools
By: Jamie M. Gregory
It’s Friday afternoon. Students visit the library, looking for something new to read. Some books are already arranged on tables according to popular genres. Most students venture over to browse, except for a group of three boys holding an older, hardcover book about the Civil War. In my six years working in this school library, I am certain I have never seen anyone reading it. But I was delighted to see their interest in history. Then I heard them make comments about being in a US History course this semester, saying they hoped they would be learning the truth and not lies.
Traditionally, history courses have been taught as a series of facts, events, important figures; memorization was king. Thanks to research, we now know that history should be presented as integral narratives, themes that influence complicated cause-and-effect patterns. There is no singular American experience of history. However, the pressures of standardized testing typically lead teachers to engage in the former method of teaching and rarely the latter, most citing a lack of time and resources.
And apparently, now, a lack of facts. As I discussed in my previous post, what is or is not included in standards and/or curriculum can constitute a form of academic censorship. Public school teachers and curriculum should be bias-free, not influencing students by personal worldviews but rather by presenting facts and then teaching students various ways to analyze and evaluate them. However, we seem to be at a point in society where we now have to pose the question: What is a fact?
Is it a fact that slavery was a cause of the Civil War? Is it a fact that the American government precipitated the genocide of the Native Americans?
Recent controversies reveal these issues remain at the forefront of education today, which raises the academic freedom question: If we disagree about what is a fact, who decides how students learn about United States history?
Back in 2014, the College Board attempted to revise its Advanced Placement United States History framework which was met with sizeable resistance. Some states such as Oklahoma even proposed cutting funding for the A.P. program based on the revisions. A notable objection came from the Republican National Committee, their resolution calling for the standards to be rewritten “in a transparent manner to accurately reflect U.S. History without a political bias and to respect the sovereignty of state standards.” Another large group of scholars published an open letter in 2015 expressing concerns that “the new framework makes a shift from ‘identity’ to ‘identities.’ Indeed, the new framework is so populated with examples of American history as the conflict between social groups, and so inattentive to the sources of national unity and cohesion, that it is hard to see how students will gain any coherent idea of what those sources might be” (find the full text here).
The authors of the Advanced Placement curriculum development committee published an open letter to critics, which you can read here. Importantly, the committee and those who develop the framework are current teachers, professors, award-winning authors (example: the National Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year) — not politicians.
The College Board opened up the process to the public, asking for input from various stakeholders and publishing revisions in 2015 which went into effect in 2017. From the College Board website: “Statements are clearer and more historically precise, and less open to misinterpretation or perceptions of imbalance.” You be the judge:
2014 version wording: “Many white Americans in the South asserted their regional identity through pride in the institution of slavery, insisting that the federal government should defend that institution.” (Full text available on Scribd here.)
2017 version wording: “Regional interests often trumped national concerns as the basis for many political leaders’ positions on slavery and economic policy.” (Find complete text of 2017 AP US History framework here.)
Perhaps we could go right to a primary source for clarification. Reading “The Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” reveals that in establishing the argument that the Union existed as a contractual obligation among it and the states, the “General Government” was not fulfilling its part, due to “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, [which] has led to a disregard of their obligations and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.” Also, the moral judgment: “They have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.”
The central conflict here hinges on the right to allow personal beliefs to influence how a person interprets facts. If the writers of the primary source itself declare slavery as a cause, then it’s a fact. But unless directly instructed by standards, teachers may not use such primary sources with students.
Here’s another example (that could also be used as a lesson for teaching diction, connotation, and tone):
2014 version wording: “Many Europeans developed a belief in white superiority to justify their subjugation of Africans and American Indians, using several diﬀerent rationales.”
2017 version wording: “Extended contact with Native Americans and Africans fostered a debate among European religious and political leaders about how non-Europeans should be treated, as well as evolving religious, cultural, and racial justifications for the subjugation of Africans and Native Americans.”
Pride in slavery versus regional interests. Subjugation versus extended contact. Diction influences instruction.
In fact, the course is divided into seven themes, the first of which is “American and National Identity,” changed from the 2014 version of simply “Identity” (for the 2019-2020 school year, there will be eight themes, Culture and Society being divided into American and Regional Culture and Social Structures):
2014 version wording: “This theme focuses on the formation of both American national identity and group identities in U.S. history. Students should be able to explain how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in diﬀerent contexts of U.S. history, with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities.”
2017 version wording: “This theme focuses on how and why definitions of American and national identity and values have developed, as well as related topics such as citizenship, constitutionalism, foreign policy, assimilation, and American exceptionalism.”
Does being patriotic mean only offering to students a single, unified historical narrative or risk inciting anarchy? The critics present a false dilemma to teachers and students with this argument. By encouraging students to explore these facts in a safe, academic environment, we are not teaching anti-American sentiments. We are simply understanding how we arrived at today based on factual experiences and the words of those who lived them.
Wondering why this matters? In 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center conducted research by surveying high school seniors and teachers, analyzing state standards, and reviewing 10 popular textbooks. One of their findings shows that “only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War” (Teaching Hard History: American Slavery). The percent of the state standards analyzed which address this key concept, “Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness, and white supremacy was both a product of, and legacy of, slavery:” zero.
As the Southern Poverty Law Center document states, you cannot teach slavery effectively and accurately without including the paradigm of white superiority which made it possible. No, not everyone believed uniformly, but it could not have been widely practiced if it was not a generally accepted notion. Similarly, you cannot give the historical and moral respect the Native Americans deserve by using euphemisms. To use an analogy, we might all agree that we should not suggest the Nazis encouraged Jews to relocate to displacement camps.
In South Carolina, I asked several 11th grade US History teachers who I personally know about how they cover Native American history. They all responded that they wanted to teach more, but time and adherence to the standards because of testing prevented that. The South Carolina Department of Education offers US History teachers what they call a Support Document to help teachers understand what may or may not be covered by the mandatory End of Course exam.
USHC-2.1 Summarize the impact of the westward movement on nationalism and democracy, including the expansion of the franchise, the displacement of Native Americans from the southeast and conflicts over states’ rights and federal power during the era of Jacksonian democracy as the result of major land acquisitions such as the Louisiana Purchase, the Oregon Treaty, and the Mexican Cession
From the support document: “They do not need to know the role of Andrew Jackson in fighting the Indians or his defiance of the Supreme Court.”
USHC 4.1 Summarize the impact that government policy and the construction of the transcontinental railroads had on the development of the national market and on the culture of Native American peoples.
From the support document: “Students do not need to memorize the specific names of Native American tribes or resisters, the name of the Dawes Severalty Act…”
The wording here, “students do not need to know,” refers to knowledge students need for the End-of-Course exam only. Teachers concerned about test scores and accountability may not have time to introduce students to Standing Bear who, in 1879, argued he was a person despite being Native American in the eyes of United States law and so could not be forced to abandon his tribal land. In fact, Judge Elmer Dundy wrote in his Standing Bear v. Crook decision, “the Indians possess the inherent right of expatriation, as well as the more fortunate white race, and have the inalienable right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”
New South Carolina standards will be implemented in 2020, and the draft is available online although the new Support Documents have not yet been released, causing some concern (one bill in the state legislature proposes cutting state assessment of Social Studies in grades five and seven). After the draft was opened to comment by the public, enough criticism that the Holocaust was not mentioned caused an addition: USHC.5.5 “Assess the political, economic, and social continuities and changes related to World War I and World War II (to include wartime politics, the roles of African Americans and women, and the international support for human rights as direct result of the Holocaust).” The new standards do not mention Native Americans, even though they were the last group to be guaranteed the right to citizenship in 1924 and also served vital roles during World War I and World War II.
Another omission in history standards: Native American slavery. Scholar Andres Resendez estimates that between 2.5 and 5 million slaves were affected, which caused Native populations “in the Caribbean basin, along the Gulf coast, and across large regions of northern Mexico and the American Southwest” to be “reduced by seventy, eighty, or even ninety percent through a combination of warfare, famine, epidemics, and slavery” (The Other Slavery).
While the standards cannot possibly mention every specific historical occurrence which is important, teachers tend to overlook content if it will not be covered by standardized testing. Not having access to effective teaching resources poses another instructional problem. According the Southern Poverty Law Center survey of teachers, “58 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with what textbooks offer, and 39 percent say their state offers little or no support for teaching about slavery.” One solution is to promote the services of school librarians who can curate reliable online resources for students and teachers to extend learning beyond a textbook or state-sponsored learning materials.
Special-interest groups and politicians should not have the power to influence the creation of standards for public schools. Curriculum experts, researchers, and teachers will also differ in their views of how history should be presented, especially when we cannot all agree on what is a fact. Even the students mentioned at the beginning of this post were already prepared for a battle of the facts. It’s difficult to be “historically precise,” to use the College Board’s wording, when we have no shared foundation of history. But we shouldn’t let that challenge stop us from pursuing fair, honest, and accurate learning standards for today’s youth.
A country can have committed sins and still be exceptional. We have problems in today’s society; it’s not unpatriotic to teach students that we do. In fact, it may be unpatriotic if we don’t. Today’s problems cannot be divorced from the past. If you attempt to do so, they make no sense, which leads to a lack of empathy, resentment, and outright denial. Maybe even deadly violence. Charlottesville, modern-day slavery, and closer to home in South Carolina, Dylann Roof and the Confederate flag debate remind us that we do our students a disservice by sanitizing history in learning standards.
- Dando-Collins, S. (2004). Standing Bear is a person : The true story of a Native American’s quest for justice. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
- Reséndez, A. (2016). The other slavery : The uncovered story of Indian enslavement in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working in her 6th year as a school librarian at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, SC. Previously she taught high school English and French for 8 years. Her academic interests include book censorship and academic freedom in K-12 schools, inquiry-based learning, information literacy, and literacy in high school classrooms. She is an active member of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians serving as the 2019-2020 Chair of the South Carolina Book Award committees. When she is not reading or researching, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons cooking, traveling, playing board games, and going to Iron Maiden concerts. Find her on Twitter @gregorjm.
You were doing great, until you appealed to the Southern Poverty Law Center as an authority. Though it has an innocuous name, it has a far-left mission, and in fact has put absolutely mainstream conservative groups like the Center for Immigration Studies, which has testified 100 times before Congress, on its list as a hate group! I know the SPLC and its work, and I stopped taking this seriously when you used it as a reference. You’re right when you write, “Special-interest groups and politicians should not have the power to influence the creation of standards for public schools.” Nor should special interest groups be cited to make an argument about the creation of standards for schools.