History Lessons

History is written by the victors. Ten people could witness the same event, and if you asked them all afterwards what happened, you would probably get eleven different versions. Much of what we read in history books is from the American perspective, and over the years the text has been trimmed to include only the most favorable parts. Today’s post looks first at the book, History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History, and then points out some of the problems plaguing the teaching of history and current events in the American school system and introduces the non-profit, Americans for Informed Democracy, that is aimed at reversing the trend of American isolationism.

Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward have assembled selections from textbooks that are used in different parts of the world in order to give a different perspective on some events in “American History” that most students raised in the United States would be familiar with. Although this book is not specifically about education, it does serve to show how the curriculum of American textbooks, especially in history, present an isolationist view of the world. It is fascinating to read about events such as the American Revolution in a French textbook, or the Iranian hostage crisis in an Iranian textbook, the Spanish-American War in a Filipino textbook, or even Manifest Destiny in a Brazilian textbook. While you may be used to reading the American slant on history, it is also interesting to see the bias that appears elsewhere, such as the portrayal of US-DPRK relations in the early 90s from a North Korean textbook with Americans as aggressors and evens uses the word sanctions in quotation marks.

In the introduction to the book, the editors point out some of the problems with the way that history is taught in American schools by pointing out that students in other nations seem to know much more about the rest of the world than Americans do by comparison, despite the fact that those students usually have hundreds more years of history to learn:

“Americans, in sharp contrast, seem to know relatively little about other countries and cultures. This isolationist tendency is nowhere more apparent than within our own educational system…If we wish to move beyond judgment and toward understanding, we must honestly consider other perspectives.”

TeacherJay has often felt that the average American has a very limited view of the world and how America fits into it (not that he is claiming to be any type of expert on world relations, himself). He does see an importance for students to simply have an understanding that there other perspectives in the world and major historical events have many sides to them. Looking back on his own education, TeacherJay remembers taking several history survey courses. That is the style where the teaching begins with the earliest settlers crossing the land bridge into what is now Alaska and Canada, and then moving forward in time until the school year ends. Although the textbook may have covered events as recent as only 5 years before, summer usually interrupted that part of the curriculum. It always seemed rushed with no opportunity to discuss topics in-depth. Lindaman and Ward also mention this problem:

“By reducing history to a series of inoffensive facts and figures, no matter how attractively packaged, textbook publishers are effectively judging students incapable of discussing and debating important topics and issues.”

TeacherJay is a firm believer in the concept that there is a self-fulfilling prophecy inherent in education – this means that students will live up to the reasonable expectations that are made of them. Sadly, schools seem to be pushing the rote memorization of dates and facts as opposed to having students engage with the content and really understand history. Even more frustrating are TeacherJay’s memories of repeating the same material in sixth through ninth grades. Different teachers, different books, but the exact same materials taught in the same way. Additionally, this basic informational teaching is what is most responsible for students dislike of history.

So what should be done about this? Is it more important to know all of the dates and locations of Civil War battles, or about foreign policies in the last century that were designed to keep the United States dominant in the Western Hemisphere, or even events in the Middle East from the last 50 years that have made the area so unstable today. In order to be responsible, worldly citizens, shouldn’t our students be informed of historical events that are still occurring today, as opposed to some of the dry facts found in textbooks? Don’t American students deserve the chance to look at events from multiple perspectives and discuss the different factors that led to an event, such as the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the establishment of the League of Nations and the resultant outcomes of it?

TeacherJay feels they do… but… such higher-order thinking skills are much more difficult to assess on a standardized exam, turned into a raw score, analyzed and compared. The same as what is being done to historical facts is being done to American students – they are reduced to a number that can easily be counted and averaged – anything of true importance and the ability to relate to others is taken away. This policy will cause Americans to become increasingly isolated and fearful of the “outside world”.

TeacherJay knows of one such group, though they are most likely others, that has the goal of stopping this from happening. Americans for Informed Democracy conducts seminars and training programs for educational leaders to incorporate world events into their classroom to break down some of the barriers that keep Americans “at home”.

As always, TeacherJay encourages your comments.


3 Responses to “History Lessons”

  1. Heather Voss Says:

    Hello—Was reading your thought provoking blog. I am a fifth grade teacher in Florida and teach US History. I want to do it from the present-back….any suggestions or websites you can guide me to for the start up of this? Need this ASAP.

  2. TeacherJay Says:

    Heather – I don’t have much experience with using this method at the fifth grade level, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be just as successful. I would begin by describing what the United States is like today, perhaps focusing on some of the larger issues, such as the War in Iraq, Immigration Reform, or even something more local. Whatever issue, go into its effects on people now and then move backward into its causes. As you look at the causes for that event, bring in some related events and how they are connected, then go to the causes of those events. The key thing is to show how one action affected another, even if they seem unrelated – for example, a cause of the Iraq War is the terrorist attacks of 2001, which were caused (in part) by the aftermath of the Gulf War and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan which may have been different had it not been for the Cold War.

    One of your state’s standards for that age level is “the student understand chronology and the historical perspective”. One neat activity may be to create a timeline of events as you go through the year in reverse order that shows the connections from one event to another. This could be done using computer software such as Inspiration/Kidspiration or even as a long banner that goes around the walls of the room. It is possible for kids to get lost in the order of events, so hopefully this will overcome that.

    This article from the American Historical Association shows one teacher’s method. She also has some good ideas on activities to get students more engaged.

    Here is a PDF article that explains how a high school teacher worked with the concept and also some of the reasons he supports the method.

    Be prepared for resistance from some who don’t understand and are not used to new methods!, explain what you are doing, and why you are doing it to colleagues, administrators and parents. That should help smooth the transition.

  3. Heather Voss Says:

    Thanks so much! The only thing I worry about is that it won’t be following the current scope and sequences but, as of right now, it is not tested on the county’s quarterly benchmark tests anyway(They test reading, math and science!)(WASTE!) Alls I need is a start!

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