Friday, June 25, 2021

Which Story is the Story of hiStory?

The teaching of history at the K12 and secondary level is getting quite a bit of attention in the news and at the community level lately. Here are my thoughts from my column in The Villager.

Have you ever heard of the Armenian Genocide?

I hadn’t until I was almost thirty years old, having not learned about the pivotal event in any of my history classes throughout school, including my time as a history major in college before switching to English. The Armenian Genocide first came to my awareness twenty years ago when I was teaching in Illinois, which at the time was reviewing its state social studies standards.

“How can you not teach the Armenian Genocide?” a colleague of mine strongly asserted. It’s widely believed by historians to be the blueprint the Nazis used in planning and implementing the Holocaust. In that regard, it’s an indispensable piece of information in the study of history, which should focus not just on knowing facts but also understanding how history evolves over time and how one event influences others.

Recently on the Denver Post editorial page, two local writers argued the time was long past due for the United States government to recognize the Armenian Genocide, an action which was vigorously opposed by the government of Turkey. Just a week later, the Biden administration publicly acknowledged the monumental historical event, something none of previous White House occupants had ever done. The news was an important step forward toward increasing deeper knowledge of the multiple perspectives necessary to ensure authentic understanding and wisdom about the past.

The Armenian Genocide is not the only history lesson many Americans have received recently. Millions of people are just now learning of profoundly significant historical events like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 which culminated in the burning of an entire neighborhood known as Black Wall Street. Similarly, the commemoration of Juneteenth is finally on the minds of most Americans after its official adoption as a national holiday, despite being recognized and celebrated in states for decades. One key problem of teaching history is the significant influence held by textbook companies, and the ambiguity of determining what content is taught. For, the social studies standards of most states don’t actually identify specific events that must or should be taught.

Do you know who Samuel Gompers is, and if you don’t, can you really understand the history of business and labor in the United States? Do you know who Elijah P. Lovejoy is? Historians have called him the first casualty of the Civil War, as he became a martyr for freedom of the press and the abolitionist writing which was so instrumental in bringing about the end of slavery. Can you really understand the first amendment and the history of journalism if you don’t know who he is? Have you heard of Joshua Chamberlain? Some historians consider him one of the most pivotal figures of the Civil War, for without him, the Battle of Gettysburg, a turning point in the war, would likely have been won by the South. Did you know that the FBI was primarily formed to investigate the race-based murders of numerous affluent indigenous people in Oklahoma?

Perhaps the key to the conundrum of teaching “history” is that any discussion of what should be taught can quickly devolve into a trivia game like Jeopardy!, and insight to the goal of education is quickly lost as people toss “gotcha!” questions back and forth. That little game conveniently misses the importance of teaching perspective in history. For, truly, the goal of education is to become what Henry James called “a person on whom nothing is lost.” Thus, viewing all history from multiple perspectives is the antidote to what Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie warned about in her TED Talk and essay called “The Danger of the Single Story.”

In a nation that often appears embarrassingly ignorant of history, there is actually a significant interest in history, as noted by the large number of non-fiction texts that continually top best seller lists. Many adults feel compelled to correct the unfortunate fact that they “Don’t Know Much about History,” the name of a popular title from writer Kenneth C. Davis. Others are fascinated by learning all the history they didn’t know until after they read “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James W. Loewen or “A People’s History of the United States” by esteemed historian Howard Zinn.

Clearly, if you only know the history you were taught, you’re likely missing what journalist Paul Harvey liked to call “the rest of the story.”

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