October 2017

Whose Heritage?: Building Understanding Through Better Teaching

White children who were taught history lessons including information about racism experienced by African Americans demonstrated less biased attitudes toward African Americans than their white counterparts who received otherwise identical lessons that omitted those ‘pessimistic, unpatriotic’ teachings.

by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber

Three days after the violence of Charlottesville, President Trump contradicted his previous day’s conciliatory statement, reinforcing the guilt on “both sides” argument, again lamenting the destruction of American heritage:

So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after. You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop? [sic][1]

This question of heritage and national identity extends beyond the debate over monuments. President Trump’s denouncement of “both sides” following a white-nationalist homicide while loudly vilifying football players kneeling against police brutality have further exposed a longtime racial rift underpinning modern American identity. Rhetorical defenses of ‘heritage’—this time Southern gentleman and ‘noble confederate’ Robert E. Lee and “George Washington next week”— dangerously simplify the issue of ‘heritage.’ The vantage they take is purposefully false, narrow-minded, and myth-like—vastly different from the hesitant and self-consciously open-ended conclusions of current historical consensus. Even more dangerously, they offer an insidious message regarding ‘history.’ Following this rhetoric, ‘history’ is singularly conceived—a sequence to fill in with facts and events, like the bones of a T-Rex fossil. This rigid view of ‘history’ encourages arguments that claim a slippery slope from condemning Confederate monuments to condemning the Founding Fathers.

Many Americans learned (wrongly) that states’ rights, rather than slavery, caused the war.

In a recent Atlantic piece, Matt Ford analyzed some of Trump’s comments regarding Confederate monuments and Andrew Jackson as a product of his education. Ford broke down the Civil War (and more broadly, American history) curricula of Baby Boomers, comparing those historical teachings to current understanding. The textbooks of Trump’s upbringing taught the Civil War in a way that excluded African Americans and declared both secession and Reconstruction as major mistakes. In summary, many Americans learned (wrongly) that states’ rights, rather than slavery, caused the war.[2] The events in and responses to Charlottesville illuminate these divergent conceptions of history. If nothing else, moments like that at the Charlottesville Lee statue demonstrate how much we rely on our understanding of history to make sense of our current events.

President Donald Trump participates in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic School
President Donald Trump participates in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic School on Friday, March 3, 2017, in Orlando, Florida. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

History has often been leveraged as a tool for instilling national identity and civic duty in children.[3] It has also served to categorize different racial groups, legitimizing the authority of elites and the exploitation of poor and minority groups.[4] These legacies have been difficult to shake. Stark intergenerational and regional disagreements over state curriculum illustrate the lasting effects of nationalist histories and the importance of sound educational practice of history. At best, teaching history as a linear narrative encourages rote memorization where critical analysis could be fostered. At its worst, it creates the space for inconsistencies that produce radically different intergenerational understandings as exemplified in this current moment. While these inconsistencies aren’t inherently bad, they can produce and reproduce the kind of cultural rifts we see in the reactions to Charlottesville and the rise of ‘alternative facts.’ We must give students the proper tools to understand, not just what events happened, but why and how things might have gone differently.

Even with increasing pushes for more ‘interpretive’ pedagogical K-12 methods in recent years, these efforts have usually centered around the tricky and narrow matter of textbook contents. Unlike an ‘essentialist’ pedagogy which offers one version of history as fact, interpretative pedagogy asks students to think like historians. Its methods emphasize the fluidity of history and the power of the subject—one source might contradict another, so it’s up to the historian to analyze both accounts and conclude why that might be. American historian Thomas Bender contrasts these textbook debates of the 1940s and mid-1990s. Despite divergent focuses—1940s globalism/isolationism versus 1990s revisionism—both boiled down to a single concern: what about patriotism?[5] Fears that the exceptionalism of America—it’s greatness—wouldn’t reach the eyes and ears of the country’s youth aren’t new. They echo, with grave congruence, the rhetoric of white parents in the wake of Black activists’ (and again in Asian American, Native American, and Mexican American) push for anti-racist, inclusive textbooks.

An illustration from Little Black Sambo (1908) written by Helen Bannerman and illustrated by John Neill. Sambo relies on racial caricatures drawn from minstrelsy. Courtesy Archive.org.

Focusing from the 1940s onward, education historian Jonathan Zimmerman traces the fight for accuracy and inclusion in textbooks and describes the stark divergence in the reception of these textbooks by contemporary liberal Northerners and conservative Southerners. 1940s-era Northerners, many of whom were supportive of ‘intercultural’ teaching, balked at some of the demands of Black parents. They claimed African American protests were too sensitive and overplayed the effect that texts had on children. The NAACP continually had to protest textbooks that would downplay colonial slavery as “bucolic… complete with ‘black babies gamboling in the sunshine’” or include reprints of “slur-filled songs by Stephen Foster”.[6][7] Many Southern teaching institutions fought to keep any of this Black narrative out (and regarding Foster’s music, actively fought to keep the slurs in). This contestation of even minimal inclusion of a Black narrative demonstrated, according to Zimmerman, an awareness of history textbooks’ power to promote racist beliefs and maintain the status quo.[8] Alaine Locke, philosopher and ‘Father of the Harlem Renaissance’, confronted the power of history in establishing humanity in his 1925 essay on “The New Negro.”[9]  Locke doubted the suddenness of a “metamorphosis” into the “New Negro”:

…not because the New Negro is not here, but because the Old Negro had long become more of a myth than a man. The Old Negro, we must remember, was a creature of moral debate and historical controversy. His has been a stock figure perpetuated as an historical fiction partly in innocent sentimentalism, partly in deliberate reactionism.[10]

For Locke, the narrative of uplift implied by the “New Negro” and “New South” movements were based on a fictional account of slavery as benevolent and enslavers as paternal caretakers. Locke’s assessment of morality and history as political underscores the implications of these stereotypes percolating, or worse, purposely tainting historical accounts claiming to be unpolitical. Additionally, Locke’s pairing of history with mythology— “more myth than a man”—underscores the sheer endurance of these fables. The twisting of ‘facts’—down to their complete fabrication—alters not only our perceptions of the past but how we view and act towards communities today. When 1940s Black parents protested Sambo or present-day parents objected to labeling ‘slaves’ as ‘workers’ or describing the Chicano Movement as an attempt to “destroy this society,” they rejected misleading texts that not only provided little access to realistic figures for children of color but actively taught all children how to view their black and brown peers.[11]

Young boy reaches for white doll as an example of the Doll Test created by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s to determine racial perception and preference of Black children ranging from three to seven years old. Photo by Gordon Parks: Doll Test, Harlem, New York, 1947. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Zimmerman further found that the argument that gained the most traction for anti-racist, inclusive textbooks was a psychological argument that was later used by white parents in the mid-1990s to shield their children from explicit lessons regarding the racist underpinnings of America. Using psychology, Black activists had claimed that exposure to negative content concerning African Americans hurt African American children’s self-esteem, most famously with the Doll Test.[12] In the Civil Rights Era, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Mexican Americans also called for inclusive texts, making similar psychologically-based claims. The logic worked so well that, in the height of the mid-1990s multicultural education debate, white parents used it to shield their children from needlessly feeling ‘guilt’ for the actions of their ancestors and called for textbooks to limit the ‘blame’ of racism burdened onto white groups.[13] American history texts may have demonstrated a multicultural shift in lens, but this shift failed to interrogate why or how these historical moments occurred. The effects of such a sugarcoated history amplify when a national tragedy hinges on race, like that of Charlottesville.

Arguments against instilling interpretation-based methods of teaching history repeatedly gravitate towards questions of instilling civic duty. Recent attempts by Oklahoma’s congressmen to ban AP US History courses illustrate the pervasiveness of this kind of patriotic, America-the-Superpower pedagogy. An outspoken critic of the new AP curriculum, former high school history teacher Larry Krieger lamented the explicit exclusion of American leaders like Puritan John Winthrop. Having opened his course each year with this “city upon a hill” founder, Krieger emphasized the need to “set the theme of American exceptionalism and the ideals of this country”.[14] Though Krieger didn’t get his wish, this pattern of accusing any demand of increased critical inquiry as ‘unpatriotic’ endures.

More alarming, however, are the outright denials of teaching these marginalized histories, even outside of “American History” classes. The most notable of these is Arizona measure HB 2281. This law sought to forbid elective courses like Mexican-American studies (and other ethnicity-based classes), asserting that such electives would engender interracial conflict.[15] If not in American history classes and not in electives, where are children to locate their past?

HB2281 Protestors
Parents and educators protesting Arizona Measure HB 2281. By Arizona Community Press. Courtesy Wikimedia.

Returning to Locke, the myth of the “Old Negro” afforded white people power that the “New Negro” may disrupt. The “New Negro” questions the historical myth made by white Americans and claims a historical perspective of their own. Echoing Locke’s relating of history-making to power, Walter Mignolo, a current philosopher, observed that, “[The] [p]eople with history could write the history of those people without.”[16] Possessing history and writing one’s own has been coded as inherently human; imperialist exploitations on grounds of greater language, history, and culture bear reverberations that persist today, with oppressed ancestors facing muted, yet synonymous racialized charges now. No longer explicitly denied a history, they still face (among other concerns) an uphill battle for representation within mainstream conceptions of “American History.”

Anti-racist teaching that “confronts racism head-on with descriptions of past and contemporary discrimination and inequalities, pointing out the forces that maintain racism” has been found to increase both empathetic behavior and discourage future racism.[17] White children taught history lessons including information about racism experienced by African Americans demonstrated less biased attitudes toward African Americans than their white counterparts who received otherwise identical lessons that omitted those ‘pessimistic, unpatriotic’ teachings.[18] History used in this manner can produce citizens that see each other as equals and promote self-reflexive interrogation.

We need our history classes to be civically-minded and incorporate methods that teach children how to protect their civil liberties and improve the very system of which they are a part.

If the mission really is to ‘Make America Great Again,’ we need our history classes to be civically-minded and incorporate methods that teach children how to protect their civil liberties and improve the very system of which they are a part. Democracy demands work from its citizens to function properly, so teaching about debates, protests, and the struggle for voting rights is essential for an informed citizenry. Historiography—or the study of how history is made—is a necessary antidote to dangerous positivism. It offers a humbling perspective that confronts the conjoined present and past and is inherently wary of the methods used by existing national and individual narratives. Historiography foregrounds critical thinking and self-reflexivity to combat the hidden biases of both historical actors and present-day historians.

This pull towards a more critical pedagogy isn’t new either—from labeling current history classes a “gross disservice,” to calling civics classes a “Trump-Era Priority,” to the newest development with common core standards, stressing historical actors’ biases.[19] With the rise of ‘alternative facts’ and Common Core’s treatment of ‘fact vs. opinion’ (“all men are created equal”—opinion?), it would follow previous scrutiny of current educational standards to see this development as a further attenuation of moral and civics education in public schools.[20]

Some teachers have already implemented this historiographic mindset in their classrooms.

Moreover, it’s not just an issue of the ‘liberal left pulling a calcified conservative right.’ ‘Alternative Facts’ as first infamously conceived provides an interesting awareness of subjectivity in creating historical narratives. However, the unwillingness for ‘alternative facts’ proponents to engage those ‘facts’ within various historiographic methods mirrors the same rejection of examination found by ‘heritage’ defenders. A true method-conscious pedagogy, not just a destination list of facts in addition to context, allows people to examine moments like these and come to nuanced understandings. Asserting these rhetorical tactics as morally bad does little to inform their students of the larger implications and trends that magnify easily disputable viewpoints by key spokespeople like Kellyanne Conway. Conway isn’t the first historical actor to forward lies as truth; from made-up American Indian “massacres” to the “Bowling Green Massacre,” individuals have fabricated stories for their own personal or political gain.[21][22] Using historiographic pedagogy in classes—or, examining how various perspectives can lead to different conclusions and how to navigate that as a historian herself—better equip teachers to engage in the manifestations of history in the present-day. They arm their students with the tools to combat these pernicious stories.

Some teachers have already implemented this historiographic mindset in their classrooms. From comparing two historians’ writing on the same period to analyzing US History textbook titles and what they tell us, there are plenty of ways to engage young minds in the history of history-making without deep diving into primary sources without context.[23] Students “often bring a number of assumptions from their own time period,” so it’s important for educators to unpack not only what those assumptions might be, but why they exist and why these assumptions may differ among students.[24]

Finally, a continually appalling correlation of education and social mobility doesn’t mean that equitable and well-thought education hurts; rather it emphasizes a much deeper role in supporting action to change the system.[25] It’s not so much getting kids ‘out’ but encouraging all children to actively better their communities. The 1940s anti-racist curricula struggle continues today, and informing our students of the fight doesn’t mean the narrative need be tidy. In fact, emphasizing the work that needs to be done may create a new body of engaged and informed citizens.

LizPhotoElizabeth Muñoz Huber is a recent graduate of Harvard College in the department of History of Literature, working particularly in Chicanx studies and critical gender and race theory. Her interests include intermediality, decolonial methodologies, global literature, cultural nationalisms, and film theory. More recently, her projects have focused on more contemporary Latin@ artwork, hybridization between indigenous and Christian iconography in New Spain cartography and records, and Americas avant-garde cinema.

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[1] Politico Staff, “Full Text: Trump’s Comments on White Supremacists, ‘Alt-Left’ in Charlottesville,” Magazine, POLITICO, (August 15, 2017), http://politi.co/2wbV6YD.

[2] Matt Ford, “What Trump’s Generation Learned About the Civil War,” The Atlantic, August 28, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/08/what-donald-trump-learned-about-the-civil-war/537705/.

[3] Thomas Bender, “Can National History Be De-Provincialized? U.S. History Textbook Controversies in the 1940s and 1990s,” Journal of Educational Media, Memory & Society 1, no. 1 (2009): 25–38.

[4] Walter D. Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton University Press, 2012), 3.

[5] Bender, “Can National History Be De-Provincialized?”, 26–29.

[6] Joseph Moreau, Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present (University of Michigan Press, 2004), 136.

[7] Jonathan Zimmerman, “‘Brown’-Ing the American Textbook: History, Psychology, and the Origins of Modern Multiculturalism,” History of Education Quarterly 44, no. 1 (2004): 58.

[8] Zimmerman, “ERIC – ‘Brown’-Ing the American Textbook.”

[9] Jacoby Adeshei Carter, “Alain LeRoy Locke,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2012 (Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2012), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/alain-locke/.

[10] Alaine Locke, “The New Negro-What Is He?,” in Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology, ed. Venetria K. Patton and Maureen Honey (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 3.

[11] Yanan Wang, “‘Workers’ or Slaves? Textbook Maker Backtracks after Mother’s Online Complaint.,” Washington Post, October 5, 2015, sec. Morning Mix, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/10/05/immigrant-workers-or-slaves-textbook-maker-backtracks-after-mothers-online-complaint/; Yanan Wang, “Proposed Texas Textbook Says Some Mexican Americans ‘Wanted to Destroy’ U.S. Society,” Washington Post, May 24, 2016, sec. Morning Mix, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/05/24/proposed-texas-textbook-says-some-mexican-americans-wanted-to-destroy-u-s-society/.

[12] The Doll Test is most famous for its use in the trial of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Created by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s, they tried to determine racial perception and preference of Black children ranging from three to seven years old by using four plastic baby dolls that were identical except for color. After finding that Black children were more likely to reach for white dolls rather than black ones, they credited the discrepancy to a racialized lowering of self-esteem. Zimmerman, “ERIC – ‘Brown’-Ing the American Textbook,” 60.

[13] Ibid., 65.

[14] Margaret Hartmann, “Why Oklahoma Lawmakers Voted to Ban AP U.S. History,” New York Magazine, February 18, 2015, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/02/why-oklahoma-lawmakers-want-to-ban-ap-us-history.html.

[15] Edwin Rios, “Arizona Republicans Banned Mexican American Studies. The Fight Is Now Back in Court.,” Mother Jones, accessed October 1, 2017, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/07/arizona-republicans-banned-mexican-american-studies-the-fight-is-now-back-in-court/.

[16] Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs, 3.

[17] Julie M. Hughes, Rebecca S. Bigler, and Sheri R. Levy, “Consequences of Learning About Historical Racism Among European American and African American Children,” Child Development 78, no. 6 (November 1, 2007): 1689–1705, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01096.x.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Michael Conway, “The Problem with History Classes,” The Atlantic, March 16, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/03/the-problem-with-history-classes/387823/; Kristina Rizga, “America’s Schools Aren’t up to the Task of Fighting Back Trump-Fueled Hate. Here’s a Fix.,” Mother Jones, accessed October 1, 2017, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/02/civics-education-trump-bullying/; “English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grade 11-12,” Government, Common Core State Standards Initiative, accessed October 1, 2017, http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/RH/11-12/.

[20] Justin P. McBrayer, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts,” News, New York Times: Opinionator, (1425284748), https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/why-our-children-dont-think-there-are-moral-facts/.

[21] Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 32–35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt4cggft.

[22] Samantha Schmidt and Lindsey Bever, “Kellyanne Conway Cites ‘Bowling Green Massacre’ That Never Happened to Defend Travel Ban,” Washington Post, February 3, 2017, sec. Morning Mix, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/02/03/kellyanne-conway-cites-bowling-green-massacre-that-never-happened-to-defend-travel-ban/.

[23] James Zucker, “Historiography for the Secondary Social Studies Classroom,” Education, Social Studies for the 21st Century, (October 18, 2014), http://www.21socialstudies.com/1/post/2014/10/historiography.html; “Teaching Historiography in High School,” Process: A Blog for American History, January 13, 2016, http://www.processhistory.org/james-zucker-teaching-historiography-in-high-school/.

[24] “Teaching Historiography in High School.”

[25] Jesse Rothstein, “Working Paper Series: Inequality of Educational Opportunity? Schools as Mediators of the Intergenerational Transmission of Income,” Equitable Growth, August 15, 2017, http://equitablegrowth.org/working-papers/inequality-of-educational-opportunity-schools-as-mediators-of-the-intergenerational-transmission-of-income/.

2 comments on “Whose Heritage?: Building Understanding Through Better Teaching

  1. Pingback: Mapping White Supremacy – The Activist History Review

  2. Bravo! Enlightening for all of us to review the whys behind historical events and the critical thinking necessary in healthy debate and writing history. Thank you for this thought-provoking article.
    I found your article while researching for a book I am writing along the same line as your themes here.
    Again, thank you for articulating in writing this powerful message!

    Liked by 1 person

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