The Impact of Revisionist History on Pre-Service and In-Service Teacher Worldviews
Thompson, Franklin T., Austin, William P., Education
The study of history usually takes one of two paths: a classical (i.e., traditional) or a revisionist (i.e., non-traditional) approach of explaining past events. Both camps relate history with a certain purpose. For classical historians, that purpose tends to have a conservative political agenda driving the account of the event or an historical figure under review. Cordle (2002) writes, "It is critical to present revisionist history in our books and our classrooms to counterbalance 'classical' history," (p. 10). Revisionist history can be seen as one consequence of the "minority rights revolution" that began after World War II and has achieved considerable success (Schuman, Schwartz, D'Arcy, 2005). Although revisionist history is often advanced by thinkers who are more liberal in their political perspective, final judgment about the validity of true revisionism is ultimately left to the reader regardless of their political persuasion.
James McPherson (2003), former president of the American Historical Association, stated that there is no single, eternal, and immutable truth about past events and their meaning. The unending quest of historians for understanding the past--that is revisionism--is what makes history vital and meaningful. Viewed in this light, revisionism is not an attack on classical interpretations of history, but rather a natural evolution of constantly unfolding interpretations of our past. For purposes of this paper, revisionism is defined as a process that attempts to (1) bring history in accord with as broad an array of facts as possible, (2) discuss the past on the basis of new and multiple interpretations of existing evidence, and (3) consciously include greater historical voice to the experiences of marginalized groups.
The Politics of Collective Memory
On June 6, 2003, President George W. Bush used the following opening words of a speech to defend his decision to invade the country of Iraq with the purpose of ousting the Saddam Hussein regime: "Now there are some who would like to rewrite history--revisionist historians is what I like to call them." On June 6, 2006, Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed into law a state educational provision that, "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of independence," (Florida Education Omnibus Bill--H.B. 7087e3). More than likely, the new law was a small yet important way in which the governor could provide cover for his brother, the president, to justify using force against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq (McLaren & Jaramillo, 2006).
Not long after that speech, Governor Bush signed House Bill 7087 which legislated that social studies learning in Florida would be mediated through assimilationist historical content, didactic teaching, memorization, and high-stakes testing. While not legislated in other states, conservative minded social studies teachers across the nation began to adopt the belief that traditional, non-diverse historical accounts was the best way to teach students (Gitlin 1996; Labaree, 1992; McKnight, 2004; Robinson 2007).
One of the first post-imperial attempts to question the validity of high school textbooks was advanced by Frances Fitzgerald (1979) in a book entitled America Revised. Fitzgerald concludes that (1) history books change over time reflecting the views of the community [i.e., power elite] that produce them, (2) the goal of the public education establishment has always been to keep the children of laborers in their place, (3) textbook reformers--whether they be progressive or fundamentalist--are typically "ahistorical" as witnessed by their desire to utilize history mostly as a tool to further the goals of social change or behavior modification, and (4) most history textbooks are written by committee with a design that offends as few people as possible--a result that produces boring, passionless, and meaningless education. Reviewers gave Fitzgerald high marks for bringing new awareness to a real and legitimate critique on one hand, yet lower marks on the other hand for a perceived failure to make the sum of her parts a balanced and workable paradigm for classroom teachers to adopt.
A follow-up revisionist account written by James W. Loewen (1995) entitled Lies My Teacher Told Me improved upon the Fitzgerald themes by (a) reporting on what goes on in the classroom, and (b) including so much history that it ends up functioning not just as a critique, but also as a kind of counter-textbook that retells the story of the American past (Wiener, 1995). The text corrected many misconceptions we had about history; examples include (1) Betsy Ross most likely did not create the American flag, (2) Helen Keller was an outspoken communist, (3) the American government sent troops on two occasions to squash the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and (4) President Woodrow Wilson, a democrat, went out of his way to undo early affirmative action appointments in the federal government instituted by republican presidents before him. Like Fitzgerald, Loewen believes that history textbooks are information-driven and typically devoid of real-life conflict and suspense, and that they encourage students to believe history is comprised of facts only to be learned and memorized. He also states that students enter college less knowledgeable about American history than any other academic subject, due in part because history is the often viewed as least liked and most forgotten subject in American curricula.
The purpose of revisionist history is to provide a much needed academic checks-and-balance system. Unfortunately, revisionist historians became synonymous with unpatriotic liberals who wanted to undermine traditional American values and goals. One writer (Chabot, 2004) even went as far as stating that today's colleges are filled with intimidating "left-wing professors" (p. 7) who promote uncritical thinking skills by offering top grades to students who simply parrot back a certain monocultural ideology. A popular book that argued against the revisionist critique was published by Robert learner, Althea Nagai, and Stanley Rothman (1995) entitled Molding the Good Citizen. The authors are not proponents of the multicultural movement as it is currently defined, and conclude that high school textbooks have become …
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Publication information: Article title: The Impact of Revisionist History on Pre-Service and In-Service Teacher Worldviews. Contributors: Thompson, Franklin T. - Author, Austin, William P. - Author. Journal title: Education. Volume: 132. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2011. Page number: 39+. © 1999 Project Innovation. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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