Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools

By Linda S. Levstik ; Keith C. Barton | Go to book overview

Sectional rivalries may not be completely dead, but it's hard to imagine the memory of Abraham Lincoln inspiring such a high level of feeling these days; the demise of everyone directly involved in the Civil War makes it a much less emotional issue than it was seventy-five years ago. Other historical controversies seem even more fleeting. In the 1890s, Anglo Americans protested the proposal to make Columbus Day a legal holiday because only "the Mafia" would be interested in celebrating the life of an Italian; in 1915, prejudice against German Americans forced the removal of a statue of Baron Von Steuben at Valley Forge; and the 1920s saw a movement to condemn American history textbooks as full of pro-British propaganda. These debates, of course, just seem silly today: Historical controversies always result from contemporary concerns, and few people now care about the issues that inspired such strong feelings against Italians, Germans, or the British. It's hard to imagine anyone getting upset about a monument to Baron Von Steuben anymore.

Contemporary concerns lead to controversies over historical interpretations.

Kammen ( 1991)

But as we all know, there are other contemporary issues that still inspire fierce passions. Racial tensions, both spoken and unspoken, permeate every sphere of our society and invariably affect our understanding of how the story of American history should be told. Since the beginning of Black History Week in 1926 (and before), teachers, parents, students, and scholars have argued that African Americans deserve a more prominent place in that story. This perspective has grown even more inclusive in recent years, as it becomes apparent that all racial and ethnic groups--as well as women, working people, and others--should be part of the story of American history, and that they should be included as full and active participants rather than marginal "contributors."

Racial controversies influence our understanding of history.

Because issues of race, gender, and class still divide our society, though, every attempt to tell a more inclusive story of American history is met with fierce resistance, as defenders of the status quo argue that these attempts minimize the achievements of the men who made our country great. Ironically, though, it's rare for anyone to admit that this argument is one of interpretation; doing so would lead to controversy, and historian Michael Kammen argues that Americans have never wanted their history to be controversial; he maintains that Americans have always looked to history to provide a kind of comforting and guilt-free nostalgia and that they have consistently "depoliticized" the past.

Kammen ( 1991)

attempts to tell a more inclusive story of American history are met with fierce resistance. Casanova ( 1995), Cornbleth & Waugh ( 1995), Evans ( 1988), Nash et al. ( 1997), Ravitch & Schlesinger ( 1990), Thornton ( 1990)


CONCLUSIONS

From our perspective, the desire to avoid controversy leads to one of the most serious weaknesses in the discussion of history--the refusal to admit that all history is interpretive. Those who defend the status quo portray their version as the "real" story (since it's already in the textbooks) and condemn all other interpretations as somehow weakening the "truth" of American history. Given that these arguments are usually made by precisely those people who benefit most from ignoring issues of race, class, and gender, that position is hardly surprising. But if schools are to prepare students for active citizenship in a democracy, they can neither ignore controversy nor teach students to passively accept someone else's historical interpretations. Being a citizen of a democracy means much more than that. Education for democratic citizenship requires that students learn to take part in meaningful and productive discussion with people of diverse viewpoints. Consequently, throughout this book, we portray history as a subject in which students learn how people create stories about the past and how those stories can be told differently. Far from being limited to some select group of students, we think this kind of instruction is practical for all children in the elementary and middle grades, and in the next chapter we explain the principles of teaching and learning that guide our approach.

Hahn ( 1998), Parker ( 1996)

Lerner ( 1997)

-8-

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