Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What Makes Difficult History Difficult?: The Study of History May Challenge Students' Preconceptions about Their Nation, but That Doesn't Mean We Should Shy Away from Hard Truths

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What Makes Difficult History Difficult?: The Study of History May Challenge Students' Preconceptions about Their Nation, but That Doesn't Mean We Should Shy Away from Hard Truths

Article excerpt

You may have seen similar images: A crowd of people wielding torches surrounding a statue, a burning cross, or a hanging body. Until last summer, many of us saw these kinds of images as relics of the past or images of faraway places.

But this image is neither foreign nor from the past. In August 2017, in Charlottesville, Va., a group of Americans, mostly men, most (if not all) White, were photographed wielding torches and chanting racist and neo-Nazi slogans ("You will not replace us, Jews will not replace us") as they circled a statue of Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia and a slave owner. They gathered in response to the threatened removal of Confederate statues across the South, including Virginia. In this case, the statue at the center of the controversy was of General Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederate armies in the U.S. Civil War.

The following morning, two protesting groups gathered in and around Emancipation Park, once called Lee Park, the location of the Robert E. Lee statue. A few months earlier, the Charlottesville City Council had voted to change the park's name and remove the statue. One group, which included the torch wielders of the night before, was protesting to keep the statue in place. For them, efforts to remove the monuments reinforced deep anxieties about the diminishing status of whiteness and maleness in America. For the counterprotesters, the monuments symbolize White supremacy and a rejection of the core American belief that all people are created equal.

Both groups interpreted these historical monuments through the politics of the present. Many of those who argued for keeping Confederate statues claimed to do so based on an "outpouring of grief and remembrance for the hundreds of thousands who had died in the war [when] nearly a quarter of Southern white men in their twenties were killed or died from disease" (Davidson, 2017). Yet those who argue for their removal noted that many were erected not in the aftermath of the Civil War but in the first half of the 20th century in a symbolic effort to reassert White dominance amid challenges to racist policies and practices. Tragically, but not for the first time in history, one of those defending the monuments was willing to kill for his beliefs; he ran over a counterprotester with his car, killing her and injuring 19 others.

All modern nation-states have periods of what we call difficult history, periods that reverberate in the present and surface fundamental disagreements over who we are and what values we hold. Like the Civil War and its aftermath, these histories complicate the kind of positive patriotism that schools traditionally seek to develop. Educators are sometimes reluctant to tackle these difficult histories in the classroom--and when they do, their instruction may be inadequate. See, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center's recent research into how schools, standards, and textbooks address American slavery (Shuster, 2018).

Our goal is to advance a new agenda for research and practice in history education. We believe that it is possible and essential to teach controversial historical events and topics in the classroom. The December 2017/January 2018 issue of Kappan shows how teachers are successfully taking on this work. We hope to continue the conversation by providing a framework for thinking about why certain histories are difficult.

Difficult histories in education

Difficult histories present a challenge to parents and students, as well as teachers and administrators, in part because the organizing purpose of history as a school subject has been to create citizens, not just teach about the past for its own sake.

Though all nations have difficult histories, the challenge of addressing them in and outside the classroom is relatively recent. When modern history emerged as a school subject in the late 19th century, it was seen as part of the broader nation-building efforts of the time, emphasizing the triumphant narratives of the nation-state (Ramirez, 2012). …

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