The Impact of Revisionist History on Pre-Service and In-Service Teacher Worldviews

By Thompson, Franklin T.; Austin, William P. | Education, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Revisionist History on Pre-Service and In-Service Teacher Worldviews


Thompson, Franklin T., Austin, William P., Education


Introduction

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. …

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