The most passionately debated question in civic education is how
to present the overall story of American history in schools.
Is it a march toward freedom and democracy, a blood-soaked tale of
oppression, or something in between? I can see three ways to address
1. By trying to tell the truth. Some historical statements
are verifiable (or falsifiable); and we should only tell students
the ones that aren’t false. However, the debate is not about whether
particular facts are true; it’s about which facts we ought
to mention and emphasize. History is a "vast grab-bag" (as
Robert Weibe once said in my hearing); and one can choose which items
to pull out. As for grand assessments of the overall meaning of American
history—they aren’t precise enough to be either true
or false, I suspect.
2. By conducting a normative (moral) debate. How to present
American history is hotly debated because each approach seems to cohere
best with a different moral/ideological worldview. Modern conservatives
want to emphasize the degree to which our founding institutions have
served us well; some liberals want to stress the March of Progress;
and many modern leftists want to focus on violence, exclusion, and
resistance. There is nothing wrong with having this debate. However,
"is" never implies "ought." One could, for example,
take a very dark view of the American past and still believe that
students should love their country and its founding documents. Many
complex combinations of facts and values are possible.
More importantly, "ought" never implies "is."
It is intellectually dishonest to adopt a normative position and then
try to teach students a set of historical facts that support that
ideology, presented as the history of the United States.
If I wanted to help students think about moral and ideological positions,
I wouldn’t proceed by trying to present a brief version of American
history to them. I would teach them explicitly about conflicting values
and methods of normative argument.
3. By predicting the effects of each version of history on students’
attitudes and beliefs. Many ideologists in this debate assume
that particular versions of history will have particular consequences
for students’ psychological development. For instance, a "triumphalist"
narrative will create patriots—or will alienate students, especially
minorities. An emphasis on exclusion and oppression will create social
activists—or will breed despair.
There is not nearly enough research on this (empirical) topic. William
Damon of Stanford argues that young people must develop a positive
view of their nation before they can care enough about it to become
engaged critics. This theory rings true in my own life. I was a jingoistic
patriot at 10, only to become a critical activist by 20. However,
I’m not sure that trying to impart a completely positive view of the
Founders would work as well with young people of color as it did with
me. In any case, I would love to see more research this field, using
as many relevant methodologies as possible.