America Is Uncomfortable with Teaching History

America Is Uncomfortable with Teaching History |

A parent in Tennessee discovers that her daughter’s introduction to the Civil War includes asking to think like a slaveholder.

Everyone knows that the most prominent founders of United States — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison — were slaveowners. Americans also know that slavery was definitively abolished in 1865. America claims to be about equality, even if its origins included radical, racially-defined inequality. The current trend toward exacerbated income inequality is undermining the morale of the nation.

Fortunately, slavery ended 150 years ago, allowing a nation always focused on the present and future to confine that institution of human bondage to the irrelevance of history books. Few Americans read history and fewer worry about it outside of schools, where it is taught. But when the topic of slavery is taught in today’s post-civil rights America, new dramas may emerge, as happened recently in Tennessee.

Nikita Walker, an African-American parent in Rutherford County, Tennessee, stepped in to prevent her teenage daughter from completing a homework assignment exploring the background to the Civil War. The exercise in an official textbook asked the fifth grader (elementary school) to write a few sentences in the voice a slaveowner, adding thoughts consistent with the point the speaker is making.

Here is the text that upset her: “How can I be expected to run a cotton business without extra hands? I have spent my entire life working this land. I depend on my slaves. What are we to do now? Simply give them up or pay them wages? We cannot let those dishonest Northerners take it all away from us.” – Southern cotton plantation owner”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Activities assigned to students in public schools to create the impression that they are learning on their own rather than just being indoctrinated by a teacher

Contextual note

The problem of slavery has haunted US history from its very beginnings and certainly didn’t disappear from the culture after its abolition in 1865. Education has long grappled with the problem of reconciling democratic values and the ugly reality of history. The standard solution has been to write slavery off as an error of the nation’s youth, the sin of a people that strove for freedom, but forgot that humanity is a broader concept than the cultural group clamouring for its freedom from European masters.

The contradiction lasted nearly nine decades years until Abraham Lincoln solved it by provoking and then winning the Civil War, ultimately depriving the Southern states of their source of free manpower. Though it created temporary chaos, the people of the former Confederate States ended up noticing one advantage in accepting emancipation. They could no longer be accused by uppity Northerners of justifying slavery, while still managing to keep its spirit alive with a clever replacement strategy: Jim Crow.

History may be sanitized by confining its most embarrassing features and moments to the ghetto of the “past,” thereby protecting the present from contamination. The shame belongs to the benighted generations of the past. This strategy worked so long as history was told in the past tense, underlining the shared notion that history is irrelevant to modern life. They presented a fundamentally moral and political question such as slavery as a problem of the past to be glanced at like a display in a museum.

But modern educational practices have deviated from that model as they attempt to humanize the dramas of history, which is an excellent idea as it makes history alive for the learner. But, like all excellent ideas, it requires well thought-out pedagogical methods. In the textbook in question, there is no pedagogy. Consequently, the authors have used the procedure to promote — wittingly or unwittingly — a shameful agenda.

The creative writers of this history textbook may have believed they were helping youngsters understand why slaveholding made sense for a 19th-century cotton farmer. They are encouraging the child to get into the mind of a slaveholder, presumably to better understand the causes of the Civil War. But rather than working like a creative role-play exercise, which can widen a learner’s perspective, it appears on the written page not just as an apology for slavery, but also as a lesson in what Americans like to think of as “good business sense.”

America Is Uncomfortable with Teaching History |

In other words, consistent with the background economic ideology of the US that is promoted not just in schools, but also in the media, in many churches and in families, the slaveowner appears essentially, not as an exploiter of slaves, but as an entrepreneur responsible for the health of his business. It’s all about managing (i.e., efficiently exploiting) resources — a central skill and even a supreme virtue in contemporary US culture. The poor, unsuspecting cotton farmer had no idea he was a racist, actively denying the rights of humans in the “land of the free.” He was just doing his job to the best of his ability.

In other words, the homework assignment has deviated from considering the unnecessarily negative question of slavery to the positive question of how to run a business. This represents the subtle way values can be instilled and reinforced in what appears to be an innocent history lesson.

Historical note

When Western civilization entered the age of nationalism and the state began to take the initiative in designing and implementing educational policies, nations began replacing the wide-ranging religious, philosophical, literary and moral emphasis of traditional education with patriotic indoctrination. For the first time in history, this included and began to emphasize the notion of economic utility. Public education attributed to itself the vocation of preparing the population to be productive members of an expanding industrial economy. Today’s debate focused on neglecting the humanities and pushing learners toward a STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering and math) because the jobs of the future will be in technology illustrates this trend.

The US has always had a problem with the place of history in education as well as the status of history in the culture. In the early days of the republic, there wasn’t a lot of local history to teach, so the history of Europe and England history played a prominent role, at least for the elite. Many saw the “Revolutionary War,” which resulted in independence, as a liberation from history. Americans don’t study history, they make it.

From the nation’s founding, the North and the South began to imagine themselves as separate cultures free of the constraints of older traditions. The Civil War (1860-65) saw not only two armies opposed to each other, but also two histories. In the war’s aftermath, the nation sought unity and attempted to readjust its national values, which now had to exclude one of the pillars of the young nation’s economy up to that point: slavery. The capitalist industrial model of the North become the dominant paradigm for the future economic organization of the entire nation. This made immediate sense for manufacturing, transport and heavy industry, but not for agriculture. The Southern states had no capitalist model to replace slavery, which is the precise point the cotton farmer quoted in the textbook was making.

These are themes eminently worth exploring in a high-school or university history class, but the textbook reduces the presentation to expressions of attitude and self-interest. And that may be the real point of the exercise: to reinforce the notion at the core of US culture that social interaction is about competing interests and attitudes rather than values and dynamic relationships.

Students in fifth grade are typically 10 to 11 years old. It is unlikely that even the brightest individuals at that age could begin to make sense of the complex economic interactions and moral conflicts of that period of history. At best, they will go away with vague impressions of what people were concerned with at that time and have no understanding of the underlying issues. At worst, they will take away the lesson that history is about people with opposed attitudes and interests vying for dominance in a competitive society. That appears to be what the educational system is — wittingly or unwittingly — designed to do.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]


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