The les­sons I learned teach­ing U.S. his­tory

The Buffalo News - - OPINION - Jef­frey M. Bowen, Ed.D, is for­mer su­per­in­ten­dent of schools at Pi­o­neer Cen­tral.

I learned some un­for­get­table les­sons from my first year of teach­ing U.S. his­tory to high school ju­niors and se­niors in 1969. Nearly all of my stu­dents were white and well off in Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Md. My cur­ricu­lum was framed by a 1,000-page tome ti­tled “The Amer­i­can Pageant.”

A depart­ment men­tor sup­plied a course out­line, some time-worn mimeo­graphed work­sheets, and a cranky over­head pro­jec­tor. Mostly I was left on my own to jour­ney through the text­book’s ex­haus­tive chronol­ogy of po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and mil­i­tary events.

Nat­u­rally I wanted to help my 125 stu­dents re­mem­ber enough to pass the course and grad­u­ate. Yet I also ra­tio­nal­ized that I could use his­tory as a tool for crit­i­cal think­ing and big ideas about Amer­i­can char­ac­ter.

Was I ever naïve! I was try­ing to in­fuse in­ter­est and ex­cite­ment into a text­book pub­lisher’s mind­numb­ing fac­tual in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his­tory, bor­ing my classes, and do­ing lit­tle to con­nect his­tory with the present.

In 1969 we were pas­sion­ately, even vi­o­lently, en­gaged in the be­gin­nings of the civil rights move­ment. There was grow­ing dis­con­tent over the Viet­nam War. So­cial protests were get­ting louder and turn­ing psy­che­delic. Yet I was sur­prised when just one of my re­bel­lious stu­dents kept skip­ping school to lis­ten to the daily read­ing of the war dead on the steps of the Capi­tol. I con­tin­ued to be mostly obliv­i­ous even though on Valen­tine’s Day I re­ceived my draft no­tice and would spend the fol­low­ing year teach­ing English in Viet­nam.

Another fal­li­bil­ity was my ten­dency to lec­ture and har­ness my­self to the text­book as a re­source.

Fi­nally, our text­book, which still sits on my book­shelf, comes back to haunt me. “Pageant” has been reprinted 13 times, but it con­tin­ues to prove its orig­i­nal au­thor’s ob­ser­va­tion: “Old myths never die – they just be­come em­bed­ded in text­books.”

We are chron­i­cally trapped by a Euro­cen­tric mis­con­cep­tion that the 18th cen­tury na­tive Amer­i­cans had lit­tle to con­trib­ute to our cul­ture, lacked rel­e­vant tech­nol­ogy, and had no idea what was re­ally meant by prop­erty own­er­ship. Mul­ti­cul­tural di­ver­sity and mu­tual ac­com­mo­da­tion were very real 300 years ago, just as they are right now.

Con­sider that to­day we have 326 In­dian reser­va­tions across the coun­try. Each one is a sov­er­eign na­tion. Even so, to­day’s text­books sel­dom let these things in­ter­fere with the sto­ry­line that white so­ci­ety is su­pe­rior, we are the United States af­ter all, and in ev­ery way su­pe­rior.

For­tu­nately, as my year of teach­ing flew by, I be­gan to dis­cover how to en­liven U.S. his­tory. An English teacher col­league and I were given time to co-teach a short course on World War I. By mat­ing his­tor­i­cal events with fic­tional nov­els, we tried to put our stu­dents into the emo­tional grips of war and its dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences. We sought to en­gen­der em­pa­thy, and to en­cour­age con­trasts in per­spec­tive.

As I gained ground in teach­ing, I grew to ap­pre­ci­ate the chal­lenge of mak­ing his­tory rel­e­vant and fair minded. While it is tempt­ing to grab pieces out of con­text, his­tory de­mands en­light­ened teach­ing to help our chil­dren see clearly and with­out pre­ma­ture and poorly in­formed judg­ments.

Mostly I was lef t on my own to jour­ney through the text­book’s ex­haus­tive chronol­ogy of po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and mil­i­tary events.

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