The lessons I learned teaching U.S. history
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.