The Problem With History Classes

Single-perspective narratives do students a gross disservice.

Wikimedia/The Atlantic

Before the release of Selma, I wonder how many people ever reflected on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s attitude toward the 1965 marches in Selma. I wonder if anybody thought that conventional wisdom afforded him either too much or too little credit for the Voting Rights Act. I imagine that Johnson’s legacy was not on the average American’s radar until Selma ripped it into the public consciousness.

The movie compelled many Americans to reconsider their perceptions of Johnson. The curators of his legacy lambasted the film for portraying the 35th president as a prickly antagonist to Martin Luther King Jr., asserting that the film unfairly reduces Johnson to an irascible politician who was forced by King into advancing the Voting Rights Act. Joseph A. Califano Jr., Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969, wrote in the Washington Post that Selma distorts these facts so considerably that the movie "should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards seasons." Selma director Ava DuVernay fired back, tweeting that the "notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping."

How can subjects such as this remain dormant for long periods of time, only to be awakened by a critically acclaimed film? Califano is not the first, nor will he be the last, to mount a defense of a historical figure who is shortchanged by a movie. After the 2012 release of Lincoln, U.S. Representative Joe Courtney, a Democrat from Connecticut, wrote to Steven Spielberg to complain that the film erroneously showed two of his state’s legislators voting against the amendment that abolished slavery. The 2012 release of the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady prompted Rob Wilson, a member of parliament, to call for a debate in the British House of Commons, claiming that its director, Phyllida Lloyd, painted an "intrusive and unfair" picture of the former prime minister.

These partisans have not been hiding; they are only drawn into the public realm when fear is evoked. It is this same anxiety that’s emerged in Oklahoma because of the new Advanced Placement U.S. History guidelines. In a later interview, Califano captured the root of that anxiety: "Many, many of our young people get their view of history from films and television," he said. "It’s important for people who make movies that claim to be historically accurate to be accurate." When the established memory of figures and events from the past is challenged, both the defenders and opponents of that memory will fight to influence the young.

The passion and urgency with which these battles are fought reflect the misguided way history is taught in schools. Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative—a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same. Yet, history is anything but agreeable. It is not a collection of facts deemed to be "official" by scholars on high. It is a collection of historians exchanging different, often conflicting analyses. And rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many "histories" that compose the American national story.

Califano is explicitly worried that future Americans will remember Lyndon B. Johnson differently than he does. Oklahoma state Representative Dan Fisher, a Republican, appears worried that future Americans will have a different understanding of their country’s past than he does, too. Fisher recently introduced a bill that would have defunded AP U.S. History in the state, claiming that the College Board, which runs the AP program, published a revised framework that harps on "what is bad about America" and fails to teach "American exceptionalism." (The controversial effort garnered a good deal of criticism, and Fisher has since backtracked on the legislation.) The memories of Fisher, Califano, Courtney, and Wilson have clashed with the memories of others.

Perhaps Fisher offers the nation an opportunity to divorce, once and for all, memory from history. History may be an attempt to memorialize and preserve the past, but it is not memory; memories can serve as primary sources, but they do not stand alone as history. A history is essentially a collection of memories, analyzed and reduced into meaningful conclusions—but that collection depends on the memories chosen.

Memories make for a risky foundation: As events recede further into the past, the facts are distorted or augmented by entirely new details—something the NBC news anchor Brian Williams learned to devastating effect. An individual who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge probably remembers the events in Selma differently than someone who helped Johnson advance legislation in Washington. Both people construct unique memories while informing perfectly valid histories. Just as there is a plurality of memories, so, too, is there a plurality of histories.

Scholars who read a diverse set of historians who are all focused on the same specific period or event are engaging in historiography. I didn’t encounter historiography until college, and it had the same effect on my opinion of textbooks that The Jungle had on consumers of pork. This approach exposes textbooks as nothing more than a compilation of histories that the authors deemed to be most relevant and useful.

In historiography, the barrier between historian and student is dropped, exposing a conflict-ridden landscape. A diplomatic historian approaches an event from the perspective of the most influential statesmen (who are most often white males), analyzing the context, motives, and consequences of their decisions. A cultural historian peels back the objects, sights, and sounds of a period to uncover humanity’s underlying emotions and anxieties. A Marxist historian adopts the lens of class conflict to explain the progression of events. There are intellectual historians, social historians, and gender historians, among many others. Historians studying the same topic will draw different interpretations—sometimes radically so, depending on the sources they draw from. Fisher’s bill captures high schools’ inability to accept the absence of a single "history" and the co-existence of "histories."

In a recent analysis for The Atlantic about the controversies surrounding the AP framework and other history curricula, Jacoba Urist points out that history is "about explaining and interpreting past events analytically." If students are really to learn and master these analytical tools, then it is absolutely essential that they read a diverse set of historians and learn how brilliant men and women who are scrutinizing the same topic can reach different conclusions. Rather than constructing a curriculum based on the muddled consensus of boards, legislatures, and think tanks, schools should teach students history through historiography. The shortcomings of one historian become apparent after reading the work of another one on the list. Will every perspective be afforded its due? Probably not. But the students will be better equipped to recognize weaknesses in an argument and resist the allure of a simplified national narrative.

Although, as Urist notes, the AP course is "designed to teach students to think like historians," my own experience in that class suggests that it fails to achieve that goal. The course’s framework has always served as an outline of important concepts aiming to allow educators flexibility in how to teach; it makes no reference to historiographical conflicts. Historiography was an epiphany for me because I had never before come face-to-face with how historians think and reason—how they construct an argument, what sources animate that approach, and how their position responds to other historians.

When I took AP U.S. History, I jumbled these diverse histories into one indistinct narrative. Although the test involved open-ended essay questions, I was taught that graders were looking for a firm thesis—forcing students to adopt a side. The AP test also, unsurprisingly, rewards students who cite a wealth of supporting details. By the time I took the test in 2009, I was a master at "checking boxes," weighing political factors equally against those involving socioeconomics and ensuring that previously neglected populations like women and ethnic minorities received their due. I did not know that I was pulling ideas from different historiographical traditions. I still subscribed to the idea of a prevailing national narrative and served as an unwitting sponsor of synthesis, oblivious to the academic battles that made such synthesis impossible.

Few examples illustrate the relevance of disputed memory like the controversies surrounding the erection of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Maya Lin’s winning design contrasted with the rest of the capital, its black granite—devoid of ornamentation, save the names of every fallen soldier—clinging close to the earth rather than soaring above it. The design prompted a wave of opposition. Tom Carhart, a Pentagon lawyer and Vietnam War veteran, called the proposed memorial a "black gash of shame." "Black walls, the universal color of sorrow and dishonor. Hidden in a hole, as if in shame," he argued, encapsulating the revulsion felt by many Vietnam vets. "Is this really how America would memorialize our offering?"

Like Califano on Johnson and Fisher on American exceptionalism, Carhart was distressed that the lasting national memory of the Vietnam War might be self-loathing. No doubt mindful of the American public’s hostility to soldiers during the war, Carhart likely found the proposed monument threatening. It was ultimately constructed as designed with a few concessions: A flagpole was built atop the wall and a statue of three American soldiers was added next to it. The memories had collided—and they continued to collide.

Although there may be an inclination to seek to establish order where there is chaos, that urge must be resisted in teaching history. Public controversies over memory are hardly new. Students must be prepared to confront divisiveness, not conditioned to shoehorn agreement into situations where none is possible. Historiography is potentially freeing for the next generation of students. When conflict is accepted rather than resisted, it becomes possible for different conceptions of American history to co-exist. There is no longer a need to appoint a victor.

More importantly, the historiographical approach avoids pursuing truth for the sake of satisfying a national myth. Fisher’s demand for a curriculum that covers "American exceptionalism," a term that often risks masking the horrors of America’s past with its greatest triumphs, hints at this risk. The country’s founding fathers crafted some of the finest expressions of personal liberty and representative government the world has ever seen; many of them also held fellow humans in bondage. This paradox is only a problem if the goal is to view the founding fathers as faultless, perfect individuals. If multiple histories are embraced, no one needs to fear that one history will be lost.

Lionization and demonization are best left to the heroes and villains of fairy tales. History is not indoctrination. It is a wrestling match. For too long, the emphasis has been on pinning the opponent. It is time to shift the focus to the struggle itself. Conflict does not necessarily demand a resolution. Disagreements among highly educated, well-informed people will continue. Why should history ignore this reality? There is no better way to use the past to inform the present than by accepting the impossibility of a definitive history—and by ensuring that current students are equipped to grapple with the contested memories in their midst.