How to Teach American History in a Divided Country

Chuck Yarborough on helping kids make connections between the past and the present

A filing cabinet drawer on a wooden floor, against a yellow background, with history books and a map
Olivia Locher

Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

For the past 26 years, Chuck Yarborough, the U.S. and African American history teacher at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science in Columbus, has been surveying his students on how American history is taught. Students come from all over the state to spend their last two years of high school at this diverse public boarding school, and he wants to know what they’ve learned by the time they get there. The feedback from more than 1,400 students over the years has been consistent. In each class of about 18 students, an average of five come in with some basic knowledge of the Civil War, but very few have studied the role that slavery played in it—or the connections between the war, white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, and how this legacy continues to uphold racial segregation and inequities in Mississippi.

Yarborough has spent his career trying to fill these omissions in how U.S. history is taught—and thinking about his own role as a white educator in the Deep South, teaching about the roots of racial injustice. During my visit in the fall of 2018, I asked Yarborough to describe his approach. Our conversations have been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Kristina Rizga: How are the Civil War and Reconstruction taught at Mississippi schools?

Chuck Yarborough: They are not taught for the most part, unfortunately. In theory, students are supposed to have been taught the Civil War and Reconstruction before arriving here, but the vast majority of them have not been taught Reconstruction. A few more learned something about the Civil War, but not a lot. They have been taught pretty well the horrors of slavery, but they have not been taught the complexities of those systems: how it developed and its continued effects to this day. So when they arrive in my classroom, I start with the end of the Civil War—1865—and then I teach Reconstruction for the first several weeks of the class.

I teach with the simple assessment of my professors in college, which I think is spot on: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. And we begin this discussion by reading the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession, which makes it clear that the Civil War happened because white southerners desired to defend slavery as an institution for their own benefit.

I suspect that my generation—people in their 40s or 50s—were taught something different. They were taught that there were all these other constitutional issues and it was really about states’ rights. That’s a kinder and gentler reason for people to have fought each other. And if you believe that, then you believe that southern Confederates were just like the Founding Fathers of the United States who were fighting a political struggle.

You can’t understand American history without understanding the steps forward, racially and socioeconomically, that Reconstruction presented initially, and then the steps backward that were taken with the violent reestablishment of white supremacy. You can’t understand the present without seeing the connections between this history and the socioeconomic and racial imbalances it created. But Reconstruction is not on the state test. Therefore, the schools that are teaching the state tests are not teaching Reconstruction at all, and in today’s society, that’s particularly problematic.

Rizga: What kind of learning experiences have helped you bring out the best work in your students?

Yarborough: I think classroom work has to empower students academically and socially. School is so much more than academic content. Education is also about a sense of community, collaboration, empathy, and confidence. At some point, I’m a life coach—and this means that I have to show students that they matter and that their work matters. All of this helps them develop a sense of place and belonging. When that happens, they produce their best work.

With the research in the local archives and performance projects that we do in the community, we try to make history come alive. The reason this approach works for so many students, I believe, is that they see how the work they do matters to a bigger community: how it resonates, challenges the community to reach a new level of understanding, and sets a model for leading in a community.

Classroom work has to show students how to lead and succeed locally. Before the rise of social media, success meant stepping out of school to the next, broader community. Today, students are comparing themselves to global norms, like celebrities or people with loud voices on social media. That’s generated more stress for students. And it also creates anxiety in parents, who take it out on teachers sometimes. I try to remind my students that the world you can really change is the world that’s within your reach. I help students find excellence from within and realize that success is really about empowering yourself to shape your life, your family’s life, and your community’s life.

Rizga: In what ways has your teaching changed since your first five years in the classroom?

Yarborough: The first five years were about teaching content and going fast and making sure students learned a lot. I emphasized quantity over quality. Later in my career, I’ve really come to understand that while learning content is important, it is really only empowering for the students who are good at making the connections between the content and the process on their own. That process includes all of the procedures of being a critical thinker: doing the research, collecting data, finding and articulating connections. For many students, even some of the highest achievers, you have to teach them these skills. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve seen students who are more and more tied to the idea that they just need to learn content. That has led me to step up my game with the teaching of process.

Rizga: How do you do that?

Yarborough: First, students have to engage with primary documents. My students go to the archives, and while that’s not logistically possible for most teachers today, there are so many digital resources out there. You can engage documents through the Library of Congress or Ancestry classroom resources, like newspapers or census materials. And by the way, the students love it. They do not want to read a textbook—they want to create something themselves.

The second principle is that students must be able to articulate themselves in writing, because the discipline of writing is essentially the discipline of thinking. That has to be in your classes every day.

Daily discussion has to be a practice in a decent classroom. If students are not engaged in a discourse, then they’re really not learning. Students can’t just memorize information and then spit it back. If that’s most of what you do, then you’re not doing what you need to create critical thinkers. But you also can’t create the critical thinkers without having them practice the discipline of learning, and that includes memorization. I do exercises where I require memorization, because that knowledge base is how we discern truth in the moment. It is our fact-checking filter. In the 21st century, young people in particular are losing this discipline, because they have so much information available at their fingertips—but you need to have a base of knowledge and facts to understand whatever you are engaging with.

Rizga: In your classes, you often talk about the importance of collaboration and sharing what you’ve learned. Why is this important?

Yarborough: Living in and shaping a community is really about being in relationships with other people in constructive, collaborative ways. So in my classroom, I try to develop projects that emphasize those skills. We all have our talents to bring to the table. We all have stories to tell, and we can learn from each other’s stories. Historically, if you look at successful communities—and that includes successful schools—that’s the defining characteristic. People buy into a common good that they can collaborate to reach.

These two key skills—sharing and collaboration—have been disappearing in many classrooms in the past 10 years, with the growing emphasis on passing standardized tests. If students are not passing those tests, there is a cost for the school and for the teachers. And the end result of that has been a regimentation: Worksheets and everything else are targeted at passing those tests. I think we all have to remember that this is not helpful in preparing students for a constructive life in a community.

Rizga: What are some of the biggest shifts you’ve seen in education in the past two decades?

Yarborough: The devaluation of teachers and public education generally. Political leaders seeking to cut funding are incentivized to convince you that public education is not valuable.

The other challenge is the lack of mentorship by veteran teachers. When I started at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, most teachers had at least 15 years of experience. Today, very few do. I became good at what I do under the tutelage of older teachers. The lack of experienced teachers will have huge consequences for the current generation of teachers.

I also see one big, positive change: the empowerment of students of color; young women, particularly in sciences; LGBTQ students; and religious minorities. These students have voices, and those voices are being heard. This is really different today from when I was starting out.

This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.