I can’t shake it – I don’t want to do it because it’s too just big to do – I can’t get my arms around it, and I’ll be too old and tired and dead before I can accomplish what needs to be accomplished… but I can’t shake it. I am too small and the work is too huge that needs to be done, but dammit, somebody out there has already started it, and I can at least help move things along a bit, but … it’s big. It’s bureaucracy, it’s tradition, it’s hundreds if not thousands of people’s work… and it’s wrong. I’m talking about the history of the United States.
My problem probably started because I’m a convert. Converts always come at what they have recently embraced with more fervor than those who have always been a part of the soup. Although I’ve taught history for over 15 years, 14 of those years were spent teaching World History after four years of college with an emphasis on ancient Greek and Roman history. With this new job last year, I was put to work teaching US History for the first time, and for the first time, I had to take a serious, more in depth look at our nation’s past… and I don’t like what I see, at least what I see being taught or what it is I am supposed to teach, i.e., what it is my students will be held accountable for on the mandatory End-of-Course Test, the EOC, and to deviate is to die.
I would have been just fine in my little world of copying textbook-produced quizzes and textbook-produced tests and textbook-produced sample EOC questions… Life would have been easy, so easy, with my made-for-North Carolina-edition textbook… but for some stupid reason, I had to go and read Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by Professor James Loewen. That started the back spasms. Then somebody recommended Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Oh boy… after that, my neck tightened up so I couldn’t turn my head. If you ignore some pains long enough, your body might eventually fool you into thinking they’ve gone away, so I just stewed on things for a while until I thought it was safe to come out. Meanwhile, I’m destroying most of the rain forest with all the copying of all the textbook-prepared artifacts of learning to feed to all my students. Once in a while, a student would ask a question like, “How come these men can write in the Declaration that all men are created equal, but then those same men can own slaves?” or “Didn’t George Washington own slaves?” and then my back starts to tighten up and my neck starts to throb, but I blow through it and we get back to the dittos as quickly as possible, and the kids have question marks on their faces, but I have escaped. This was working more or less, but then in my graduate class we’re assigned to read a chapter out of a book that once I read the chapter I couldn’t put down the book, and… and that’s when the twitch in the eye started, while reading A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz, and now I am hooked. (The word 'hooked' works here only if you understand that what is implied is a meathook, something more painful than just the usual ball-and-chain weight of commitment accompanying most teacher epiphanies and what-are-we-going-to-do-about-its.)
The area of intellectual work I have to explore is, to put it simply, the whitewashing of our nation’s history: has it been, how do I know, and if so, why, and if I know, then surely others know too, so why doesn’t anyone else act like they know, and if so, why do we keep teaching the whitewashed version? It is as if a parallel universe exists where in one world we have the textbook version of the past, and across the matrix we have the other, more illuminated, actual history of the past. They co-exist and run side by side, and once in a while they even touch and blend, but then the first breaks away and continues on its path; is it out of need, or fear, and if so, fear of what? Why would a parallel version of the past have been created in the first place? And if we recognize it as such, why does it still exist, and worse, why do we continue to feed it? And… how do we capture and kill it?
I’m working with high school students. Academic high school students. “All students can learn,” they say, and these kids are no exception, but how do I present this to them, how do I get them to by in and discover for themselves the difference between what is taught about the past and what actually might have happened. And that’s still the easy part. The more difficult part is how to do it and still satisfy the requirements of the course, i.e., “properly prepare” them so they can pass the EOC. For example, I would love my students to take the time to explore a question like, "How does one society justify imposing its will on another?" by looking at several different examples of that enterprise throughout history and certainly in our own. Another would be, "When is war justified?" It is difficult, however, to spend the time necessary to explore, research, analyze, and share our findings on such questions, especially in NC's high schools, when the pace for covering the goals is break-neck as it is, and those questions are not reflected in anything mentioned in the EOC. That's the real problem, and that's the real task. We can come up with the lessons - we used to have them - they've just been put aside for the sake of the data. What I am going to commit myself to is no.1: accomplishing the goals of the course - yes, if I can't do that first, I'll have no credibility with my peers, so why should they listen, but no.2: also figure out a way to accomplish the real task of guiding these students to discover more of the real story at the same time... and I think technology is going to make that possible. So I leave this course encouraged for the future, for me and for my students. WE SHALL OVERCOME. (to be continued... by me and by others. Let's get to it.)