An Incomplete Version of the Past that Silences Important Struggles

Historians/History




Kirsten Gardner is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas San Antonio. She is the author of Early Detection: Women, Cancer, and Awareness Campaigns in the Twentieth-Century United States and is presently working on a history of diabetes in the United States. She received a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and teaches courses in U.S. history, women and gender studies, gender and technology, and the history of medicine.

The Texas state curriculum plays a significant role in determining what my students learn prior to entering the college classroom.  In my experience, students (the vast majority are educated in Texas high schools) enter the classroom with a strong desire to learn and succeed.  Although some are prepared for the analytical challenges of a college history course, many more need to learn the basic conceptual building blocks of history.  This is information that can and should be taught at the high school level.  In reviewing the proposed revisions of the Texas social studies curriculum, it became abundantly clear to me that the process of history -- the contemplation of different versions of the past, the analysis of evidence, and the willingness to complicate linear narratives—is not being taught in the current or proposed curriculums.

History is a complex narrative, and outlining the curriculum for millions of students is a huge endeavor.  With the enormity of this challenge, we must consider how best to convey a representative narrative of the past.  As historians Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob write in Telling the Truth About History:

A democratic practice of history – one in which an ever-growing chorus of voices is heard – will depend upon objectivity, defined anew as a commitment to honest investigation, open processes of research, and engaged public discussions of the meaning of historical facts.  (10)

It is with this goal in mind -- creating a democratic practice of history -- that I contribute my thoughts to this public forum that will hopefully foster a better version of educational standards and expectations in Texas.

The current version of eleventh grade “U.S. History Studies Since 1877” opens with a nod to appropriate, ambitious and admirable goals for the high school curriculum.  As it reads, students will learn to “use critical-thinking skills and a variety of primary and secondary source material to explain and apply different methods that historians use to understand and interpret the past, including multiple points of view and historical context.”  The stated emphasis on critical thinking promises to empower students with the conceptual building blocks of history, teaching them to assess evidence, make arguments, and recognize change over time and place.  On closer examination, however, the subsequent proposed revision does not encourage critical thinking, but rather portrays a limited version of the past that silences important struggles and represents an incomplete version of the American history.  If the curriculum is intended to teach students about the field of history, and to prepare them for college, there needs to be more emphasis on skills acquisition and sharper analysis of historical themes.  For example, in a lesson on World War II, teachers might want to examine how women fought for inclusion in the military branches; how African Americans fought for desegregation of the military; and how Mexican Americans created the G.I. Forum to ensure veterans benefits after their discharge from the service.  Within the contemporary document, however, there is little space for such thoughtful historical examination and comparison.  Instead, “explanations” of the past are erasing these and other historical struggles.

The goals of the social studies curriculum outlined in the introduction provide a useful framework for considering a new curriculum design.  Major historical moments and eras are identified, the value of primary and secondary sources analysis is highlighted, and the intersections between history, economics, government, culture and more are appreciated.  After the introduction, however, the list of instructions about teaching “History” requires much more scrutiny.  In particular, the inclusion/exclusion of thematic ideas does not reflect current historical scholarship.  In addition to the already noted gaps in issues of citizenship, the history outlined here does little to historicize sexuality, global trends of imperialism, and labor politics.  Furthermore, the various lists of historical figures need explanation:  Why does Phyllis Schlafly appear twice?  Why is Shirley Chisholm removed?  Why so few references to Native American leadership?

The use of language is telling in several instances of the proposed curriculum.  As a U.S. historian, I have reviewed numerous history texts throughout my career.  To my recollection, no text has ever shied away from identifying the U.S. and its economic system as “capitalist.”   Throughout this document, the term “free enterprise system” replaces capitalism, and I’m not sure to what end.  It is cumbersome and awkward, but I think it reflects the tone of many of the suggested revisions that are invested in portraying the past (and perhaps ‘free enterprise’) through the lens of freedom, democracy, and American exceptionalism.  Ideas of freedom and democracy are essential attributes to U.S. history and should be analyzed; however, refusing to acknowledge when and how such ideas remained unrealized tends to marginalize, if not make invisible, the struggles that have taken place and continue to take place in an effort to ensure democratic promises are available to all.

Time and again, at the end of a semester, undergraduate students reflect on my U.S. history course.  Of all the comments about the class, the one that seems most familiar is an appreciation for the new analytical skills acquired.  For many until college, history seems to be a litany of dates and facts that prove boring to memorize and somewhat inconsequential in their own lives.  By reframing history into an analytical exercise, students could engage with topics, understand how change occurs over time, and appreciate history as a lens through which to better contemplate the future.  As my colleague Dr. Gabriela Gonzalez explained, “thinking critically about….history allows us to imagine worlds beyond the one we know.”  Students must learn this analytical side of history at a much earlier stage.  It is our responsibility to better educate our children by teaching them conceptual ideas of history, more about analyzing historical sources, and sharpening analytical skills.

In conclusion I would like to make three recommendations:

  1. Ensure that the language is appropriate and in sync with historical scholarship and global conversation when addressing such issues as capitalism and imperialism.
  2. Encourage critical thinking throughout.  Instead of teaching students that the A-bomb was detonated in 1945, why not ask them to analyze the profound decision-making process that preceded Truman’s decision to use the weapon against Japan?
  3. Recognize a broader spectrum of historical figures.  The inclusion of additional women and persons of color represents more than an opportunity to “mix and stir” additional narratives about the past.  It represents an opportunity to consider how some individual histories capture a community history and thereby represent a more democratic practice of history.

HNN Special: Scholars Assess the Proposed Texas Social Studies Standards

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Grouchy Historian - 5/10/2010

I would like to address the author's three main points:
1. Ensure that the language is appropriate and in sync with historical scholarship and global conversation when addressing such issues as capitalism and imperialism.
Question-What exactly is global conversation? And what exactly does she mean by appropriate language? Clearly language and terms are important when speaking about history.


2. Encourage critical thinking throughout. Instead of teaching students that the A-bomb was detonated in 1945, why not ask them to analyze the profound decision-making process that preceded Truman’s decision to use the weapon against Japan?
I agree with her point-to a point. Critical thinking skills are important and her question is excellent. But shouldn't the students know the bomb was dropped in 1945...during World War II...against Japan. How do the students learn these factoids, without which critical analysis can not be made?
This brings me to the chief issue I have with historians such as this author.
"For example, in a lesson on World War II, teachers might want to examine how women fought for inclusion in the military branches; how African Americans fought for desegregation of the military; and how Mexican Americans created the G.I. Forum to ensure veterans benefits after their discharge from the service."
I certainly hope this isn't ALL the students learn. For goodness sakes' how about the bravery of the troops on D-day, the political alliances worked out by Roosevelt and Churchill...or even the compromises made with the Soviets to defeat the Nazis. Must EVERYTHING be about race and gender? Is this all that is relevant in history today? I sure hope not.

3. Recognize a broader spectrum of historical figures. The inclusion of additional women and persons of color represents more than an opportunity to “mix and stir” additional narratives about the past. It represents an opportunity to consider how some individual histories capture a community history and thereby represent a more democratic practice of history.

As I said, must everything be about race and gender. I know there is a lot of untrod ground in history, but why doesn't anyone think inverse white-washing is a problem, so to speak. Must the achievements of white males be minimized or shouldn't the tale be told of how ALL Americans had a role in making our country what it is today?