American History 101

Multiple Perspectives Aren't So Hard To Deal With
How we interpret the past.
May 18 2005 4:21 AM

American History 101

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Dear Diane,

Who could disagree with your list of the problems of history in the schools? We could add that students need textbooks, and they need adequate school buildings with clean, working restrooms, roofs that don't leak, etc. "Books and Bathrooms!" has been the demand of high-school students in L.A. public schools for the last several years. All this is obvious—as is the fact that school funding is in bad shape, mostly as a result of the Republican-led attack on taxes as inherently evil. Higher taxes are necessary to pay for better schools and better teachers.

I proposed two ways of teaching history: I said we should teach multiple perspectives and teach the conflicts. You seem to think that it's too difficult to teach multiple perspectives because students don't know the basic facts. Let's get specific: How should we teach the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War? (I'm thinking here about high-school juniors and seniors and college students. Obviously they need to know the basic facts—the South seceded, the North went to war initially to preserve the Union, but eventually Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, etc.) Students think history is "boring" because they are taught only facts. But the facts get interesting when they are part of a conflict between different perspectives.

You seem to think this approach won't work because we have too many "perspectives"—you list nine. But in the case of Reconstruction, the number of relevant perspectives is not that big. I focus on three, the three most significant: the Northern Radicals, who shaped federal policy and who wanted to bring the former slaves into the economy of the free market, as wage earners, and into the political system, as voters; the Southern planter elite, who wanted to preserve as much of the old plantation labor system as possible; and the former slaves themselves. Their understanding of freedom was, as Eric Foner has written, "shaped by their experiences as slaves." Freedom for them meant freedom to work for themselves—economic autonomy and access to land. This argument shows the freedmen defining their own interests, in conflict with the federal government, which claimed to represent them. Thus instead of giving students a list of facts and dates to memorize, I would ask them to conceive of what's happening as a three-sided conflict over the meaning of freedom.

By that, I don't mean a broad-brush treatment that leaves students clueless about the details on the ground. To understand that conflict, they need to know about Radical Reconstruction, the plantation system, blacks' experiences of slavery, and the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution—but viewed with a bigger framework in mind, the mass of information acquires meaning, and students can make connections. And they can see contrasts: They recognize how history was made in different ways by different groups. That might seem "very difficult" to you, but students end up learning not just about what happened during Reconstruction, but about how history itself gets reconstructed. The organizing theme—freedom—has intrinsic interest, whereas a mass of data and dates can quickly become meaningless.

In your response to my argument about teaching the conflicts, you asked whether I meant we should make Holocaust-denial part of the curriculum. If this is a serious question, the answer is no. But let's take a legitimate example: You ask whether, when we teach the conflicts and we teach about McCarthyism, we should teach about McCarthy's supporters. The only "supporter" of Joe McCarthy on the scene today is Ann Coulter, and her writings don't belong in the history classroom. But I think it's essential for students to ask why people supported McCarthy, why Eisenhower and the Republican Party waited so long before condemning him. The answers require students to learn about the Cold War and the way it was framed for Americans as a conflict between "freedom" and "slavery"; the way that framework defined people who could be linked to the Communist Party as "enemies of freedom"; the way spy trials amplified an atmosphere of fear; the way the Democrats, led by Truman, joined in the hunt for "subversives." Students should try to distinguish between legitimate concerns about espionage and political exploitation of the issue. And they should also look at Republicans who didn't wait to challenge McCarthy, like Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and her famous "Declaration of Conscience," where she stated, "Surely we Republicans aren't that desperate for victory." Finally, it's worthwhile to compare and contrast the wave of political repression that followed World War I with that following World War II in terms of restrictions on First Amendment freedoms. And we should urge that students look to contemporary comparisons in the post-9/11 world as well. Since historians disagree about all these issues, we need to "teach the conflicts."

Traditionalists argue that this kind of teaching the conflicts means teaching relativism, when we should be teaching the truth; I think the truth is that historians disagree. Traditionalists say that this kind of teaching multiple perspectives leads to the fragmentation of history and the abandonment of any central theme. I say the central theme here is freedom. I'm eager to see where you stand on these arguments.

Best,

Jon

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