Seeing Double: The Danger of a Single History

Why do we teach history? History isn’t like chemistry or calculus — it doesn’t teach just one particular body of knowledge. Instead, history is inherently abstract and interdisciplinary. As a discipline, it must prepare future generations for the vast and unpredictable political, social and economic questions they will eventually have to face. That’s a pretty tall order, so we might naturally expect history classes in the United States to be filled with ingenious educational devices aimed at helping students grapple with these difficult questions. Of course, if you’ve taken a history class at an American public school, you know that the reality could not be more different. 

Today, history classes often fail to teach children the basic skills they need to view the world in a critical and creative way. One need look no farther than the pitiful state of political discourse in the U.S. to see that something is rotten in the state of the history classroom. So where are we going wrong?

Much of the blame must go to textbooks. History textbooks undermine the whole purpose of history by turning a complex web of ideas into a single convenient narrative. Textbooks demand that students become passive consumers of information, rather than critical thinkers capable of interrogating current ideas and developing new ones.  

History is more than a chronological ordering of past events. The project of historians goes far beyond just constructing timelines. Rather, the essence of history lies in learning an empathetic and analytical mindset. Perhaps the most important lesson of history is that you shouldn’t take anything at face value. There is always room for critical thinking and a new perspective. That’s why history is so useful for studying the present. When approached correctly, historical analysis teaches students the techniques to approach complex issues from multiple angles. 

The problem is that history textbooks, by their very nature, adopt the opposite philosophy. In the glossy pages of a high school history textbook, the historical narrative is presented with an attitude of incontestable authority. As someone who loved reading his high school history textbook, I can tell you that narratives are addicting. They stimulate our brains, and once fixed, become almost impossible to dislodge. I still struggle sometimes with the lingering influence of my textbook over my brain – my mind will jump unbidden to the view expressed in my textbook, sometimes without consciously alerting me that this view was spoon-fed to me, rather than developing organically.

Students know they’ll be tested on the single, inherently limited narrative presented by the textbook, so that’s what they memorize. What’s more, as American teachers have become less qualified and compensated, many students rely increasingly on textbooks as their main source of information. But a biased and incomplete historical education may do more harm than good; if students learn history by blindly memorizing a limited historical narrative, then over time, the biases of that narrative will become encoded in their memory.

Many people have attempted to fix this problem by writing new textbooks with different narratives. Take Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” Since it came out in 1980, “A People’s History” has sold millions of copies and is perhaps the most well-known history textbook in the U.S. Countless classrooms (including those in my own middle school) use it exclusively. I know for a fact that my co-columnist has swallowed “A People’s History” whole, much as he gulps down an abominable combination of sriracha and white rice. 

Zinn focuses on history from the perspective of marginalized people, discussing at great length the oppression of racial minorities, women, immigrants and others. Zinn intended the book to counterbalance the more celebratory history textbooks popular at the time. However, his attempt to offer a new perspective fails to address the fundamental flaw of single-narrative education — the problem he had initially sought to fix. Like every other narrative-based history textbook, “A People’s History” demands that students continue as passive learners, accepting the judgments of textbook writers.

Zinn’s book also reveals how textbooks have become a battleground for the culture wars. As a response to the unabashed leftism of “A People’s History,” conservative authors published “A Patriot’s History of the United States” (subtitled “From Columbus’ Great Discovery to the War on Terror”) in 2004. Since then, the two books have fought for control of U.S. classrooms, while textbook manufacturers write different books for red states and blue states. Further, with the digitization of teaching materials, some teachers now use history textbooks that are not only dangerously prescriptive, but not even well-researched. It’s no wonder that Americans seem split between two different worlds — the seeds of our political divisions are planted in grade school. 

Textbook biases have historically been both a symptom and a cause of our political polarization. How do we correct this pattern?

One solution is to have students read multiple textbooks. Put, for example, a copy of “A People’s History” and “A Patriot’s History” into every classroom, and let students debate the two works on their merits. The problem with that idea is that it creates the illusion of a binary history, shrinking the dynamics of national polarization down to the classroom level. Immortalizing the current split in how we see our history will only mean that future generations will continue to hash out the same endless debates. Instead, students should be encouraged to come up with new perspectives, designed to fit the world in which they will live and fix the gaps in the textbook narratives. That’s how our political discourse can continue to evolve. 

I believe that our current education system mixes up its order of operations when it comes to teaching history. It spends kindergarten through 12th grade teaching students a foundation of facts. Then, if a student chooses, they can learn about historical interpretation and critical thinking in college. Because of the nature of history, however, it’s counterproductive to discuss the facts without first having a foundation in critical thinking. It would be like if English classes made students memorize books’ Sparknotes pages rather than teaching basic literacy. Students shouldn’t be required to read history textbooks until they’ve developed the skills necessary to interpret them. 

Instead of relying on textbooks or the word of their teachers, history classes should revolve around a series of case studies, in which students examine particular historical events and issues by reading a variety of primary sources, and then move on to various contemporary interpretations. Finally, students would be encouraged to offer their own, original interpretations based on all of the information available. In focusing on primary sources, students would try to place themselves in the historical moment, rather than looking back on it artificially from secondhand narratives. Instead of being told the main causes of the Civil War, for example, students could study the sources and determine for themselves. Seeing historical events in their own context will prepare students to make their own political decisions in the present day, using the same skills they learned in history class. Critics might argue that this style of teaching would result in less knowledge about the chronological sweep of history. While that might be true, conceptual teaching would give students something far more valuable: the ability to teach themselves. 

Currently, this sort of conceptual teaching is available mainly in a college setting, or in a handful of other countries. But I think that young children are far better suited to this kind of learning than they are for slogging through textbooks. Children are hardwired to be curious and receptive to a variety of different perspectives. Add in the possibility of interactive exercises involving roleplaying or debate, and you have a curriculum capable of teaching critical thinking, historical empathy and political insight. If taught to confront political disputes from this perspective, young children might well grow up more open-minded, empathetic and creative. 

Every generation thinks it has all the answers, and wants to pass those lessons on to posterity. But the truth is, we’re better off letting young people choose their own way.