'Presentism' May Be Stoking Doubts About Schools' Ability to Teach History
Jumping straight to judgment on historical figures can spur backlash--and it's not good history.
Americans are losing faith in the ability of public schools to teach controversial issues. One factor could be the way colleges train prospective teachers to approach history.
Only 28% of Americans say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in public schools, according to a recent Gallup poll. When it comes to Republicans, almost half have very little or no confidence. Other polls have found similar doubts and similar polarization.
Survey respondents are particularly dubious about schools’ ability to handle topics relating to race. One poll found that only 55% of parents and 44% of adults in general had faith in their community’s teachers to “appropriately handle” the topic of “how the history of racism affects America today.”
There’s more comfort with teaching about racism in the context of history, but laws enacted in many conservative states have made teachers wary of broaching historical content. According to PEN America, at least 18 states have restricted teaching on race and other controversial topics, and proposals for such laws have increased 250% this year as compared to 2021. Proponents of the laws say they want to allow for education, even about controversial issues, but prevent indoctrination. The problem is that what looks like education to one person can look like indoctrination to another.
What to do? Some, like North Carolina Republican Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, propose a seemingly simple solution: just stick to the basics. In a new memoir, Robinson is reported to advocate eliminating history and science from the elementary curriculum and focusing instead on reading, writing, and math.
The problem there is that it’s impossible to teach reading and writing—beyond deciphering words and forming letters of the alphabet—without also teaching content. If students acquire little or no knowledge of the world in elementary school, they won’t be able to understand what they’re expected to read at upper grade levels, or write about it. We have ample proof of that: for many students, it’s the current situation.
Secondary social studies teachers do at least try to teach history, although only about 40% have majored in the subject. For those who have taken college-level history courses, their approach is likely to be strongly influenced by their professors.
A recent flap among academic historians has shed some light on what that influence might be. The president of the American Historical Association, James Sweet, recently penned a column criticizing the decades-old “tendency to interpret the past through the lens of the present,” an approach known as “presentism.” That orientation, he argued, “often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times … neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines.”
The column prompted outrage on Twitter and elsewhere, followed by an abject apology from Sweet. His critics had several objections, but a fundamental one was that history is inherently political. Historians inevitably select certain facts to include in their narrative, they argue, and traditional history—done by white male historians like Sweet—has favored white males while marginalizing other groups.
One historian also rejected what he saw as Sweet’s opposition to passing judgment on historical figures. “If objectivity means that I treat evil ideas the same as I treat just ones, I have no time for it,” he wrote.
While these critiques make some valid points, I’d say they misunderstand Sweet’s basic argument. And to the extent that his critics’ perspectives are reflected in K-12 teaching, they may be contributing to backlash from conservatives.
I don’t have reliable data on how history is actually being taught in this country—no one does—but I was struck by a comment from an eighth-grade history teacher that was reported in Ed Week some months ago. Teachers weren’t trying to make white male students feel guilty about the past, she said, but she needed to teach “that the laws and systems of our country were purposefully developed to elevate white, cis males.” She added, “That is the truth.”
Actually, it’s not. As someone who spent a decade as a professional historian studying the United States in the late 18th century, I can say with some confidence that the men who drafted the Constitution were not “purposefully” trying to advantage people like themselves. That was part of what resulted from their actions, to be sure, but they saw themselves as expanding human rights, not restricting them. And they were right about that, even if they didn’t expand them as much as we think they should have.
At some point it’s appropriate to bring in the complexity and politics of history, but kids who don’t know the basics—which describes many if not most K-12 students—first need to understand the fundamental reasons we study certain events and individuals. Like: The founders of this country fought for independence from Great Britain, a monarchy, and set up a democratic republic. Once students have the essential story straight, they can be introduced to additional relevant information. Like: The signers of the Declaration of Independence declared that all men were created equal, but most of them enslaved people.
Then students should be guided to analyze what the individuals involved in a historic event were thinking. (I’m borrowing here from the Four Question Method, a brilliant framework for approaching any historical topic. I serve on the organization’s board of advisors.) This was Sweet’s point, and it’s a vital one. Putting yourself in the shoes of others is important not only for understanding the past but also for coping with disagreements in the present. You may well not end up agreeing with those others, but it makes it harder to demonize or simply dismiss them.
Some have scoffed, for instance, at the suggestion that students should learn “both sides” of the Holocaust. The formulation is clumsy, but if it means understanding the reasons Germans embraced Nazism, it’s a crucial inquiry that could help prevent the rise of such movements in the future.
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It’s perfectly appropriate for students to pass judgment on the actions of individuals in the past and to ask what the standard narrative has left out, as Sweet’s critics advocate. But they can do those things intelligently only after they understand what happened, based on generally agreed-upon facts, and what it looked and felt like to those involved. And in most cases, teachers should enable students to consider multiple perspectives and decide for themselves which one to embrace rather than presenting a single one as “the truth.” (Obviously, there are some exceptions—like the Holocaust.)
Perhaps many teachers are already approaching history this way—and it can and should be done at all grade levels. One promising development is the rise of elementary curricula that cover historical topics in engaging and age-appropriate ways, equipping kids to delve into them more deeply at higher grade levels. But educators who, with the best of intentions, are guiding students straight to judgment on individuals and events in the past, using 21st-century standards, may be contributing to the public distrust that is making it so difficult to teach history at all.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.