Few topics about education are as arguable as how history is taught. When I was going to school “American History” taught in the USA typically began with Columbus’s voyages of discovery. Then, having skipped the thousands of years in which civilizations had flourished on the two large American continents, the accounts talked about the activities of vicious Spanish conquerors as if they were heroes. From then on “American History” was all about what the US colonists did to “settle” from coast to coast, wiping out and dispossessing entire Native American populations in the process.
Today is June 6, the 77th anniversary of “D-Day” the largest amphibious invasion in world history, and the beginning of the end of NAZI Germany’s conquest of Europe. The entire scope of Operation Overlord was too complex to include in a short course on European History, or even 20th Century History. So writers of school books have to be brief. Why did Germany collapse? It comes down to Soviet Russia overwhelming the Third Reich from the East and the USA, Great Britain, and Canada (with 12 other nations contributing forces) from the West – from the Beaches of Normandy. The rest was prelude, it seems, and the end was foregone. D-Day was where it happened.
This same week people in the USA noticed, most for the first time, that 100 years ago the USA bombed itself in the only full-scale attack upon itself since the very “uncivil” War Between the States. The eradication of the most prosperous Black city in the USA, Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921 raises the question, “Why Was It Forgotten?” Why have history books skipped over this massacre, and for that matter, glossed over the entire history of lynching and subjugation of non-white people?
As a sometime designer of courses of study, this matter plagues me. I know how it is done. From the very beginning it is about limitations. The guiding issue is “What outcome is to be achieved?” What do you want to happen to the students? It this history course about enhancing loyalty, patriotism, and civic pride (as many of them are)? Or is it about expanding appreciation for the evolution of culture and the streams that flow into the present? Or is it to increase dissatisfaction with the present and stir up revolutionary change?
Whatever the objective is, it faces limitations. You are limited to 45 classroom hours. There are only so many hours of instruction, and if you’re writing a textbook only so many pages. What are you to put into them? Your students are another limitation. You cannot “tell them everything” about anything. That, you must try to do in your PhD thesis. But not in the classroom, not even with a thousand-page textbook backing you up.
Nowadays we have history channels, social media groups, YouTube clips, and much more to fill in the gaps. But there are limitations to what you can learn here, too. Not all of this mass of information is unbiased or even factual. Your own interests guide you to certain troves of history and help you scroll past others.
That history education you had in school and college was only the beginning. Pity the teachers who were trying their best to get you ready to face the future as you stepped out of the past into it. They were limited. Even Will Durant was wrong in believing that all of Western Civilization could be recounted in 11 volumes. Goodness, Will and Ariel, you just barely got started.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.