Using Two Hands: Embracing Political Controversy in the History Classroom

Spring 2020

By Matt Edmonds

There is an old story—perhaps apocryphal—that President Harry S. Truman once announced his desire to hire a one-handed economist. Puzzled, his advisers asked why, whereupon Truman replied with evident frustration: “All my economists say, ‘On the one hand… on the other hand…’” This humorous anecdote speaks to the importance of understanding and appreciating complexity. Complexity can be exasperating, as Truman understood, but it is necessary. As much as we might prefer black-and-white answers, the world is a complex place, and rarely are things as clear-cut as they seem. Especially in our current political moment, when it seems like the president’s every utterance (or tweet) has the potential to erupt into full-scale partisan warfare, I can’t think of a more important lesson for our students to learn in the history classroom.

But how do we teach it? The best way, in my view, is by embracing those issues most likely to spark political conversation. In this era of malignant partisanship, many teachers are understandably reluctant to bring such issues into their classrooms—especially those who have encountered the razor-sharp blades of a helicopter parent. As tempting as it might be, however, a “just the facts” approach is not the solution. For one thing, it can’t actually be done, and even attempting it risks sterilizing a discipline already widely viewed by students as boring. But the most important reason for tackling political topics is that, if we don’t, we will fail both our students and our future, unwittingly contributing to the problem we seek to avoid. If we are to have any hope of preserving (or should I say resuscitating?) a healthy public discourse, we must engage our students in conversations that sometimes make us uncomfortable.

The payoff for embracing such discomfort is the opportunity to promote habits of mind fundamental to the discipline—in short, to teach our students to think like historians. Flannery Burke and Thomas Andrews, in an article entitled “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” describe what they call the “five C’s of historical thinking” (change—and continuity—over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity).1 Incorporating this framework into my classes profoundly changed my teaching. I introduce these terms early in each new school year, and slowly but surely, they become part of our classroom vocabulary. When we read a primary source, for instance, I want my students to understand that the document does not simply exist as a fact; instead, someone created it in a particular historical context, and to understand the source, we must attempt to understand that context. When my students point to the sinking of the Maine as the cause of the Spanish-American War, I encourage them to develop multi-causal claims that also consider a changing media landscape, evolving gender norms, and shifting commercial and geopolitical interests amid rising industrialization and global imperialism. When my students inevitably draw parallels between the events we study and the events of today, I challenge them to consider not only the continuities but the changes—drastic and subtle—that have taken place since that time. Each of the “five C’s” is important, but I’ve come to believe that complexity may stand as the “first among equals” because, at its best, each of the others involves pushing beyond easy answers. History, at its core, is about examining the evidence and complicating the simple story.

It is in this sense that controversy and historical thinking are mutually reinforcing. To teach historical thinking well requires stretching beyond a prepackaged curriculum into potentially contentious issues, but a historical thinking framework also enables students to approach topics with political overtones in a relatively dispassionate, scholarly way. Treat political issues as historical ones (which, of course, many of them are). If discussing a Confederate monument, for instance, don’t simply dive into the contemporary political debate, but approach it as a historian might: When was the monument erected? Who paid for it? Were there any public dedication ceremonies and, if so, who spoke? What was said? Were there any groups who protested the monument? What were their objections? How has public opinion about the monument changed over time? Was there some event that prompted the current controversy? Why did this issue “bubble up” when it did? By contextualizing events, both past and present, by considering the way opinions change (or don’t) over time, by moving beyond the sound bites and examining the historical record in greater complexity, we can challenge students to think more critically, not only about the past but about its enduring impact on the present.
        
If just thinking about introducing political controversy into your classes makes you feel queasy, take solace in the knowledge that history, as a discipline, has always been politicized. In his book Who Owns History? the historian Eric Foner recalls that a reporter once asked him when historians stopped “relating facts” and embraced revisionist history. Foner’s response? “Around the time of Thucydides."2 The term “revisionist history” is often wielded as a weapon by defenders of an established interpretation, but it is in fact as much a necessity for teachers as for researchers. It is an unavoidable consequence of trying to condense hundreds or even thousands of years of history into a digestible course that runs only a matter of months—especially when the amount of history to be taught grows with each passing year. Just as historians cannot include every detail in their books, history teachers cannot teach everything. The notion of “coverage” is a delusion. According to the authors of Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, “The teaching of history, like all aspects of historical study, involves choice and selection: One cannot avoid choices, one cannot simply ‘include more.’ The question then becomes on what grounds choices are made."3

I argue that we should make those choices based on three broad criteria: First, the history that we teach should not contravene historical scholarship. Second, it should enable and promote the teaching of historical thinking. Finally, it should expose students, particularly in the upper grades, to political controversy rather than shield them from it. As Foner writes in defense of revisionism:
That each generation can and must rewrite history does not mean that history is simply a series of myths and inventions. There are commonly accepted professional standards that enable us to distinguish good history from falsehoods like the denial of the Holocaust. Historical truth does [exist], not in the scientific sense but as a reasonable approximation of the past. But the most difficult truth for those outside the ranks of professional histories to accept is that there often exists more than one legitimate way of recounting past events.4
When deciding whether something in your current curriculum should stay or go, ask yourself this: Does this particular person, event, idea, etc., help my students learn to think critically about issues of context, change over time, and especially complexity? If so, it can stay. (And, if not, ask yourself a follow-up: Why was it there in the first place? Chances are, that question will lead you to a political goal, which is not to say a partisan goal, whether that involves promoting patriotism or racial equality or something else.)

Although making your classroom a site for political conversation does bring certain risks, there is broad agreement among scholars that the risks of not doing so are far greater. In Teaching History for the Common Good, Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik discuss the simplistic way in which historical events are often presented:
Very often, the complexity of the past is simplified to such an extent that students are presented with an utterly false portrait of history, usually one of happy consensus. U.S. students, for example, rarely learn that a large portion of the colonial population opposed the American Revolution . . . . Instead, they’re presented with a picture in which all colonists were on one side, and all British on the other. They’re even less likely to learn that many Americans opposed the First and Second World Wars.5
It is worth noting, of course, that however one chooses to present them to students, all of these topics were explicitly political in their time. In fact, the events of the past deemed worthy of study—revolutions, wars, mass protest movements—usually were political. The political issues are there in our classrooms already. Why not address them as such, rather than as faits accomplis?

In Controversy in the Classroom, meanwhile, Diana Hess discusses the evidence on this question: “We know from research that engaging in discussion with people whose opinions are different from your own builds political tolerance.” Studies reveal that so-called “cross-cutting political talk familiarizes [people] with legitimate rationales for opposing views and normalizes and legitimizes a political conflict."6 On the flip side, an apolitical approach to history is dangerous, as Barton and Levstik warn: “If students think everyone in a given country or community agreed on such issues, they will have few resources for understanding why people disagree today, and they will have little reason to take others’ ideas seriously,” they write. “Intolerance increases where dichotomous ‘us versus them’ thinking persists, and this intolerance, in turn, leads to a greater willingness to abridge human rights."7 If we fail to engage our students in political conversation, in other words, we in fact support precisely the kind of political discourse that leads us to shy away from it in the first place.

In his most recent book, Sam Wineburg takes similar issue with one of the least complex approaches to the teaching of history that persists in American schools. He writes, “Fed the gruel of documentation-less textbooks, students come to see history as a story without evidence. Don’t like this particular story? Doesn’t sit well with your politics? Custom order one online more to your liking."8

We could say the same thing about the news media. Debating the relative biases of various news organizations—placing them on a political spectrum infographic—has become a sort of cottage industry in recent years, but it is important to remember that most media outlets are for-profit corporations.9 They are ultimately accountable to their creditors and shareholders, and so we should not be surprised to find that, in an increasingly competitive media landscape, they engage in “market segmentation” to reach their consumers. Thus, an outlet like MSNBC sells a narrative that appeals to progressives, while Fox News sells a narrative that conservatives can support. There are multiple sides to the story, but there is no coherent whole to be found.

At a time when technology makes it easier than ever to consume only information that confirms our preconceived notions, schools remain one of the few places that bring people together from across the political spectrum. If we don’t teach our students how to discuss controversial topics, where will they learn it? Or, as Wineburg puts it, more ominously, “Either the classroom becomes a site where we learn to talk to one another, or we will suffer the enduring consequences of never having learned to do so.10

All of this speaks to the continuing relevance of a strong background in history—even for students who have no intention of becoming professional historians. Taught well, history exposes students to the rich complexity of the human experience, something that they rarely get from the media these days. When they practice thinking historically about complex, contentious issues, students learn that almost every issue has multiple sides, but they also learn to evaluate evidence and discern which stories are valid and which are not. In the absence of perfect information (is there ever such a thing?), they learn to make a reasoned judgment while acknowledging the limits of their evidence. If all of their information comes from a single source, however, regardless of whether that source is a textbook or a cable news network, logical analysis becomes impossible.

As we approach Election Day, we will be inundated with political advertising and nonstop punditry. That is the world we live in today, and we should not shy away from it. As a history teacher in a politicized time, I believe it would be particularly irresponsible of me to do so. Helping students develop a sense of political awareness is one crucial function of education in a democratic society, and I take that responsibility seriously. As Wineburg argues:
History as truth, issued from the left or the right, abhors shades of gray. It seeks to stamp out the democratic insight that people of good will can see the same thing and come to different conclusions. It imputes the basest of motives to those who view the world from a different perch. It detests equivocation and extinguishes perhaps, maybe, might, and the  most execrable of them all, on the other hand. In a world devoid of doubt, the truth has no hands. Such a history atrophies our tolerance for complexity.11
I understand that many of my students will ultimately reach different conclusions than do I, and, in fact, if we are to have a democratic society, some of them must. But whatever conclusions they reach, I want them to use two hands.

Endnotes

  • 1 Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” Perspectives on History (January 1, 2007); online at https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/january-2007/what-does-it-mean-to-think-historically.
  • 2 Eric Foner, Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), p. xvii.
  • 3 Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 2000), p. 7.
  • 4 Foner, Who Owns History, p. xvii.
  • 5 Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 217.
  • 6 Diana E. Hess, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 17.
  • 7 Barton and Levstik, Teaching History, pp. 216-217.
  • 8 Sam Wineburg, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), p. 175.
  • 9 For example, see the Media Bias Chart at http://mediabiaschart.com.
  • 10 Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), p. 230.
  • 11 See Wineburg’s critique of Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 1980) in Why Learn History, pp. 74-78.
Matt Edmonds

Matt Edmonds (medmonds@standrews-de.org)  teaches history at St. Andrew’s School, a boarding school in Middletown, Delaware.