Saturday, December 29, 2012

Another Social Studies Debate is Brewing

This time in Minnesota

John Hinderaker supports John Fonte's criticism of the new Minnesota social studies standards.  Michael Lynch, writing at his blog Past in the Present, responds to the whole mess.  Here is a taste of that response:

Lawyer and commentator John Hinderaker is upset because the new standards emphasize the different impacts that the American Revolution and the Civil War had on various groups.  He writes, “One might have thought that events like the American Revolution and the Civil War would affect Americans generally, but such a concept is foreign to today’s academics."

Well, certainly the Revolution and the Civil War did affect Americans generally, but it didn’t affect all of them in the same way.  If you were a white male living in Pennsylvania, the Revolution probably resulted in a greater exercise of political power.  If you were a white woman living in Massachusetts, you took on new roles as a republican mother and citizen.  If you were an enslaved black male who managed to hitch a ride with the British as they evacuated the seaboard cities, you got freedom.  And if you were an Indian of any gender living in the Ohio Valley, the Revolution wasn’t exactly a bonanza.  There’s nothing wrong with teaching kids about the varied effects of important events.  Indeed, history teachers need to introduce the complexity involved in significant events like the Revolution.

Hinderaker also charges the standards with attributing “institutionalized racism” to big business.  But that isn’t exactly what the relevant passage says: “As the United States shifted from its agrarian roots into an industrial and global power, the rise of big business, urbanization and immigration led to institutionalized racism, ethnic and class conflict, and new efforts at reform. ”  The standards are clearly dealing with a number of transformations in the U.S. during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of which the rise of big business was only one.
The rise of big business, the growth of cities, and immigration resulted in a number of changes in American life, including racism, class conflict, and reform efforts.  And, of course, shifts in immigration patterns and urban growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did result in institutionalized racism, as evidenced by the emergence of measures like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the restrictions on Asian immigration in the Immigration Act of 1917.

Perhaps, then, the problem isn’t with the standards, but with the reading comprehension of the people criticizing them. Or perhaps the problem is something else. Hinderaker writes that when he saw Joseph Brandt’s name on the standards’ list of “historically significant people” from the American Revolution, he had no idea who he was and had to look him up.  He notes only that Brandt was “a Mohawk Indian,” which is sort of like saying that Stonewall Jackson was “a guy from Virginia.”  Since Hinderaker had to look up the name of one of the most important figures of the Revolutionary frontier, might I suggest that he isn’t the person to be assessing standards for teaching history in Minnesota’s schools?

As I wrote several times (click link and scroll down) during the entire Texas social studies debate, citizenship is one reason, but not the primary reason, that history should be taught to school children.  I am not denying the fact that history can teach kids civic literacy.  We certainly want our kids to know the century in which the American Civil War took place or the name of the first president of the United States.  But history offers so much more.  It provides students with a new way of thinking about the world that allows them to see themselves as part of something bigger.  As my colleague Joseph Huffman says in this video, it adds an extra dimension to the way we understand our lives. 

History cultivates humility and empathy and intellectual hospitality--the kind of skills necessary for democracy to thrive.  While the choice of topics that student's study is important, it would seem that these kinds of skills can be gleaned from learning how to interpret primary documents from any people group or movement in the American past.

The study of history is less about teaching kids what is good or bad about the United States and more about teaching them to function in a democratic society.

But I have said this all before and I am sure I will be saying it again.

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