Friday, May 1, 2009

Teaching U.S. History – “Warts and All”, but not ALL Warts!

As a TAH Fellow, I was fortunate to attend this year’s NERC conference. Dr. William Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education was a guest speaker at one of the sessions. I was looking forward to hearing him speak, and I was not disappointed; he was a dynamic orator. It turns out he was shamelessly promoting his new U.S. history book set and online curriculum titled: America: The Last Best Hope – A New Roadmap for Teaching History. When he introduced his approach to teaching U.S. history, he advocated teaching “warts and all”, but not ALL warts. This sentiment hit home with me. I have not read Dr. Bennett’s book, (I’m posting a link at the end of the blog), but I agree with at least that basic sentiment.

During these three years of excellent TAH programming, there has been a huge emphasis on the “warts” of U.S. History. The film series and book topics have largely focused on some of the most shameful aspects of our history. It is imperative, of course, that our students need to recognize and understand the evils of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the racist and erroneous ideas of social Darwinism, the economic inequities and the plight of immigrants and workers, etc. But it is also imperative that they understand the core values of our nation’s founding, namely the ideals of liberty and equality.

Sometimes I fear that if it’s all warts, and teachers aren’t also acknowledging the ideals and accomplishments of this great nation, students will not be inspired to become active citizens and make positive changes to enhance society. While at the NERC conference I was also fortunate to be able to see a colleague from Reading Public Schools, Jeffrey R. Ryan, receive the prestigious Kidger Award. After accepting the award, Jeffrey’s remarks eloquently addressed my concern regarding how to use the warts of the past and present to promote the ideals our nation. On teaching his students, Jeffrey said: “We must charge them with the vital, essential desperate task of ending racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, nativism, inadequate medical coverage and the threat of global thermonuclear war. Are these gargantuan tasks? Of course they are! But so was independence from Great Britain. Are idealistic? Of course, but so was the Declaration of Independence. Are they revolutionary? Certainly! Are they utopian? Of course, but so is “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Americans are, in the final analysis, a utopian people, and that is what makes our country such a magnificent one. We conceive bold visions. Sometimes we enliven them; often we fail, but eventually our visions become reality.”

Bravo to Jeffrey! Using the warts of the past and present to preserve and better our country.

How do you balance the warts in your teaching? Comments? Dr. William Bennett’s book site (this is NOT a plug! I haven’t read the books)

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