Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The History Wars Revisited

In the 1990's, much of the social studies education establishment was involved in a rather nasty dispute over the development of national standards in social studies and history education. As one could assume by the fact that we have no official national standards in the field today, this dispute was never really resolved. On one side were historians and educators that wished to teach the bad of American history along with the brilliance; on the other side were those with a more traditional approach to history, feeling as though the great men and great events of the past were being denigrated by the new approach, and many of the (reasonable) complaints were echoed through and distorted that great historian, Rush Limbaugh, which led to a more defensive posture on the part of the standard developers. Now, as a renewed emphasis on history education begins to appear, the online journal Slate is sponsoring a debate between Diane Ravitch, a fine writer and educator of the conservative stripe, and Jon Wiener, a professor of history at UC-Irivine and also a fine writer. It should be great to follow, with Ravitch most likely advocating the traditionalist approach and Wiener the 'new' history, but we shall see.
Wiener opens the debate by discussing Eric Foner's new history text,Give Me Liberty, which I have yet to read but will have to pick up. He makes a great point, too:
The point is not to avoid teaching about American ideals, as some critics of this approach might charge; the point is to make sure to teach about the gap between ideals and realities as well. The Declaration of Independence described liberty as an "inalienable" right, yet the founding fathers accepted the existence of slavery. The Spanish-American War was fought in the name of democracy and freedom, but it ended with a horrifying campaign of counterinsurgency against Filipinos and the establishment of American economic domination and a long-term military presence in both the Philippines and in Cuba. The debate in the 1890s between imperialist and anti-imperialist ideals, between Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden" and Mark Twain's withering contempt for the war camp, takes on a striking relevance today with the Iraq war: Did we fight to bring freedom to the people of the Philippines?

Really, to teach only the good without the bad is to neglect to do our duty as historians and as educators, and the reverse holds true as well. This is a nation of great flaws, but also of great promise, and we must teach our students of both so that one day, the promises shall outweigh the flaws.
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