History is not a narrative read in a textbook. It is a living breathing thing that has a true record of documents to be studied, deciphered, and interpreted. We should know this because today’s actions and decisions are NOT IN TEXTBOOKS (at least not yet). They are in emails, texts, phone transcripts, videos, photos, and media of all sorts. Future writers and students of history will be examining those to write our “history”.
Well folks. If it is true now, of course it is just as true for the events of the past. So, let’s put all this hub bub about CRT aside. It is a Red Herring. As in the study of history, it is merely asking us to look closely at the actual proof of what happened as documented by those who did it and even reported it. We need to simply examine the past as it should be examined…by looking at the words of those who made it as they made it. Oh my, what we will find…if we know how and where to look.
I taught American History in high school for years never relying on textbooks. I used (for all students) as many primary and secondary artifacts as I could lay my hands on (yes sometimes I had to translate 18th century jargon) so they could climb inside the minds of those making history and those whose lives were affected by it, who reacted to it just as we do to what our historical actors do today.
So, most of my questions were document based. Why does a document matter? Take the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification of 1832 or Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Can you say it in 3 or 4 sentences MAX? How would different people at the time react to each? Can you find any connection? That is how to study history and see for oneself how complex it is.
The idea is to teach students to “think historically…rather than absorbing information” (as Kathleen Brown of U. Penn says). Students must learn to ask “the right kind of questions about how the past is being reconstructed or used, especially now, when history is being abused politically by all kinds of people on both sides of the political spectrum.
By the way Professor Brown, this isn’t new. Many HS and college teachers and professors were doing this since the 70’s…including yours truly.
One single artifact (of any type) has a huge amount of information to be discovered, especially when you examine it from DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES. Different people from different positions in society see issues and artifacts they encountered differently. As one U Penn student commented, “Not only are the issues themselves complicated, but the people around those issues are complicated.”
When do you start the story of the Civil War? 1619, with the arrival of the first Africans to our shores? 1787, because of the 3/5ths Compromise? Or maybe with the British textile revolution, which created the demand for huge amounts of cotton? How about the Louisiana purchase or the invention of the Cotton ‘Gin?
And to what extent does when you start matter? All of these happened. Each was reacted to in different manners…How does the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification of 1832 fit into this. After all, wasn’t it about tariffs, not slavery? What if Lincoln had not won the election of 1860? How did newspaper reports from different regions “color” opinions of the American people? Was the South a pro slavery monolith? Was the North an abolitionist one? To what extent was slavery vital to the American economy, not just the south? Did the system of racial slavery morph into systematic racism? If so, when? How do we know?
Ultimately the teaching of history must give students the ability to “cast a critical eye on how the past is mobilized to advance contemporary agendas”. Long before the cries about CRT there were the cries about how textbooks whitewashed American history. In many southern (Texas) textbooks the word slave was as recently as 2015 replaced by “workers” or even “Immigrants” even though they used the word slavery.
“The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”
Both are agendas. Both must be replaced by the true study of history. Students must be able to draw their own lessons from the past in a way that helps them make sense of the present, and thus reduce susceptibility to rhetoric and propaganda. It should be easy to see how the lines were drawn long before the 21st century.
For example, in looking at 1/6/21, by studying history we see that there is a long history of political violence in this country, including within the halls of Congress. And as far as Slavery and Race in this country being a factor in lives both past and present, there is a long succession of statutes and legal decisions we can examine and see to what extent CRT is verifiable.
As another student said, “whenever something terrible happens, it’s Oh, this is not America. This is not our country. But once you learn about history, you realize it is.”
How we do that is important because “We as people in the present should be cautious. After all, future historians will scrutinize us too.”
Excerpts are from “(Re) Introduction to US History, THE PENNSYLVANIA GAZETTE (Sept/Oct 2021