Recently, Illinois state Rep. LaShawn K. Ford called for abolishing history classes throughout the state of Illinois because they “unfairly communicate history.” He argued that history teachers’ energies should instead be focused on the democratic process and dialogue. “It costs us as a society in the long run forever when we don’t understand our brothers and sisters that we live, work, and play with,” Ford said.
Full disclosure: I’ve taught history and political science for over 32 years, teaching both at all levels, though mostly at the AP level. What I’ve seen regarding history education is downright appalling at times, with required texts by debunked revisionists like Howard Zinn being force-fed to college students rather than offered as general historical inquiry or competing sources to offset bias. Primary source research by undergrad students is largely ignored except for a few scattered research assignments that reflect the professor’s political bias. When one considers that liberal professors outnumber conservatives 13:1 on college campuses—and junior professors by as much as 40:1—one can easily guess the politics professors want to see in student papers.
This is not teaching history but rather indoctrination, much like what the Prussian School of historians undertook in the mid-nineteenth century. Their purpose was to revise history with a decidedly Prussian bent so that Prussia would become the state the Germans would unite under rather than Austria. The most colorful of the Prussian historians was Heinrich von Treitschke, whose flourish with the pen and inspiring Teutonic tales helped make the Prussian dream a reality.
The point is that biased history and ideological revisionism is dangerous for our republic. What some consider one of the more benign subjects in both high school and college is turning out to be the most explosive, like a sea mine in an inlet bay. When you finally see it, it’s too late.
One example of this sea mine technique is the 1619 Project, a distorted and highly inaccurate account of American history that has been thoroughly debunked by such eminent historians as Gordon Wood. Studying American slavery is certainly not the problem. Instead, the problem is that “1619” is a one-sided account of history that reflects modern ideological biases rather than a dispassionate recounting of America’s past. It is distorted history being ramrodded down the throats of students who don’t know any better and will regurgitate what they are told, immersing themselves in content that is not only anti-American but simply wrong. So, on that score, I agree with Representative Ford: abolish it.
This does not mean that the old adage that history is told by the winner is wrong. But a proper teacher—one without bias and who will ensure that both sides of a controversial topic will be taught—is paramount in today’s schools. Students must be exposed to all sides of a given issue and come to a conclusion on their own. Sadly, this is not the case in many history classrooms as personal bias and political agendas that assuage the educator’s ego are more important than independent thought informed by all of the relevant facts.
One answer to this dilemma is to discard textbooks, which can be quite biased (they are often tailored to reflect the preferences of the regions with the highest number of sales). Instead, teachers should combine their expertise with putting an emphasis on primary sources and use excerpts from neutral texts.
But how can we ensure that teachers will check their bias at the door? The department head is responsible for enforcing neutrality in the classroom. Those who teach using biased methods must be held to account.
Representative Ford did get one thing right in his rather misguided statement. There should be a renewed focus on civics education. All too often, the civics component is rolled into an American history class. This is not sufficient. A single unit on civics is not enough as there is simply too much material to cover. Instead, passing a class that covers civics and political science should be mandatory for graduation. Only then will we as a nation begin to appreciate the importance of this grand American experiment, the most successful of its kind in human history.
Michael DiMatteo has taught American, European, and world history and political science in the Illinois school system, both public and private, for over 32 years. In 2010, he was recognized as an Illinois Golden Apple Teacher of Distinction. His writings can be found at Think31.com.