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As principal of a K-12 public classical school, I learned quickly that teachers and students have something important in common: they hate to be talked down to. Sadly, that’s not the case in much of K-12 education today.

I have reviewed history and civics curriculums for dozens of schools. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the standard American history curriculum offered and promoted in many of our public schools remains rife with political messages. As a result of this type of miseducation, students are being deprived of the opportunity to genuinely, truly learn.

An honest curriculum shows students all the tragedies and triumphs of American history – an unabashed, candid look at the fullness of our history – rather than cherry-picking events without context in order to fight contemporary political battles.

A sound understanding of U.S. history must be firmly grounded as an educational endeavor, not a political project. To bring history to life, to teach it honestly, we must stop feeding teachers a script authored by journalists or activists who use curricula as tools for forwarding a specific political narrative. Such authors have already made up their minds about difficult questions and manipulate our history and our students for their own ends.

Instead, teachers should have the tools and resources they need – written and supported by historians – to lead students into a thorough investigation of the historical evidence. Teachers should teach students how to think, not what to think.

The complete story of America’s past must be fully laid out for teachers, students, and parents. We should take our cue from the introduction of King George III’s offenses in the Declaration of Independence and “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Granted, it can be hard for many students, and all of us, to remember that when they gaze upon statutes of famous figures like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington, these were real people. The men and women of the past have their flaws just like you and I. Any honest examination of their actions and lives requires a balance of modesty and boldness. Whenever we seek to understand anything complicated, we must not only have the courage to ask the big questions but also the humility to learn from those who came before us – to try to understand them as they understood themselves.  

Case in point: Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” but he was himself a slaveholder. It’s a puzzle worthy of serious consideration. Jefferson is the author of the most important theoretical document in our nation’s history, and to “cancel” it (or him) has serious implications for our understanding of ourselves. An honest study of this paradox requires a careful look at what Jefferson wrote on the subject of slavery, thinking about the circumstances in which he lived, and coming to a conclusion only after making a sober judgment based on the evidence.

At the moment, too many of us have become unwilling to do that, not only in the case of Jefferson but other moments in our history and even the American founding itself. We see a crime in the past, and without further thought, we dismiss the perpetrator and proceed to congratulate ourselves for our moral superiority.

Students and teachers are capable of more, and they deserve better. Instead of dealing in all-or-nothing statements, such as declaring our predecessors irredeemable sinners or flawless saints, we can trust young people to come up with honest judgments and engage with complicated historical events if they’re given the tools to examine the evidence for themselves.

Imagine a classroom where primary source documents, well-researched and engaging textbooks, and educated and talented teachers lead students through the whole story of American history, including its tragedies and triumphs. Imagine asking big questions of students, giving them practice in thinking through complicated questions for themselves. That’s the kind of thing that happens every day in classical schools across the country, and it can be adapted to any curriculum at any school. Most importantly, it’s the kind of education and classroom experience that every American teacher and student deserves.

We can – and must – ask for more from our schools and from the history curriculums our children experience. Teachers and students will be happier when we do.

Kathleen O’Toole is assistant provost of K–12 education at Hillsdale College and a former K–12 headmaster.

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