In her recent commentary, Christine Adams asked: “Why fear the teaching of history?” (”What do radical conservatives fear in the teaching of history?” June 25). I am confident that the answer is that no one is afraid of teaching history. However, the more important question is: “What history is being taught?”
As an historian, Ms. Adams knows that teaching history is more than presenting facts and dates. The importance in teaching history is to provide understanding. To discuss the implications arising from those facts and events, the meaning of words and documents, etc. When historians begin to explain and interpret facts and events, they are using their personal judgments and opinions.
To appreciate the role of an historian, consider the role today of a political pundit. An event has occurred or a politician delivered a speech and soon political pundits are at work providing meaning to the event or clarifying what the politician said: “When (fill in politician’s name) said (whatever) what he/she meant was ….”
This is what historians do when they say, for example, “When Thomas Jefferson said “.….” what he meant was “…” The historian is interjecting his or her interpretation of Mr. Jefferson’s words. If today’s pundit offers an incorrect interpretation, the politician can correct or clarify the misinterpretation. Long dead historical figures are not able to challenge the misinterpretation of historians. So it is critical that historians limit their personal biases (or at least acknowledge them) as they attempt to explain history.
Ms. Adams acknowledged this role of interpretation in her first sentence. She referenced the attempt to create a “pro-American curriculum” for our schools. Logically, if one can create a “pro-American” curriculum, it stands to reason one can also create an “anti-American” curriculum. I endorse the teaching of a neutral curriculum that presents both good and bad but omits the biased opinions of the teacher.
As another example, the writer referenced Adolf Hitler and said students are smart and perfectly capable of reading a bombastic nationalistic speech and hearing echoes in modern political discourse. That may be true, but are students also exposed to the bombastic words of Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong to enable them to learn about diverse elements of extremism?
As a final example, the writer referred to “radically” conservative politicians who wish to control the history being taught. Is the author suggesting that there are no “radical” liberals who wish to also control the history that is being taught? Unfortunately, the smart students she referred to cannot analyze opposing interpretations of history if only one interpretation is presented. My great fear is that teachers indoctrinate students in their political biases under the guise of teaching their interpretation of history.
John W. Egan, Hunt Valley
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