High school history classes shouldn't gloss over unpleasant details

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Why is it that the term American “exceptionalism,” or the entire topic of the eugenics movement, is brought up in college classes but given little mention in high school? Why must we wait till higher education to learn about the in-depth, comprehensive history of the United States? Students coming to college end up completely reassessing their knowledge of the nation’s past because of the ineffectiveness of high school education. Even worse, students who don’t have a major that requires more advanced history courses may be stuck with the information acquired in high school.

Tracy Talavera, a UT alumna who graduated in 2013 with a degree in anthropology, said that she recalls the story of the Alamo having two distinct versions.

“They taught me that Davy Crockett was a hero and that Texas was successfully given its freedom from Mexico and given to the United States,” Talavera said.

However, in her Mexican American history class at the University, she learned that one of the reasons Texas went to war with Mexico was that American settlers were disgruntled when Mexico outlawed slavery in Texas.

“I guess they forgot to mention that part in my high school class,” she said.

In his book “A World of Regions”, Peter J. Katzenstein highlights how the German education system encouraged transparency, reflectiveness and open discussion among youth after the destruction of World War II. It was resolute in its analysis of the state of the nation at the time that the Nazi Party took control in order to understand the context of the situation, admit past fault and ensure future prevention. Being German doesn’t immediately connect one to Nazi atrocities, just as teaching about the darker times of the United States, such as the repression of minorities, in high school classrooms shouldn’t be considered unpatriotic.

Penne L. Restad, a senior lecturer of American history at UT, said that what incoming students find surprising most often is that history is full of disagreements.

“The purpose of high school history is to inculcate a sense of national belonging, a shared past,” Restad said. “But history is not just patriotism and citizenship, it is also a discipline that seeks to discover and understand the past.  Our national history is full of complications, challenges, contingencies and often chaotic disarray.

One solution to the problem of teaching an incomprehensive history is to incorporate sources other than the unremarkable textbooks, such as primary documents and books from historians of varying perspectives and backgrounds. Another is to switch up the work assigned to students: Instead of giving out “busywork,” high school classrooms can conduct historical debates.

For example, the statement “The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified” is given, and students are instructed to use personal research to argue for or against the statement. This exercise demonstrates that history is not a black-and-white area of study.

Finally, the most important skill a high school history teacher can pass on to a student is the mastering of the term “historiography,” which explains how history is inherently subjective because of how it is created, through a historian’s writing of events. Unlike science, which has a core, unaltered base of evidence, history is comprised of various interpretations.

These points were brought up in a report released in 2011 titled “Bridging the Gap between K-12 Education and College Readiness Standards: Recommendations for U.S. History.”

Author Keith A. Erickson criticized the Texas history curriculum standards, labeled Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), for presenting history as a body of facts to be memorized and encouraging one-sided analysis that didn’t line up with requirements set by the Texas College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS).

Individual educators can employ these teaching strategies, but the decision-makers guiding the bigger picture of what should be included and what shouldn’t ultimately reside within the Texas Board of Education, which has chosen to be elusive about the nation’s responsibility in matters of internal strife and its international interactions.

Manescu is a journalism and international relations and global studies junior from Ploiesti, Romania. Follow Manescu on Twitter @LarisaManescu.