Teaching the History Wars

tags: curriculum, teaching history, history wars

Megan Threlkeld is the Michael G. and Barbara W. Rahal Professor of History at Denison University. She tweets @MeganThrelkeld

For more than a century, academics, policymakers, politicians, and pundits have waged the seemingly endless “history wars” over what students should learn about our nation’s past. But students themselves have been largely absent from these debates. While William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers criticized textbook publishers in the 1920s for their sympathetic portrayals of Benedict Arnold, or Lynne Cheney and Gary B. Nash battled over the National History Standards in the 1990s, most students likely remained unaware that such battles were even happening.

My own anecdotal evidence suggests this is still the case. For the past eight years, I have taught a course on the history wars for first-year undergraduates. At Denison University, located outside Columbus, Ohio, first-year seminars serve primarily as an introduction to college-level writing, but instructors choose the class’s focus. I thought the history wars would be an engaging topic for students to read and think about as they wrestled with genre, argument, revision, and other elements of first-year composition.

It turned out to be much more. Teaching the history wars, I’ve discovered, is a fantastic way to introduce students both to the contingent and contested nature of historical practice and to current efforts to restrict the history they and their peers can learn.

Because most of my students have never heard of the history wars (every year a few think they’ve registered for a class on wars in history), my first task is always to explain what they are. We start with some introductory readings. I’ve had great success with Alia Wong’s “History Class and the Fictions about Race in America” and Michael Conway’s “The Problem with History Classes,” both published in 2015 in the Atlantic; David W. Blight’s “The Fog of History Wars” (New Yorker, 2021); and the introduction to Sam Wineburg’s Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2018). My simple goal is to help students understand that the past is contested terrain. There is no “one true story,” both knowable and unchanging, of what happened long ago—hence the seemingly endless battles over what students should learn.

To reinforce this idea, we turn to textbooks. In 20 years of teaching, I’ve found comparing textbooks is the most direct and effective way to show students the contingent and contested nature of the past. And textbook exercises can be adapted for different grade levels and integrated into lessons on related content.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History