History is filled with both horrors and victories. It’s filled with struggles and with hard-won lessons and wisdom. History is the story of humanity, and just as we, as human beings, are prone to behave in ways that prove to be both good and evil, so is the story of our evolution.

As we celebrate this Fourth of July, I am reminded of the years I taught American History and how important and consequential that calling was. If our history as a Nation is not celebrated, learned from, and protected, then who are we as Americans? And more importantly, who will we become? | Image from Shutterstock | Licensed for use

Why do I have to learn history? What’s it got to do with me?

As an American History teacher, I was often asked these questions by my students. They got bored digging around in the past and more often than not, failed to make the vital connections between history and the present.

American History is our worst subject. Our students do not know who they are as Americans.

Dr. William Bennett, author, America: The Last Best Hope

As teachers, we are given curriculum to teach, handed down by our states, that meets proscribed standards. There’s nothing wrong with that on the surface. It’s when you dig deeper, however, that an undercurrent of “re-education” is often revealed.

In some states, it’s not as apparent as it is in others. And that goes for the educational level being taught as well. Elementary school history education is quite different than that of middle and high school. The same goes for moving from high school into secondary education. The one thing they all have in common though is that they build on each other.

So what happens when those building blocks are askew? The foundation, like any foundation that is built on shifting sand, crumbles. The knowledge gained is tainted, or worse, simply ignored.

As educators, our first responsibility is to our students and to their parents who entrust them to us. Our podiums are not pulpits from which to preach our own ideals or advance our own agendas. Rather, they are platforms, regardless of the subjects we teach, from which to engage in research and analysis, in learning to distinguish fact from opinion, in presenting all sides of an argument, and most importantly, in allowing our students to form their own opinions.

When teaching the history of our country, those things become even more important. History, after all, is the story of humanity itself. There’s ugliness in that story, but there’s good too. Focusing only on one or the other is dangerous. One paints history in a malignant and destructive light, while the other paints it in a grandiose and unrealistic utopia.

This country is the greatest political story ever told. We are uniquely blessed and we have taken unique advantage of those blessings. And although it’s the greatest political story ever told, our children have not been told that story.

– Dr. William Bennett

For history to be truly understood and learned from, context is one of its most vital elements.

Context requires looking at an event in not only the era in which it occurred but also from all sides. As Grace Fleming explained in her 2019 article, The Importance of Historic Context in Analysis and Interpretation, “Basically, it’s all the details of the time and place in which a situation occurs, and those details are what enable us to interpret and analyze works or events of the past, or even the future, rather than merely judge them by contemporary standards.”

Understanding the evolution of society requires contextual analysis. Why did the framers of the Declaration of Independence, for example, choose the language they did? Thomas Jefferson, its primary author, and Benjamin Franklin and John Adams who edited the original document and were instrumental to its passage by the Second Continental Congress, were students of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment produced political philosophers like John Locke. Jefferson and his contemporaries were familiar with and inspired by Locke’s work and used his writings along with those of Montesquieu and Rousseau in drafting the Declaration and later the Constitution.

In his Second Treatise of Government published in 1619, Locke wrote “that all individuals are equal in the sense that they are born with certain “inalienable” natural rights.” Locke believed these to be God-given and therefore, “could never be taken or even given away.” Among these fundamental natural rights, Locke said, are “life, liberty, and property.”

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. — Declaration of Independence, 1776 | Image from Shutterstock | Licensed for use

These words are familiar to us because they underpin the birth of our country. They are not antiquated or outdated, rather they are timeless. Jefferson used these words to underscore the necessity for American independence. A war was fought to secure them and a Constitution and Bill of rights were established to perpetuate and protect them.

Without historical context, we are only seeing a piece of the scene and not fully understanding the influence of the time and place in which a situation occurred.

Grace Fleming, 2019

Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers understood that they were not simply writing a document for their lifetimes. They were authoring a document that would serve as the foundation for the successful building of a new nation. One that would progress with the ages and allow America to become the safe haven for freedom and human rights they envisioned it could be. And they were correct in their assessment.

The ideals aspired to in the Declaration, probably more than any other document, paved the way for the abolishment of slavery, due process and equal protection, and the Women’s and Civil Rights movements. All of these events, when analyzed contextually, tell the story of a Nation striving to fulfill the legacy of equality established in our founding documents.

Americans have moved past the politics of the 1960s. They are tolerant, integrated, and in agreement that malicious racial theories of all kinds should stay out of the classroom.

Christopher F. Rufo, September 26, 2021

The story of America’s beginning is just one of many underpinning the importance of teaching history using both context and reason. The goal of education, after all, is not to indoctrinate but as Dr. Martin Luther King stated in his 1948 speech to the students at Moorehouse College, “to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

Our Founding Fathers understood this as well. Their goals included a public education system that would enable future generations to participate fully in and sustain the republic they established. In her 2017 article Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools, Amanda Litvinov explained this aspiration, “One of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government. The responsibilities of each citizen were assumed to go far beyond casting a vote; protecting the common good would require developing students’ critical thinking and debate skills, along with strong civic virtues.”

“Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies that are free of sin? No, I don’t. Do I think ours is on balance incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do. Have we done obscene things? Yes, we have. How did our people learn about them? They learned about them on television and in the newspapers.” —Daniel Patrick Moynihan | Image from Shutterstock | Licensed for use

American history curriculum has failed our students.

This current trend of using history as a means to a political end-game; of actively seeking its destruction through tendentious and divisive narratives determined to rewrite it are lethal to all that unites us and makes us American.

The evidence of that is being seen now more than ever. Just turn on the television —from dangerous and destructive riots that encourage division and hatred, to anti-American rhetoric spray-painted across our cities, toppled monuments, and burning flags, — and most destructive of all, this sweeping narrative that demands we view everything through the lens of racism; this lack of patriotism is destroying more than our culture, it’s threatening our way of life and our very existence.

The only weapon we really have against this tide is knowledge and our willingness to continually defend our right to seek it. When it comes to the history of our country this is most vital. As Dr. Bennett so eloquently stated, “If they [students] do not know what they came from, what their legacy is, what their inheritance is, how will they support or defend it?”

In a time when our nation seems to be more rather than less divided, history education becomes even more important. When we are willing and empowered to see through the turbulence and chaos in order to place current events in historical context we are then able to analyze the present and decide on the best course of action ahead.

History is the story of humanity, after all, and learning from the past while acknowledging our evolution as human beings, citizens, and a nation is vital to our survival.

Through the years I learned that just as history cannot afford to be viewed as a static entity, neither can the teaching of it. How can we expect our children to value our Nation’s past if we do not value the teaching of it? | Image courtesy of Shutterstock | Licensed for use

JN Fenwick, former American History educator, editor, and contributor, In the Eye of the Storm and In the Aftermath of the Storm

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