Thursday, April 06, 2006

Dear Anonymous

It has been a few days and I’ve allowed others to respond to an anonymous comment that was placed on a previous post titled, George, We Hardly Knew Ye. I certainly appreciate the well-rounded opinions that were submitted.

Each August I ready my classroom and proceed to meet my new students and their parents at our annual open house. I try to stress to parents how different fourth grade will be from third. For example, social studies curriculum hovers around 12-15 objectives in third grade while the fourth grade objectives balloon to 56. Certain objectives expand even further by listing up to 20 different elements. I have examples of my unit tests out for parents to view as well as released copies of the state test so that they can see what their child is in for. The textbooks are out for examination and all of my Native American trade books are on display ready for students to delve into on the first day of school. Most parents are generally excited that their child will be learning American History and always want to share with me which events were their most favorite in school.

I can always predict that at least one parent, sometimes Caucasian while other times African American, will lean over and will conspiratorially whisper, “Do you teach the right version or the wrong version of the Civil War?” I always respond that I teach all of the causes of the Civil War…..the issue of slavery, the economic differences between the North and South, and state’s rights. This generally satisfies the parents. I relay the above example not to incite more emails from Anonymous (you can read the full text here), but to illustrate that all of us have bias where history is concerned.

One of my contributors, Allen Drury, had some advice that fits nicely here. He commented that when we study history we must put it in the context of the times. We need to see history from the viewpoint of those that lived it. I believe that is what a good history teacher does. I attempt to do it everyday. I also believe in a quote that the Portable Princess provided, “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”

Anonymous states:

I used to wonder how slavery could go on for almost 400 years and not one person in the history books is blamed for it!!! Not to mention who were the people who stole all the land from the Indians and Mexicans.

I’m assuming Anonymous is referring to slavery in North America, but in all actuality slavery in North America goes back even further. The Aztecs used slaves as victims in their sacrificial rites. Native Americans had wars with neighboring tribes. The victor took property including slaves.

Every history book I’ve reviewed over the last few years clearly states that the Spanish, faced with a labor shortage, began to bring enslaved Africans to the New World. Houghton Mifflin’s text for fourth graders states, “The Spanish brought enslaved Africans to replace the thousands of American Indians who had died” on page 112. It’s fairly clear to me who originally brought African slaves here. Slavery is first mentioned in my newly adopted text on page 93 where Portuguese exploration into West Africa is discussed. The text clearly and truthfully states, “Slavery had existed before the Portuguese arrived, but the Portuguese increased the number of enslaved people brought to Europe.” My students are intrigued to find out that African slavery began due to tribal warfare and existed on the African continent before the arrival of the Portuguese.

Anonymous continues:

I guess the people who did these things were the ones who wrote the history books, no doubt!!

Yes, Anonymous. Of course the Spanish and Portuguese wrote their version of history. Every culture involved in historical events has their point of view and they catalogue it. I agree with the Plant Man that bias will always exist in texts and it’s the job as the historian to examine as many sources as possible to obtain a true objective picture. There are many forms of bias. Some texts are biased culturally while some have gender bias. Others devote too many pages to some events while others are barely mentioned. Some texts simply replace one form of bias for another.

As we have discussed the American Revolution my students have looked at events from both points of view. We discussed the Boston Tea Party. We talked about why King George was so upset that he encouraged Parliament to pass the Intolerable Acts. Students identified the fact that the chests of tea were symbols to be smashed by the Sons of Liberty while the British were incensed that the tea was private property and tax dollars had been lost. John Hancock was certainly brave as he strode to the front of the room and placed his “John Hancock” on the Declaration of Independence, but the British viewed this as an act of treason. Students begin to grasp that point of view is extremely important and that it is ok to not agree with the actions of a historical figure.

Anonymous continues:

The history books have no input from the slaves or Indians at all. If they did then maybe there would be some truth to them.

Huh? Read a book lately? Pages 58-59 of the Houghton Mifflin book extends our lesson regarding Southwest Indian tribes and introduces students to Victor Masayesva, Fred Begay, and Leslie Marmon Silko who are all Native Americans and hold very important jobs in American society today-----a filmmaker, a nuclear physicist, and a writer respectively. During our exploration of slavery my students have at their disposal the words of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth----need I go on?

These devils actually convinced us that they are angels and heroes! They did not even like poor whites...they were an elitist class....I cannot think of anyone in history as we know it more selfish, greedy and evil than the founding fathers.

Kevin wrote that he’s concerned with an increase in Founding Father bashing and I tend to agree with him. dcp advises students of history need to keep events and actions in perspective. However, you can’t fool a nine year old. They challenge me all of the time. “How could Thomas Jefferson write about freedom when he owned slaves?” I agree. The Founding Fathers are a quandary to many people. I’m honest with my students. I tell them it is ok to not agree totally with someone and still admire some of their actions. George Washington played a pivotal role in many of the founding events of our nation. We should forget those contributions because he held slaves? Do we forget his contributions because he participated in something that was legal at the time for him to do? I say no. I say teach the good and the bad. Help students understand the context of the time.

Anonymous continues:

Isn't it funny how Charlton Heston plays a slave in 'The Ten Commandments'and fights the evil Egyptian slaveowners but in real life he supports the exactly same kind of evil men by quoting the founding fathers in the 'Bowling For Columbine' movie. He might be a racist but he is definetly stupid.

I don’t quite get this part and agree with Al. It would seem that Anonymous exists in some type of disjointed universe. I’m simply not going there.

Anonymous, we need to remember that textbooks are not the be all and end all of history instruction. My textbook is just one tool I use to help children discovery history. As Polski3 commented texts are meant to be survey only----a more specialized telling would result in a book with 20,000 pages. Not only that--- Janet weighed in that texts cannot be totally complete because it would be extremely time consuming.

I teach history from various points of view and attempt to place students in positions where they make connections and discover interesting tidbits about humanity. I teach to develop students who know how to use various resources to reach an opinion. I want them to continue the skills they learn in my classroom for the remainder of their lives. My main goal is to produce able-bodied citizens who can think for themselves after reviewing the facts. I don’t teach history to indoctrinate students concerning who I think was right and who was wrong.

Anonymous, my contributors have given you some homework. You might want to read some works by John Hope Franklin, Carter Woodson, or Kant. You might want to check out a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me for some perspective.

And….what makes me feel great as I finally end this post is I’m certain that my nine year old students are in a much better position than Anonymous because they know how to look up information on their own and how to evaluate a source.

I will sleep well.


Janine Wonnacott said...

Just a quick defense of one of the founding fathers who owned slaves:

Jefferson made no secret of the fact that he didn't like slavery. Yet he owned slaves.

He also had a great deal of debt (both were inherited, I believe - the slaves and the debt).

Slaves were property in the colonies and then in the US. If he had freed them, his creditors would have arrested him and seized the slaves anyway. Imagine being up to your eyeballs in debt and then deciding you want to give away your $2 million house. You couldn't, legally - the house is collateral against the debt.

So were Jefferson's slaves.

He tried to free them legally, in the Constitution, but the other colonies wouldn't stand for it.

Jefferson, at least, had no real choice. I can't speak for the others.

Pamela said...

I am a pre-service teacher and I really enjoyed reading through your blogs. I wrote about a few of your points over on my blog, I just enjoyed your practical advice that I hope to use in my classroom one day. If you get a chance, please read my post and any more advice that could be given, I will gladly take it.