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Agreeing on the facts – why we teach history

I had the chance several years ago to listen to author and historian Sam Wineburg address the joint Kansas / Missouri Councils for the Social Studies annual conference. Sam spent some time talking about the ideas in his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past.

Among other things, Wineburg suggested that:

a history class should not be arguing about the facts of history – the most important argument we should be having is how do we interpret the facts. The discussions should focus on questions about meaning, not questions about facts.

His book talks about the ways that experts interpret facts and question meaning. Sam suggests that we need to train our kids to argue meaning and to think historically. Of course, his suggestion relies on the idea that facts are facts. That we don’t spend time in our classrooms “arguing about the facts” but instead what those facts mean.

But a problem begins to emerge when the facts themselves are questioned and when people twist facts, or worse, when they discount the facts completely because the facts fail to support their beliefs.

I was reminded of the problem while reading through Leonard Pitts’ weekly column this morning. A writer for the Miami Herald, Pitts starts his column with

I got an email the other day that depressed me.

Henry Johnson 1918

Pitts had written about a young African American soldier named Henry Johnson who, after singlehandedly fighting off a series of attacks by a group of German soldiers in May 1918, was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government. Of course, these facts didn’t sit well with at least one reader named Ken Thompson who wrote Pitts. Pitts quotes Thompson verbatim:

Hate to tell you that blacks were not allowed into combat intell 1947, that fact. World War II ended in 1945. So all that feel good, one black man killing two dozen Nazi, is just that, PC bull.

Never mind that blacks have fought in every war in US history, that Nazis didn’t exist in World War One, that Thompson can’t keep his I and II straight and that Johnson’s exploits have been well documented in books by Lerone Bennett Jr and Rayford Logan.

A Pitt’s assistant took the time to write Thompson back and referenced a site honoring Johnson maintained by the Arlington National Cemetery. These facts also didn’t sit well with Thompson:

There is no race on headstones and they didn’t come up with the story in tell 2002.

Mmmm . . . “a history class should not be arguing about the facts of history – the most important argument we should be having is how do we interpret the facts.”

Pitts suggests that Thompson is “not just some isolated eccentric”:

To listen to talk radio, to watch TV pundits, to read a newspaper’s online message board, is to realize that increasingly, we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth. We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe.

Some time ago, I mentioned an interesting book that supports Pitts and Wineburg. Titled True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo, the book documents the impact that the Web has had on our grasp on reality, facts and “truthiness.”

All of this solidifies for me the importance of high quality social studies instruction, of the need to train our kids to think and argue with facts, not feelings. Of the incredibly important place that social studies has in creating truly reflective citizens in a democracy.

It was helpful for me to go back to the American Historical Association article “Why Study History.”

When we study it reasonably well, and so acquire some usable habits of mind, as well as some basic data about the forces that affect our own lives, we emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness.

Apparently Ken Thompson somehow missed those skills while in school. And as social studies and history teachers, we need to take responsibility for that. We need to do a better job of creating informed, open-minded citizens.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Related to your post on a common core of content… I can see how folks would be arguing on which facts to teach for a national curriculum. Just what gets included in a set of standards and what gets left out can say a lot.

    Also, sometimes the facts are the interpretation. Take for example the instant argument I always get here in VA when teaching the Civil War. There’s still a group that says slavery wasn’t the cause (State’s Rights). Sometimes what one group wants to claim is a fact is an interpretation for others…and thus, a dismissal of facts.

    While I agree that teachers need to take the lead in creating informed and open minded citizens, it needs to be modeled by others as well. Take Congress, republicans and democrats constantly ignore facts to push their agenda. Folks like Thompson probably take their cues from them also.

    Couldn’t agree any more with “All of this solidifies for me the importance of high quality social studies instruction, of the need to train our kids to think and argue with facts, not feelings.” I see teachers often asking for students to write down their “feelings” about all things history related.

    February 22, 2010
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I couldn’t agree more with your statement that public figures are modeling poor thinking skills! Not sure I could survive teaching the Civil War in VA – how do teachers deal with the States Rights / Lost Cause idea!?

      Today’s article by Pitts is a good reminder for me as I teach pre-service teachers. It starts with them!


      February 22, 2010
  2. I’m not sure if you meant your Lost Cause question to be rhetorical or not, so on the chance that it wasn’t… Most teachers teach state’s rights here as it’s part of our state standards: “Southerners argued that individual states could nullify laws passed by the Congress. They also began to insist that states had entered the Union freely and could leave (“secede”) freely if they chose.”

    As for me, I always addressed the issue head on and used facts by having my students read the secession papers of the seceding states. They then see the Southerner’s own ideas and reasons (slavery is usually in the first paragraph) for secession. I’d also ask why the 13th Amendment didn’t prohibit secession instead of ending slavery.

    My issue was always the fear that I was still teaching my interpretation even though I felt I was using the words and point of view of the secessionists states.

    I think some teachers may walk away from controversy b/c they feel their facts might still be opinion.

    February 22, 2010
    • glennw #

      It is easy to walk away from controversy but we need to teach kids how to deal with it. I like how you address the Civil War topics . . . am sharing some ideas tomorrow about slavery and early slave laws in Virginia. Will integrate some of your ideas. Thanks!


      February 22, 2010

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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