HomeCurrent IssueTeaching history and politics, not patriotism

Teaching history and politics, not patriotism

Whoever controls the past, controls the future
By Zack Boyden

Like most liberal arts students, I had a hard time figuring out what my major was going to be.

At the end of sophomore year, I was stuck between history and politics. I have thoroughly enjoyed both since a very young age, but the problem is that they’re very similar.

I ended up going with history, and I don’t regret my choice in the slightest—because I realized that history, at its core, is inherently political. In some ways, history is politics.

The current controversy in Colorado makes this apparent.

The school board in Jefferson County, Colorado has recently proposed a new outline for the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history curriculum. The proposal suggests that the curriculum “should promote citizenship, patriotism” and “respect for authority,” to name a few suggestions.

I don’t want to misrepresent the intentions of the school board, but even from these recommendations there seems to be a serious attempt at construing history to meet a set of standards and sponsor a specific ideology.

I have nothing against the views that these new board members want to promote. What I am concerned with is the deliberate attempt to persuade and endorse this perspective.

What do the board members mean when they say they want to “promote patriotism?” This implies a heavily nationalist rhetoric. What we have to understand is that at a higher level, there are many applicable lenses that we can use to study history.

Nationalist history is not bad because it is nationalist. It is a valid way of interpreting historical sources. But there are also credible internationalist interpretations.

By declaring history as a method to “promote patriotism,” it delegitimizes perspectives that contradict the assumptions associated with patriotic history.

History is not a perfectly objective discipline, and no matter how it is taught there will be at least some ideology imbued in its curriculum. That is why AP standards should not consciously promote a singular historical lens—it should be focused on teaching students the varied ways we understand the past.

Considering that the humanities are often chided for being irrelevant, it warms my heart that people have realized history’s importance. But the bigger issue is that this realization has caused people to see history as a tool to endorse ideology, not as a way to further understanding or knowledge.

In order to better understand history, students should learn the methods of historical analysis before they engage in specific interpretations of the subject.

That way, a better overall understanding of history can be promoted, and not just one small part of historical thought.

zboyden@willamette.edu

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