How I teach history differently

Apr 11, 2016 by

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A student wanted to know: Why did I tell such negative stories about this country? Our country does good things, too. The purpose of teaching history, it seemed, was to produce proud, patriotic, unquestioning citizens.

My faith and worldview lead me to different goals for my teaching.

I want my students to learn that history is a lively debate about credible sources and about multiple voices and perspectives. I want them to listen for underrepresented people groups and to give them a voice in the national narrative. I want them to be thoughtful, to critique what they read, to ask good questions, to bring a historical perspective to current issues.

So, in addition to a standard textbook, my students read two books that critique standard histories. One is The Missing Peace: The Search for Nonviolent Alternatives in United States History by James C. Juhnke and Carol Hunter (Pandora Press, 2004). Juhnke and Hunter challenge the myth of redemptive violence, the assumption that peace can be achieved and maintained by violence. A case in point was President Woodrow Wilson’s strategy of making the world safe for democracy through the unprecedented brutality of the First World War. Instead, it set the stage for yet another international calamity that tripled the number of casualties, from 20 million in World War I to 60 million in World War II.

Juhnke and Hunter’s purpose in challenging the myth of redemptive violence is to show that violence has done more harm than good, to provide a lens that shows the people and events that moved the country toward justice and nonviolence, and to give hope that a less violent future is possible.

Why, for example, don’t we know that most, if not all, Native nations had a peace chief tradition? When studying the founding of this nation, why don’t we learn, as Juhnke and Hunter write, that the model for the U.S. Constitution came from the Iroquois Confederacy, “the oldest participatory democracy on earth”?

A second alternative reading is James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbooks Got Wrong (Touchstone/Simon & Shuster, 2007). In this Smithsonian Institution- sponsored study of 12 high school history textbooks, Loewen exposes the myths, half-truths and outright fabrications that pass for history in these textbooks.

Why, for example, should Christopher Columbus appear in the pages of history as heroic, when his so-called discovery of America initiated the dispossession, genocide and enslavement of the first Americans?

Why has the 1620 Plymouth Colony of “pilgrims” become our iconic founding story when Jamestown was founded 13 years earlier in 1607? Perhaps because the failures of Jamestown, which included cannibalism, don’t fit our national self-image.

How can we possibly revel in the wealth and success of the United States without acknowledging the unpaid labor of enslaved African-Americans? The 4 million slaves in 1860 were the country’s largest financial asset, worth more than all of America’s manufacturing and railroads combined.

I want my students to ask such probing questions.

In recent years, largely for the benefit of students from non-Anabaptist Mennonite homes, I have included in the syllabus a statement of my biases. I say in part:

I value global over national identity; what unites people rather than what divides them; patriotism (appreciation) over nationalism (love it or leave it); moderation over triumphalism; nonviolent resolution over warfare; voices and stories of underrepresented people groups over the views of the dominant culture (the elite and privileged, presidents and politicians, generals and war heroes); and the possibility of living under the lordship of Jesus and exercising love of neighbor that reaches beyond artificial national boundaries.

John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College.


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