Sunday, September 12, 2010

On the teaching of half truths

Recently I've become troubled by a dillema involving my US History courses. Currently I teacher honors and sheltered US history, among others. The gap between what I am able to teach to my honors students is massive, compared to the basics I seem to be forced to teach to my sheltered kids. That gap has forced me to teach half truths to my students, and I am struggling to find a way to introduce historical dilemmas, and empowering topics.

The way I have approached abolitionism and the Civil War is to emphasize the importance of slaves freeing themselves as opposed to being freed by Lincoln. After all, Lincoln was not the "Great Emancipator" that legend has made him out to be. He was brave, and eventually did the right thing, but it was only after a tremendous amount of pressure by abolitionists like Douglass, and the slaves themselves. The curriculum is designed to empower the students, and help them understand change comes from below, not above. How people change and improve their lives, and eventually force government to do what is right, is a continual theme in US history.

My honors students summed up Lincoln as essentially somebody who believes in the superiority of whites, but believes slavery is immoral. This is best summed up in Lincoln's own words.
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.
Debate with Stephen Douglas 18 September 1858

In spite of Lincoln saying this in a debate, where most politicians will stretch truth to be elected, it is backed up by other similar comments from Lincoln's past. What Lincoln intended to do about slavery is best summed up by him here:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
Letter to Horace Greeley, The Liberator editor, 22 August 1862

Once my students realized Lincoln and the Civil War were not all about abolition of slavery, we examined how the slaves were freed. We studied slave sabotage and desertion to Union lines. We read letters from generals asking to use the freedmen as soldiers, and Lincoln denying their requests. It wasn't until those numbers became so enormous, and Lincoln saw political advantage to abolition, that he made official what had already happened.

I can't teach that to my sheltered students though. Some of them cannot even communicate with me beyond a good morning, or my name is Muganguzi, Modeste, Geeta, Govinda, Minh, or Javier. This difficulty caused me to teach that the Civil War was between North and South over slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. Everything must be concrete, without ambiguity. The reason is two fold: time, and comprehension. Our district has us on strict pacing guides, with district wide exams that we are evaluated on as teachers. It is difficult enough to get the students to understand who John Brown was, and that the South had slavery, not the North. How can I teach about the intricacies of Lincoln's position, and that it wasn't him alone that freed the slaves?

I feel as though I am doing these students a disservice, but I don't know how to carry out such a curriculum with so many difficulties and handicaps in the way. My sheltered students can benefit greatly in learning on the power of the people to make and force change. They are used to everything being top down onto them. I want them to know that anything from school policy to immigration policy can be controlled by them, not the other way around. That is the message of history, not hero worship and benevolent government.


  1. My friend, I know you pain all too well. Working with the students that I did for the past two years I dealt with many of the same issues. It is always hard to try and teach history in a way that we see best, but find it difficult because of the students that we have been fortunate enough to teach.

    One thing you must remember is that if you are unable to teach depth, you must teach breath. In other words, pick out the most significant ideas from the Civil War and teach that. Yes, in a time crunch you feel like you are not doing your students a service, but you must ask yourself...."What do I want my students to remember most about this" If that means you skip a few things that is ok. The important part is that you teach them the theme.

    For example, when I taught the Civil War last year. I spent 10 minutes on John Brown in class. That evening I gave my students a short opinion question. The question read... "Do you think that a person as the right to take up arms against their country if they believe that the ends justify the means?" I told my students that they had to write 5 sentences explaining their opinion. The next day we opened with the homework assignment and went around the room to share answers. Following their answers, I asked them if they believed that John Brown was a hero or not. With mixed answers we discussed the impact of the event. This activity took a total of 20 minutes. In that time I could ask any student in class who was John Brown, and why is he famous and everyone knew who he was.

    I would suggest for your regular students find ways to bring apathy into the classroom. Ask them questions about themselves that relate to the themes of what your studying. That helps them make connections to it even with no prior knowledge. You would be amazed how effective this is. I found my students take a greater interest in the stuff we were studying and they asked more questions.

    Another thing I would do is take a political cartoon that represents what I want my students to understand about a topic. With no prior knowledge I would ask them to tell me what they thought it meant. It is only after they tell me what they thought it meant would I explain the significance of the cartoon.

    I found it extremely difficult to go A-Z with my students on periods of history. Hope this helps, depth vs. breath is the way to go. Yes it feels like your teaching to the test, but you can slide things in from time to time that provoke your students and challenge what they thought they knew about history. This is why I am very disappointed that I am unable to teach U.S. this year with all the material that I purchased with district money last year. I would have had a really tight class using Zinn and all the primary sources I had. Oh well there is a better school out there for me.

  2. Thanks G-reg. I got their interests piqued when talking about the History Channel's bias. How their anti-women and pro-president point of view of abolitionism can have long lasting damage. Something I will build on, and probably something they can relate to. Those in power trying to undermine the influence of the people.