“Balancing” the Books: History Education Should Teach Students Complex Variation in Perspective
I generally see government officials’ interest in history in the same way that I see broader public engagement with it—as a good thing. Every year, the National Humanities Alliance sends a contingent of humanists and humanities supporters to Capitol Hill to inform and update legislators about the activities of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, programs in international education, and other humanities-related work. We encourage support for these vital organizations and look forward to meetings with staff of members on both sides of the aisle whose “boss” (the preferred term on the Hill) has a reputation as an avid reader of history. We might disagree on specific issues—including historical interpretations and the quality of different books—but I appreciate the give-and-take with our discipline and the acknowledgment that history and historical thinking are important elements within public culture.
But any healthy interest that government officials have in history should not translate into attempts to dictate the content of what scholars teach in the classroom or learn from the sources. The AHA recently collaborated with historians in Texas to help the state’s board of education reject a deeply flawed textbook whose disdain for facts complemented—indeed facilitated—its generally racist demeanor. A few years ago, we denounced Virginia’s use (quickly discontinued) of a fourth-grade textbook that pointed to thousands of African Americans purportedly volunteering to help defend the Confederacy. In both cases, the texts were prepared without the participation of professional historians. In too many states, decisions about what is taught in history classrooms are made by nonprofessionals whose fealty is to an ideology rather than to sound disciplinary practice. We have input only when we insist on it.
Hence, our letter to the governor of Arkansas in April, appended below and sent after a legislator introduced the following amendment to the state’s public education code:
6-16-149. Prohibited course materials.
A public school district or an open-enrollment public charter school shall not include in its curriculum or course materials for a class or program of study any book or other material:
(1) Authored by Howard Zinn from the years 1959 through 2010; and
(2) Concerning the books or other materials under subdivision (1) of this section.
At the urging of more practical censors, the legislator added this qualifier three weeks later:
(b) A public school district or an open-enrollment public charter school that includes a book or other material under subsection (a) of this section in its curriculum or other course materials shall present the book or other material in a balanced manner that considers other opinions and points of view.
This might seem reasonable. But to me it smacks of a double standard: why require balance for some assigned historical materials but not others? Moreover, the concept of “balance” in this context is itself complex and controversial, and I will leave an extended discussion of it to a future column. Various controversies, from creationism (as a “point of view” appropriate to public school science education) to the stubborn persistence of discredited (and racist) views of slavery and Reconstruction point to the limitations of “balance” as a workable approach to controversial issues in any context. History education should teach students the difference between simplistic dichotomies and complex variation in perspective.
This is not the first time the AHA has encountered unqualified state officials presuming to assess the quality of historical scholarship. As my letter to Governor Hutchinson states, the AHA will provide any state commission, legislature, education department, or other entity with the names of qualified historians to act as peer reviewers for any aspect of a history curriculum. The AHA does not stand to gain materially from such advice. What prompts us to act is not profit but the 1889 congressional charter that established our organization “for the promotion of historical study.” We owe it to our students and members, to the taxpayers, and to future citizens to provide professional oversight of our discipline.
Letter to Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson
April 4, 2017
Governor Asa Hutchinson
State Capitol Room 250
500 Woodlane Ave.
Little Rock, AR 72201
Dear Governor Hutchinson,
It has come to the attention of the American Historical Association that the agenda of the Education Committee of the Arkansas General Assembly includes HB 1834, which would prohibit any Arkansas public school “from including in its curriculum or course materials for a program of study books or any other material authorized by or concerning Howard Zinn.” I hope that you will advise your allies in the legislature to oppose this egregious micromanagement of the work of Arkansas teachers, in addition to the intrusion into their classrooms and curricula.
The AHA is the largest association of professional historians in the world. Our 13,000 members include college professors, secondary school teachers, advanced students, and public historians working in museums, national parks, and innumerable other venues. The professional standards we articulate and promote are cited frequently inside and outside the academy. These standards include the participation of professional historians in the development of guidelines or requirements for history education. Just as the state of Arkansas would surely reject the legislative prescription of medical texts, or specific athletic practice routines, without consulting professionals in those disciplines, it should not make decisions about the teaching of history without comparable consultation. The American Historical Association encourages the state to step lightly in its prescription of educational content and to consult with professional historians before issuing instructions as to the details of history education, whether in the public schools or other venues such as state parks or monuments.
The central issue regarding this legislation is not the quality of Professor Zinn’s scholarship. Assessments of his work vary among professional scholars, and the AHA would be happy to recommend highly qualified peer reviewers in Arkansas to participate in any aspect of curriculum development, design, or review. The Texas Board of Education, for example, has recently expressed its gratitude for our assistance in their textbook review process. We can offer names of historians teaching at all education levels and working in various institutions beyond the classroom.
I hope that the bill never reaches your desk. If it does, I strongly urge a veto.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.