Uni History teachers weigh in on proposed national curriculum

According to an article by the New York Times, President Trump recently spoke out about his support for a “pro-American” history curriculum. As well as creating a “1776 Commission” to help “restore patriotic education to our schools.”

The president also criticized the 1619 Project, for which he said: “rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” 

Uni High history teachers generally are known for their multi-perspective ways of teaching history. Here, they share their opinions on what they thought about Trump’s comments, and how they believe US history should be taught in American schools.

All four teachers believed that Trump was in one way or another, appealing to his audience, as politicians do.

“Knowing Trump, I wasn’t surprised by any of it. It basically is really in line with other stuff he has done to energize his base”, said Andy Wilson, a teacher of Freshman World History and Psychology, “This base really likes a certain narrative of US history… and how they understand this country…which is the American exceptionalism story. [Of how] America is this special amazing place, where maybe some bad things happened in the past, but we have all moved beyond that. And those aren’t things that currently impact the world we live in today.” 

 “What [Trump’s] talking about is what I like to call the John Wayne view of [American] history. Where all the Americans are heroes… which of course is totally unrealistic”, said World History and World Since 1945 teacher Chris Butler.

Furthermore, Ben Leff, Junior US History teacher, believes that the 1619 project’s contents may have “struck a nerve with conservative media”. 

“This is a big part of the political divide in the country. And I think Trump is definitely someone who plays on this, what sometimes gets referred to as ‘culture war issues”, said Leff, “But this is an example of something that really does animate people on the left and the right- these competing notions about what our history is, and the virtue of our country.”

There was a general consensus amongst the teachers that it is very important to teach history from multiple perspectives.

“The history of the United States is very complicated, and there’s lots of different truths to be told”, said Melissa Schoplien, subfreshman social studies teacher. She then explained how a lot of history would be lost if we just focused on one experience or “truth”. 

Wilson agrees. “History is this thing that is multifaceted, and it changes not only depending on the perspective of the people [relaying this historical moment]…but also your specific moment”,  he said.

Teaching World History from different perspectives can be hard though, and Schoplien pointed out that “history is written by those with power”, so sometimes it can be hard as a historian to get other perspectives such as women’s.

Other complications that arise when trying to teach a multi-perspective US history, including trying to avoid blatant biases.

Leff believes there is no way to teach a “neutral” US history, as “every choice you make when teaching a curriculum has potential political implications…do I make the choice to call something an uprising or a riot? …What aspects of slavery do I emphasize? …The idea that there is some objective history teaching is impossible. That said, I take seriously the idea that I need to present perspectives and evidence that does not match my own.”

However, as Wilson points out, “this doesn’t mean that all perspectives are created equal.”

Leff goes on to say, “Sometimes presenting a point of view, involves presenting really hateful ideas…  Race is a good example of this- I cannot teach the version of reconstruction depicted in Birth of a Nation, which is horribly distorted and rooted in racist prejudice against African Americans- as if it is just another equal perspective on reconstruction… At some point, evidence might back a certain point of view more, and I need to say that.” And that although there is no one objective truth, this does not make all perspectives equal, both morally and with evidence.

One issue that may arise when having conversations about our country’s past is the issue of creating a safe space. Our country has oppressed many different groups over time, and those groups of people may sometimes feel uncomfortable during certain conversations. 

Schoplien “had a lot of training (through programs aimed at teaching civics, discussing with seniors for years before coming to Uni) in how to make a space for multiple perspectives.” 

Therefore she explains that she feels more comfortable having more controversial discussions, and that, “I do think that it takes some emotional intelligence, or empathy on my part- to try and be mindful that these are not just intellectual discussions. On one hand, they are, but on the other hand, there are students in my classroom that have had different experiences, and it may feel very personal to them. I try very hard to be mindful of that. But I don’t want to feel as though some topics are off limits.”

While different teachers had different ideas on how to combat hateful speech that may come from these controversial discussions, they agreed that exercising empathy is very important. Having an awareness, and understanding that students are complex and have different experiences than the teacher may think is the first step in creating a safe environment where history can be taught from multiple perspectives.