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MATTHEW H. LEE: Aid students more

Promote genuine discussion by Matthew H. Lee Special to the Democrat-Gazette | October 26, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

My principal, department chair, and experienced teachers alike made it clear from the day I walked into a classroom as a teacher that I should run an inclusive classroom. While this goal is not exclusive to the subject of history, the nature of the challenge is unique to it because of the endless combinations of people, places, and events that could merit mention in its study.

I spent six years teaching U.S. history in a small Massachusetts charter school. I thought I did pretty well with my mandate, using an impeccably balanced syllabus that incorporated both conservative and revisionist historical traditions, in addition to our school's "official" textbook. But as I reflect back on my teaching years, I've realized it is an impossible task to develop and deliver a truly inclusive curriculum.

Education is inherently value-laden. We inevitably make normative judgments by what we include (what merits study) and what we exclude (what is less deserving of study). The only way to avoid this is to teach everything, which requires both infinite knowledge and infinite time, neither of which we have.

The administration's expectation was to avoid imposing any values or opinions upon my students, present only facts and none of my own opinions. It was, in short, to teach dispassionately. Yet with each unit and only so much time, I had to determine which individuals, events, and issues were most important for my students.

Including Bartolomé de las Casas without his contemporary Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda makes it seem as though the Spaniards were in agreement about the treatment of New World natives. Incorporating Howard Zinn's or Charles Beard's interpretation of the American Revolution could be seen as undermining its philosophical ideals. Reading Abraham Lincoln's "Second Inaugural" without his letter to Horace Greeley elevates him to a pure abolitionist. Including everything meant the class would be four years long.

In Whose America?, Jonathan Zimmerman chronicles the many struggles in which different groups fought to have particular people, places, and events included or excluded from widely used history textbooks. Each period declared something as taboo: Catholicism during Horace Mann's common school days, Communism during the Red Scare, Balkan nationalists during a period of American nativism. Given this turbulence, it isn't difficult for someone to find the inclusion or exclusion of something objectionable. But this also means that American history is rich with a wealth of political (conservative versus liberal), economic (capitalist versus Marxist), and historiographical (traditional versus revisionist) disagreement, adding a nuanced beauty that we should welcome rather than despise in the study of history.

Instead, we reel against our blemished traditions by encouraging our teachers to teach dispassionately, deceiving ourselves into believing it is possible not to convey any values by what we teach.

We assume the more compassionate approach for our teachers to take is to value every opinion equally. One idea isn't better than another, but simply different. No one is wrong and everyone's contribution matters. But this merely encourages intellectual apathy. As Zimmerman notes, culture wars are inherently unresolvable, but our insistence on inclusion has dulled discussion as "the institutional culture of high schools ... quashes inquiry and investigation." If every perspective is valid, then it matters not that some arguments are defended more persuasively than others.

Better is the method in which no idea is safe from attack and every perspective is scrutinized, regardless of the speaker's political, ideological, or moral convictions.

To do this honestly and effectively is a challenge, so much so that Bret Stephens wrote, "we're failing at the task." It demands willingness to listen and humility to be proven wrong.

According to Zimmerman, "In America, we are told, individuals are uniquely free to decide their values, beliefs, and attitudes. If we applied that principle to instruction in history, we would encourage our children to develop their own interpretations instead of foisting a single view upon them." Applying this principle to our schools is a tall task, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for it in our classrooms. At the same time, it doesn't mean that all interpretations deserve equal merit.

In any case, developing a robust environment of genuine discussion and disagreement requires that our teachers teach passionately, not dispassionately.


Matthew Lee, a former high school history teacher, is a graduate student in education policy at the University of Arkansas. You can email him at or follow him on Twitter @hmatthewlee.

Editorial on 10/26/2018

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