Critical Nationalist Historiography

Daniel Larison’s recent posts at the new American Scene (which should be read by everybody, though how anybody can keep up with the frenetic pace at which its crack staff of writers updates is a mystery to me) in response to this Bill Bennett article, along with a conversation I had in shul this morning, have got me thinking hard on the subject of secondary school history education. Why do we teach history to kids?

 

Bennett suggests that we teach history in order to instill a love of our country in our children, what Larison derisively calls “progressive nationalist historiography in which the Chosen People move from strength to strength.” Larison’s ideal history curriculum provides “students with a fundamental understanding of how to think about past events, how to analyse evidence and respond to interpretations of that evidence, and how to organise knowledge about the past into some coherent framework.” Given a choice between these two extremes, my sympathies lie with Larison. It seems self-evident to me that the primary goal of history education should be to teach our children to think intelligently about history, and to engage critically with historical material.

Even so, he misses a sense in which Bennett’s larger point is correct, as silly as some of his supporting points may be. It is not an accident that critical historical scholarship rose in Europe at the same time as Nationalism. There is a reason that American history is a central part of the curriculum in American high schools, whereas the respective histories of Korea, Malaysia and Denmark are ignored. The fact that we teach our history to our students is part of a deeply rooted nationalist element in American society. Yes, Bennett does advocate excessive Jingoism in the classroom. That is not a reason to pretend that part of the motive for teaching American history in our schools is to show students what it means to be American, to illustrate the various principles on which our constitution was based, and how those principles were followed, transformed or ignored in subsequent years. I don’t see why the two cannot be combined. Teaching our students to deal with the mess that is historical evidence and to piece it together into a coherent framework can be done in a way which leaves students feeling respect for the country where they live. As Larison says, Bennett is an easy target, as his particular complaints are overblown. That does not change the fact that we teach our students their country’s history at least partially because we want them to understand the narrative of which they are the most recent chapter, and to have respect for it.

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