How do you teach an inclusive U.S. history course? What does such a course look like? And how do teachers put one together when facing legal restrictions on how they can discuss race and gender in class?
These were some of the key questions addressed by a panel of researchers and historians earlier this month. They are also some of the most pressing ones for K-12 social studies teachers, as a growing number of state leaders work to limit or ban classroom instruction and school library books that provide context for discussing the various perspectives at play in history.
The panel was held as part of a conference hosted by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition’s conference at Yale University.
While panelists cited these legal barriers and other challenges when trying to teach U.S. history from a pluralistic point of view, they, like other historians, have hope that such an instructional approach will take hold in more classrooms. That’s especially needed, they argue, because of the importance of teaching historical thinking skills, which hinge on understanding historical context.
“The crucial thing about a history class is that the emphasis is on context,” said Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association in a separate interview with Education Week. “And so what you’re helping students to do is to understand that every concept, every event, or every process, cannot be understood outside of a context.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, scholars debated whether historians were losing a cohesive narrative of American history as they began diving into the history of social groups, said Eric Foner, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University at the panel discussion. But practitioners of social history argued that the big textbook narratives were inherently limited, one-dimensional, and couldn’t incorporate the real diversity of American society.
In one of his own books, Foner found a way to balance the need for a cohesive narrative with the need for more inclusiveness: He focused on the theme of freedom and the nation’s contested narratives about freedom. He delved into questions such as who is entitled to freedom and what kind of social arrangements are necessary to enable people to enjoy it, among other things.
“These ideas are inherently contested,” Foner said.
That emphasis on the tensions is crucial, fellow panelists argued. It can raise some real questions for students about what it means to be in a society that values freedom when the freedoms of some people are in conflict with the freedoms of others, said Mia Bay, a professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania.