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Teacher's Tips: Who gets to teach history?

Who gets to teach history?

It’s a simple question and most people would say the answer is simple: “The history teacher.”

Unfortunately, teaching history — particularly American history — is far more complicated than telling a class to open their textbook to a certain page and begin reading.

I’ve taught American history courses on the high school and college level for more than 20 years. Very early on I learned that many parties, including school boards and various interest groups of all stripes, all believe they have the unique answer to the thorny problems of teaching history in a way that is relevant, thought-provoking and intellectually rigorous.

Recent events, both national and local, highlight this educational conundrum.

The College Board’s 2014 update of the Advanced Placement United States History curriculum prompted professional historians to throw roses in print, praising the changes for bringing the scope and content of AP U.S. History more in line with current college-level instruction.

But some state legislators and education traditionalists across the nation blew raspberries, saying all the changes did was emphasize the negative aspects of American history while omitting many of the important contributions of the Founding Fathers. Some states even considered dropping the AP U.S. History curriculum in favor of their own approach to teaching advanced U.S. history.

In Medford last week, school board Chairman Jeff Thomas and board member Kim Wallan criticized The American Pageant, a widely used AP U.S. textbook, for “egregious” editorializing through marginal notes used to explain the Constitution and Bill of Rights to students using the book.

“There’s no way I can support it and not because I agree with the author or don’t,” Thomas said during the school board meeting where members considered adopting the book for the Medford School District. “It’s just that that should not be taught to sophomores who are still forming how to think critically.”

When it comes to the College Board’s changes to the AP U.S. curriculum, I am no fan, but for different reasons. Their roll-out of the changes was nothing short of disastrous for teachers in the trenches trying to make sense of the board’s contradictory mandates and onerous demands.

Also, their tardy release of supporting materials to provide some kind of direction for classroom teaching made me feel like I needed to add mind reading to the skills needed to prepare my students for the AP exam.

And when it comes to concerns about The American Pageant, I have a piece of advice for Mr. Thomas and Ms. Wallan: If you want to see a book that egregiously editorializes about American history, you need to review a copy of the late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. (Let’s just say that Zinn always provided an alternative point of view.)

Liberals and conservatives, Christians and atheists, gays and straights, politicians and ordinary citizens — everybody thinks there is The Way to teach history.

I can’t claim to possess the definitive answer. But I believe I know what not to do.

History is full of ironies and inconsistencies. Moral hand-wringing or blind celebration is not particularly useful when it comes to understanding the past.

Claiming the United States is either exceptionally bad or exceptionally good does little to advance understanding of the nation’s past.

Exposing students to primary documents, teaching them the tools of historical analysis, and teaching them that history — really good history — is a written craft that explains the past from a perspective that tries to understand those ironies and inconsistencies is a better strategy.

That’s not as sexy as the politics of curriculum changes or textbook squabbles. But it is an approach that teaches kids to think like historians — or at least think in a way makes them use their brains.

A former reporter who covered politics and government for newspapers in California and Oregon, Paul R. Huard teaches social studies and English courses at Ashland High School. The opinions he expresses are his own.