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History is not for the Faint Hearted

I recently saw a Facebook post of a Putnam City graduate lamenting the fact that there was no good protest music coming out of the anger and frustration many feel in light of our political climate. Many of us recall the great music of the 1960s- Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Peter Paul and Mary’s “If I had a Hammer” and John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son” to name some of my favorites. But the truth of even this universally-accepted axiom - that the music of the 1960s was all protest-related - was blown away by another former student of mine, pointing out that “Sugar Sugar” was also a big hit in the 1960s. It made me proud that he revealed the complexities of a historical assumption to people who might not have thought about that otherwise.

In my history class, we use a technique I learned from AP training called “yes/no, but.” In this exercise, we are to support a claim with evidence- yes or no- and then be able to recognize the validity of arguments that contradict our own evidence. Very few instances of history (let alone human nature, which is all history is after all) don’t have at least two sides to them, multiple interpretations of the same set of facts. A preponderance of evidence often reveals a historical fact, but there are still exceptions to that evidence. A problem with teaching history is that there are so many stories to tell, you cannot do all sides justice in a survey course.

People in politics often bemoan that our children aren’t getting enough history education, and it’s true. I constantly see pieces of legislation and hear comments that clearly reveal our political leaders don’t have enough historical insight or they wouldn’t write what they write or say what they say. How can we improve this? In part, we could start by valuing history as a discipline. Having 30 kids in a survey class almost ensures that even the best student won’t be curious enough about the past to ask questions because there’s too much information being delivered at the superficial level. I would LOVE to have enough teachers to offer history electives. We’ve had a few in Putnam City over the years, but the current budget debacle certainly prevents a class on women’s history or the Cold War to be taught alone.

Seeing the current debate about which statues should be left alone and which should be taken down further brings this point about the complexities of history to light. There are so many questions to ask before making a decision- when was the statue erected? Why was this person honored with a statue? Is there a more suitable location for items we don’t want to forget (because we respect their contribution to our shared history), but don’t want to glorify? I suggest we conduct the yes/no, but exercise in a public forum to generate understanding and hopefully reduce the chance of violence.

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