History teaching begins with facts. But history teaching that stops with “just the facts” is not history teaching. Historians think about “what happened” in context. They think about facts in relations to other facts, leading them to tell complex stories about the human experience.
A recent editorial at The Tampa Bay Times makes me wonder if there is a historian or history major on the editorial board. Here is a taste of “For students learning American history, what does ‘just the facts’ mean?”:
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran says the teaching of history in Florida public school classrooms comes down to a simple proposition: “Teach the facts.” Okay, here are some facts about American history. Which ones should be taught? And in what context?
Thomas Jefferson was a primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the foundational document of the United States. He was also a slave owner who almost certainly fathered several children with a slave named Sally Hemings. He never freed her.
On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted, setting up the newly independent colonies as an example to the world. Of course, the new nation counted approximately 700,000 enslaved people not many years later. Black slavery had begun in what is now the United States more than 150 years earlier, and a majority of the signers of the Declaration — not just Jefferson — actually owned other human beings.
Cotton was king in the mid 19th century. By 1860, cotton had become the most important American commodity and made up two-thirds of the global supply. At the time the Constitution was written in 1787, the nation produced almost no cotton but by the outbreak of the Civil War, enslaved Black people produced more than two billion pounds a year. But enslaved Black people were the most valuable property: “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy,” according to the Yale historian David W. Blight.…
You get the drift.
Here is the conclusion:
So what’s the lesson of these scattering of facts from America’s past? History is complicated. Facts need context. And teachers need the freedom to raise the difficult questions that prod our next generation of citizens to think about what it means to be a Floridian — and an American.
Read the entire piece here.