When it comes to teaching history and social studies, educators strive to espouse the facts. But with that seemingly obvious tenet in effect, a difficult question arises. How vivid a portrait should that truth paint? Where is the line between protecting students’ feelings about their ancestors versus reframing the cold reality of what actually happened? And how does the ripple effect of past calamities and injustices impact the health of our society today?
Teaching tough truths in history and social studies is, well, tough. And no doubt, age and maturity level factor into the equation. While there exists no stone-carved guidebook for navigating these tumultuous waters, we know one value remains unwaveringly true. If the goal of history and social studies is to help students not repeat the mistakes of the past, it’s vital to discuss the ramifications of our predecessors’ choices and actions.
Why History Gets Sugarcoated
Did you know that slaves built the White House? It’s a fact. But many people, even those with a knack for history, don’t realize that. (Or it gets glossed over.) The same awful truth goes for the Capitol building. And yet the reality of how these landmarks came to exist might taint the sense of wonder one feels when contemplating all the life-changing events that happened inside those walls. That disillusionment might account for why so much of our history comes solely in sugarcoated form.
To understand how history becomes a distilled, half-told story, let’s be upfront about how far we’ve progressed and how many miles we must travel before we can call our society enlightened.
We often shy away from discussing the uncomfortable truths of today, so why not the past? Add to that the precious limited time we have in a single school year, and we run the risk of offering only a watered-down, cherry-picked curriculum that oversimplifies the toughest parts of our past.
History, by the core of its definition, is not a myth. Yet in an attempt to simplify (and perhaps even glorify) our past, we can sometimes develop imbalanced, mythological versions of it, which negates the reason for teaching historical events in the first place. We must learn not only from triumphs and enlightened ideas, but also from the mistakes, blunders, and even outright atrocities committed by those who came before us.
What Do Tough History and Social Studies Lessons Look Like?
It’s not enough to point out a problem without providing a way to course correct, but given the nuances of teaching, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. To start, we recommend using resources provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which provides detailed frameworks for teaching hard topics in history.
Turning history into mythology is a dangerous path to tread, but there is a thread that connects the two, and that similarity allows you to tell the truth about what happened then and how it impacted our world in the years since. That shared element is storytelling.
Nonfiction storytelling, if the biography is told with goodwill and honesty, describes how a person or group’s struggles defined the next generations. There are so many narratives to choose from, often painful but frequent triumphant stories about heroes, changemakers, villains, survivors, and people who became symbols for a greater movement. Here are a few examples.
The false and deadly fervor over witchcraft did not originate in Salem, Massachusetts. But the executions that occurred in 17th-century America have long stood as a microcosm for what happens when a society persecutes human beings without cause. Bridget Bishop stands as a bright symbol for what has become a cautionary tale.
Except she’s no fictional character or metaphor — she was a real woman who was hanged on suspicion of witchcraft. In reality, she wore bright clothing, owned a couple of taverns, and allowed bar patrons to play shuffleboard long into the night. That hardly constitutes an unholy pact with the underworld.
In his book Night, Elie Wiesel recounts the senseless tragedies he witnessed and suffered during his toiling time in a number of concentration camps. His writing is known for its candor and compassion for human beings who are capable of both amazing and atrocious actions. His musings offer more than enough fodder to discuss the importance of telling the harsh realities of history, and this passage provides an especially passionate example of this:
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
Teaching tough topics in history and social studies will undoubtedly become an exercise in demythologization. No historical figure epitomizes this notion more pertinently than Christopher Columbus, the posterchild for cherry-picking the sad facts about what happened in the past.
Yes, we admit this one is quite tricky. After all, many students become acquainted with Christopher Columbus as an emboldened explorer who sought better trade routes. The myth tells us that these voyages resulted in the discovery of the American continent, even though Leif Erikson famously visited the region we now call home some five centuries before Columbus set sail. In fact, those trips to America ended with bloodshed, slavery, disease, and tyranny — quite the opposite of the heroic journey many hear about in school.
Unfortunately, not every history classroom visits the biography of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy whose death inspired a seismic growth in America’s civil rights movement. On August 24, 1955, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam abducted the child at gunpoint, beat him to the point of bodily mutilation, shot him in the head, and anchored his body with a metal fan before dumping him in the Tallahatchie River.
Till’s story is graphic, but needs to be told. After all, not only was a child brutally murdered, but his premature and tragic death happened in light of a complete falsehood, an accusation that the teenager had made advances on a white female cashier. To that end, a jury found his killers innocent, a travesty that galvanized communities to demand justice.