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"It Wasn't a Good Part of History": National Identity and Ambiguity in Students' Explanations of Historical Significance


by Keith C. Barton & Linda S. Levstik - 1998

In this study, we investigated middle graders' understanding of significance in U.S. history through open-ended interviews with forty-eight students in grades five through eight. Students pointed to steadily expanding rights and opportunities as a central theme in U.S. history, but they also had difficulty incorporating some historical patterns and events into their image of progress. This study suggests that students need experience with the complexities of the past within a context that provides some framework for making critical sense out of both legitimating stories and alternative, vernacular histories.


In this study, we investigated middle graders’ understanding of significance in U.S. history through open-ended interviews with forty-eight students in-grades five through eight. Students pointed to steadily expanding rights and opportunities as a central theme in U.S. history, but they also had difficulty incorporating some historical patterns and events into their image of progress. This study suggests that students need experience with the complexities of the past within a context that provides some framework for making critical sense out of both legitimating stories and alternative, vernacular histories.


That democratic idea (that all are equal in the eyes of God) is one of the grand contributions of the age of Europe even given the imperial expansion, the colonial subjugation of Africa and Asia, the pernicious and vicious crimes against working people and people of color and so forth. So ambiguous a legacy means . . . we have got to keep two ideas in our minds at the same time. The achievements as well as the downfalls. The grand contributions and the vicious crimes.


—Cornel West


To be an American is not . . . a matter of blood; it is a matter of an idea-and history is the image of that idea.


—Robert Penn Warren


As Robert Penn Warren suggests, the image of an idea is integral to the way in which we assign historical significance to people, events, and ideas in American history. But the image of the American idea is as much about what is repressed—by whom and to what end—as about what is recollected—by whom and in what context (Cohen, 1994). Multiple—and at times radical—images develop below the surface of official portraits of the past; these ideas exist both within and beyond the boundaries of the “crafts and guilds of historical disciplines” (Bodnar, 1994; Cohen, 1994, p. 4; Cuthbertson, 1994). Such alternative and even conflicting images of the past also exist among children, who construct their understandings and representations of history in complex cultural webs of historical images and ideas. In this study we investigate how early adolescents (fifth through eighth grade) evaluate significance in American history, and how they use history to create a sense of collective identity.


Ideas of historical significance are cultural constructs transmitted to members of a society in a variety of ways (Appiah & Gutmann, 1996; Cohen, 1994; Kammen, 1991; Seixas, 1994; Shama, 1992). Schooling is one important forum for this transmission—a site where contending forces in the culture try to influence what history will be publicly commemorated. In the United States, systematic study of American history begins in earnest in fifth grade, is repeated in middle school, and is reintroduced in high school. Of course, schools are not the only sources of children’s historical information: Family members, the media, historic sites, and museums all present versions of the past both to children and to adults (Barton, 1995; Bodnar, 1994; Cohen, 1994; Levstik & Barton, 1996; Seixas, 1993b; Wallace, 1996). Schools are, however, sites where some form of overarching national history is explicitly introduced; indeed, decisions about what aspects of history should be included in the curriculum are hotly contested in American society (Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995). Because of the potential disparity between the versions of history they encounter at school and in the wider society, students may be faced with reconciling widely varied accounts of the past.


Our study focuses not so much on the public debate swirling around these issues as on students’ own thinking about what is historically significant. What sense are young people making of the images and ideas about history that they encounter in schools and elsewhere? The process by which students restructure the past involves more than historians’ or teachers’ stories. It also has to do with students’ own ways of conceiving of a “usable” past. In his study of Canadian high school students, for instance, Seixas (1994) noted that students ascribed significance to those events they considered useful in explaining present circumstances or providing a set of lessons to guide present and future behavior. But in another study, Seixas (1997) found that students from diverse ethnic backgrounds sometimes had difficulty coordinating their own perspectives on historical significance with those presented in the school curriculum. Similarly, Epstein (1994, 1997) found that many African-American high school students’ historical understanding stood in active resistance to what they encountered in school; in attempting to create a usable past, they drew on Forms of history presented in what they perceived as more culturally relevant sites—neighborhoods and families. These findings highlight the extent to which understanding history as the image of an idea—or ideas—is both appealing and problematic.


On the one hand, this metaphor of history as the image of an idea suggests that, despite attempts by cultural leaders or authorities to shape a past that maintains the status quo and invests it with powerful emotional appeal, both the image and the idea shift over time. Marginalized people—Native Americans, African Americans, Asians, Latinos, Southern and Central Europeans, women, laborers, and the poor—can enter and alter images long dominated by white Anglo Saxon propertied males (Kammen, 1991, 1996). On the other hand, the metaphor also suggests a constant struggle for control of the image. If a people’s image of their collective history frames their understanding of shared institutions and shapes their sense of identity, it also establishes the boundaries of nations and neighborhoods, recalls some parts of the past and represses others, holds some groups and individuals up for recognition and turns a blind eye to others (Cohen, 1994). For some groups and individuals the struggle is to be seen within the historical image. Those whose past has been repressed because it threatens an official national image have a great deal of difficulty entering public memory. Individuals and groups may recall, forget, or repress memories, but the production of public memory requires dissemination and some degree of acceptance (Appiah & Gutmann, 1996; Kammen, 1991). Without such acceptance, the experiences of marginalized groups and individuals are unlikely to stand as an effective critique of "official” historical narratives.


The findings of both Seixas (1994, 1997) and Epstein (1994, 1997) reveal the extent to which high school students’ understandings of historical significance may diverge from that of the school curriculum and thereby provide alternative perspectives on the meaning of the past. Our study also looks at how a relatively diverse group of students ascribes significance to ideas, events, and people in America’s past, but concentrates on students during their first systematic encounters with national history in the intermediate and middle school years. In addition, we try to understand how students mediate-the demands of- the “official” story of American history and their own, frequently more ambiguous, knowledge of the past. As we analyzed the ways in which these middle-grade students talked about history, it became clear that they understood and experienced the past as both “grand contributions” and “vicious crimes,” in Cornel West’s terms. They considered both elements of history significant, and tied them together with an overarching story of progress and American exceptionality. But while students knew about the events “that they would mention in books or somebody would teach you about,” they also were familiar with other perspectives on the past-perspectives that often derived from the experiences and living memories of the people they knew.

PROCEDURE


We developed a semi-structured interview that included both a task requiring students to choose from among a set of twenty captioned historical pictures, and a set of broader questions designed to explore their understanding of historical significance. We interviewed forty-eight students in grades five through eight, and conducted all interviews with single-sex groups of either three or four students; during interviews, students described their identity in terms of a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including African American, Native American, various European nationalities, or a mixture of these.1 All students attended middle schools in central and northern Kentucky; one was in an inner-city area, two were rural schools that drew from both rural and suburban populations, and one was a creative and performing arts magnet school that included students from throughout an urban/suburban region. Pictures and their accompanying captions were designed to activate students’ background knowledge and identify consequences of the events depicted, and to avoid overtly biasing students’ selections. (Complete captions are included in Appendix A.)


We began interviews by asking students if they were familiar with timelines—all of them were—and explaining that they would be looking through a set of pictures with captions and then working together as a group to decide which eight were important enough to include on a timeline of the last 500 years. We then handed the set of pictures to students and allowed them to work though the task with minimal guidance. (Some groups read the captions carefully, while others skimmed more quickly.) Once students chose eight pictures and placed them on the timeline, we asked them to explain each of their choices, to identify which pictures other people might have chosen (and those they thought no one would have chosen), and to talk about what they had learned about history both in and out of school. In addition to asking questions from our formal protocol, we frequently probed students’ responses in order to explore more fully the reasoning behind their answers. (The complete interview protocol is included in Appendix B.)


In addition to tabulating students’ choices, we analyzed interview transcripts and drew conclusions from them through a process of analytic induction. After interviewing students, we identified a set of thematic strands in their responses, and we subjected the transcripts to a systematic content analysis in which we categorized responses according to coding categories based on those strands. Many of the initial categories were broken down, combined, or added to during the course of coding, and the coding included a systematic search for negative or discrepant evidence. We then analyzed the coded data using cross-case analysis (in which we grouped the answers of students responding to the same items in the selection task and interview) and constant comparison (in which we compared students’ responses across different portions of the task and interview). This resulted in a set of descriptive generalizations that Form the basis for our conclusions, which we describe in the next section.2

RESULTS: “TWO IDEAS IN OUR MIINDS”


As we have noted, the construction of the past is always a selective process, in which certain people, events, and trends are remembered, emphasized, and even celebrated while others are forgotten, excluded, or deemphasized. A number of social theorists have argued that this process of selection is invariably tied to the demands of contemporary cultural-and social institutions; from such a perspective, those aspects of the past most likely to be considered significant are those that lead to identification with a particular social order and ratify a community’s social and cultural practices. In this view, history has little to do with establishing what-happened in the past but everything to do with the promotion of social unity and consensus in the present (Appleby, Hunt, &Jacob, 1994; Bodnar, 1991; Commager, 1965; Douglas, 1986; Malinowski, 1948; Shils, 1971; Wallace, 1996; Williams, 1977).

THE PAST AS LEGITIMATION FOR THE PRESENT


Many of the students’ responses accorded well with this legitimating perspective on the function of history in contemporary society. (Overall results are depicted in Table 1, while each group’s choices can be found in Appendix D.) Students chose pictures and gave explanations that focused to a large extent on the origin and development of the United States as a social and political entity, on the creation and development of what they perceived as uniquely American freedoms and opportunities, and on the beneficial effects of technological change. Students generally excluded, on the other hand, pictures of people and events that they recognized as having widespread impact but could not assimilate to their image of the county’s continuous and beneficial progress.


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The Origin of the United States


Many of students’ explanations focused on the origins of the United States and its people. Several groups, for example, noted that the pictures of de Soto or the “First Thanksgiving” represented the exploration and settlement of North America; as Brenda explained, the Thanksgiving picture shows “the start of the United States, when we all became possible, because we all came from over there, and a bunch of immigrants came over here, and that’s basically how we started our nation.“3 Similarly, many students explained the significance of Ellis Island by noting the role of immigration in shaping the current population of the United States. Megan, for example, considered it important “because we’re supposed to be a country made out of a melting pot. . . . And if we didn’t have immigration, then we wouldn’t have as many people in our country, and that’s what makes our country different from other countries. We’re not like Germany where you only have German people.” Several other groups mentioned the importance of immigration in creating a “melting pot,” and some noted—in a very general way—immigrants’ cultural contributions to American society.


Students also emphasized national origins in their discussion of the Revolutionary War, which they consistently selected as one of the most important events in American history. Every group placed it among their eight pictures, and they did so automatically, without debate or discussion. In explaining their decision, students pointed primarily to the Revolution’s importance in the creation of the United States as a separate country. Amber noted that the American Revolution was important “‘cause it recognized the independence of the United States," while Rhiannon explained that it “kinda started our country.” Reuben noted that without the American Revolution, “we would have no country,” and Chad explained, “we’d still be part of England.“4


Students’ emphasis on the origins of the United States—both its settlement and its creation as a political unit—reflects the importance of the past in defining a community of identification. Students consistently used the pronouns our and we in talking about the American Revolution, regardless of their own ethnic background, their gender, or the recency of their families’ immigration to the United States. Their explanations suggested that they considered events related to America's creation and settlement important because those events defined the community with which they identified. While previous research indicates-that children’s understanding of the colonial period and the American Revolution is vague, confused, and riddled with misconceptions (Barton, 1997; McKeown & Beck, 1990; VanSledright, 1996), students in the present study had internalized the one element of the period that contemporary society considers most important—that this is where we began. This sense of continuity over time—the meaningful identification of people in the present with a community that stretches into the past—is one of the key functions of historical memory (Gillis, 1994; Malinowski, 1948; Shils, 1971; Williams, 1977).

American Exceptionalism


Students credited the American Revolution with bringing about a number of benefits apart from the simple founding of the country. Megan, for example, suggested that because of: the American Revolution, “different immigrants started coming over,” and Jessica noted that “everyone could be happy,” and that without the Revolution, the country “probably wouldn’t be as productive.” The most commonly mentioned benefit of the Revolution was freedom, Rhiannon noted that before the Revolution, “we didn’t have our rights, we weren’t free,” and Asher noted that without it, “we wouldn’t have freedom.” Similarly, Derek suggested that without the Revolution, there would be “probably not as many freedoms. . . There would probably still be slaves and stuff.”


Students further emphasized the importance of “freedom” in their discussion of the creation and extension of political and civil rights. Every group chose the Bill of Rights as one of its eight pictures and pointed to it as the foundation of American freedom; as JaJuan explained, “It gave us all of our freedom and rights,” and according to Peter, “If we didn’t have the Bill of Rights we wouldn’t be as free, the country would be very much, so different.” Students particularly emphasized protections of speech, press, and religion. Yolanda, for example, noted that the Bill of Rights was “good, because everybody should be free to have, to what they want to say.” Without it, Michelle noted, “we couldn’t like go to one of our churches that we go to now,” and her interview partner Amber added, “or we couldn’t say some things now that we say in the newspaper or something.”


Many students explained with conviction that the Bill of Rights set the United States apart from other countries. Megan explained that “unlike other countries we have freedom of speech and other countries didn’t have that kind of right, and the Bill of Rights is important because it reassures us that we have these rights and the law cannot take them away from us.” Jaclyn also noted that the Bill of Rights is important “to distinguish us from other countries, because we have more freedom than they do,” and Rhiannon noted that it was “a big part of why everybody loved America . . . ‘cause America’s known around the world as the place for freedom.” As Lewis explained, “America’s known for its freedom and stuff, and I think that’s part of what makes it good.” Sylvia noted that in other countries, religion and culture tie people together, but in the United States “we don’t have that and this Bill is really what holds us together.”


In emphasizing American freedom and rights, students were not simply identifying with a community but asserting its moral rightness. As Malinowski (1948) and Shils (1971) note, a society’s understanding of its past not only provides a sense of identity but provides a warrant or charter for present practice—it asserts the superiority of present-day institutions. For the students in this study, the Bill of Rights set the United States off as a uniquely good and moral society, full of inalienable freedoms that no other country has. Their explanations never touched on the specific constitutional issues that animated debates of the period, but once again they had taken away from their studies one significant point—that their country originated in a commitment to rights that remain the envy of the world, that cannot be taken away, and that hold us together.

Progressive Expansion of Rights, Opportunity, and Freedom


Students also consistently chose pictures relating to the extension of voting rights and other freedoms. Twelve of the fourteen groups chose the picture depicting the Emancipation Proclamation, ten chose Civil Rights, and seven choose Suffrage (and ten groups chose at least two of these). In each case, students explained their selections by noting the importance of extending rights and freedoms already enjoyed by other Americans. Whitney said that the Emancipation Proclamation was important because “the slaves shouldn’t have to be like slaves because of the color of their skin,” and Michelle explained that because of it, “nobody would have to like do all the work for no money, and be pushed around like that.” As Tiffany noted, “African Americans could still be slaves-if we didn’t pass that law.” Students also pointed to the importance of the suffrage and Civil Rights movements in making the country more “fair.” Dustin, for example, noted that women “should have the right to vote,” and Katrina explained that suffrage “gave the other 50 percent of Americans the right to vote.” Similarly, Ryan explained that the Civil Rights Movement was important “because African Americans were not treated equally,” and his interview partner JaJuan agreed that “they need just as much rights as we do.”


Students often described such events in terms not only of fairness or freedom but also of their contribution to the improvement of social relations or individual opportunity. Rachel suggested that the Thanksgiving picture was important because “it was kind of like the beginning of us becoming friends,” and Yolanda also noted that “we was making a bond with Native Americans; that’s good because that’s a tradition that goes on forever.” Several students described the importance of the Civil Rights Movement in similar terms; Lewis, for example, explained that it was important “because it shows that we can try to achieve goals peacefully instead of always having to fight.” Donny, meanwhile, noted that the Civil Rights movement was important because it gave. African Americans “a lot of opportunity to get jobs and stuff because [before] they weren’t really recognized as people,” and Rhiannon described the suffrage movement as important because it led to women’s working and having jobs. Students’ emphasis on expanding opportunities was also pronounced in their discussions of the development of education; although only three groups included it as one of their final choices, many students nonetheless pointed to its significance. Tiffany, for example, noted that education not only leads to inventions, but allows us to “choose our careers for the future,” and Brenda explained that “if it wasn’t for the first school, we wouldn’t get anywhere in the world.”


The progressive development and extension of American rights and opportunities was the most frequently mentioned theme in students’ responses—regardless of age, gender, or racial and ethnic background—and many students consciously and explicitly described such events as part of an ongoing and significant process in American history. Nicole, for example, noted that the Emancipation Proclamation was “another step toward freedom,” and her partners suggested that it “helped enforce” the Bill of Rights. Megan also explained that “the Constitution says that all people are equal,” and that the Emancipation Proclamation “made it all true because before that they were slaves and didn’t have privileges like white people do.” Chad, meanwhile, explained that suffrage was “kinda like” the Emancipation Proclamation for women, “‘cause this was when they were like being equal to the men.” And Sonja explained that the Civil Rights Movement was important because it was “the last major group of people that hadn’t gotten their rights.” Amber suggested that the most important thing she’d learned about history at school was “the rights of the people that were back then, that they had to fight for to get, and how we have so much freedom now, and they hardly had any back in the 1900s, or 1800s.”


Students’ emphasis on the expansion of rights and opportunities and the steady improvement of social relations reveals their concern with establishing that the United States is a country in which historic hardships and injustices are corrected and overcome. The legitimating function of history is particularly important in societies in which contemporary groups experience wide differences in their economic or social status, for such circumstances call for explanations that establish the legitimacy of the status quo (Bodnar, 1994; Malinowski, 1948). While the students in this study did not use the past to justify current inequalities, they did use the extension of rights and opportunities as a way of demonstrating that such inequalities are bound to be overcome (or that they already have been), and they consciously and reflectively considered such progress to be the dominant theme in American history.

Technological Progress


Students’ concern with progress was also evident in their explanations of pictures representing technological change. Ten of the fourteen groups chose pictures of either Thomas Edison or the computer, and their explanations pointed to the importance of inventions in making contemporary life possible. As Yolanda noted, Thomas Edison is important “because we use his inventions every day.” Leslie also noted, “the light bulb is necessary for today,” and Rachel explained that without the light bulb, “we would have been like in the stone age.” Similarly, Jaclyn noted that the computer “has really changed things, ‘cause you don’t have to write things, you can just type them on a computer and print it out.” Brandon suggested that “our whole life revolves around computers,” and Reuben explained that “everything in the world now, just about, is run by them.” Students selected pictures of the airplane and the car far less often, but their explanations of those inventions also pointed to their importance in shaping modern life. Jaclyn, for example, noted that without the car, “we wouldn’t be able to like travel, hardly at all, we would have to walk,” and Cole explained that airplanes are important because “people need to get around faster than walking.”


Students’ universally positive regard for such technological changes indicates the extent to which their progressive view of history excluded the consideration of alternatives. Shils (1971) notes that members of a society typically accept the past as a “given,” in which “incongruent alternatives are not so much deliberately rejected as scarcely perceived” (p. 140). Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent in our society than in the belief in technological progress; most of us consider electricity and even computers so much a given that we have difficulty imagining that their invention could be regarded as anything other than an advance. But Wallace (1996) has shown how individuals and institutions have deliberately shaped such perceptions, and how the drawbacks and social consequences of technological change have been excluded from popular understanding. Not surprisingly, the students in this study invariably pointed to the positive effects of technological changes and their role in making contemporary life possible, and rarely mentioned the relationship between technology and pollution, the consumption of resources; or patterns of labor. The benefits of technological development were as self-evident to them as the extension of civil and political rights.

Change and Controversy


Students’ emphasis on the progressive development of contemporary American society was also evident in the pictures they rejected, There were three pictures no group selected, and many students explained that two of these could not reasonably be considered among the most important events in American histoy—Elvis Presley and O. J. Simpson.5 During their initial sorting of the pictures, students rejected these pictures immediately, often laughing as soon as they saw them. While many students described Elvis Presley’s influence on music, they rejected his historical significance. Yolanda pointed out that Elvis “didn’t do anything for the country, to make history,” and Rachel noted that “it doesn’t change America much.” J. R. also noted, “It’s-just like media, it might have affected us, ‘cause he might have started rock and roll and all that stuff, but it probably wouldn’t affect half the population.” (Only Briana pointed to the importance of such cultural changes in noting that the Elvis picture might be a reasonable choice because “it’s sort of a start of our culture, and it shows how much things have changed and everything.“) For most students, simple changes in culture—as opposed to advances in freedom or technology—were insufficient to qualify as historically significant.


Students were also well aware of the controversy surrounding the O. J. Simpson trial, but few thought this was a matter of historical significance. Tiffany, for example, said that Simpson “has nothing to do with anything today,” and her interview partner Briana agreed that “it’s not a main issue.” Lewis noted that “it just kept people suspended for a while, but really, it’ll be forgotten pretty soon.” No student argued for its inclusion on the basis of its representation of contemporary race relations, although some suggested that others might reasonably have done so. (It should be noted, however, that all students who explicitly denied its importance came from schools that had almost exclusively European-American students; students in schools with mixed ethnic populations either ignored the picture or suggested that others might have chosen it as important.) Again, students did not perceive the trial as leading to any advances in society, and rejected it as being of historical significance. Neither Elvis Presley nor O. J. Simpson helped students establish themselves as part of a just and progressive nation.

War


Students’ concern with constructing a narrative of American progress was also apparent in their discussion of war. They certainly considered wars important, and they often said so; Nicole, for example, suggested that the Vietnam picture must be important “because it’s a war,” and Ryan also noted that some people might have chosen it “because it’s a war, and all wars are important.” As Rhiannon noted, wars “are a big part of history because everyone remembers wars.”6 At the same time, however, students had to align their recognition that wars are invariably important with their belief in progress. The American Revolution and the Civil War presented no problems: The former led to freedom, the latter to the end of slavery and the reuniting of the nation. But while many students considered World War II and the Vietnam War important (eleven groups chose at least one of the two), they struggled to find an explanation of their significance that accorded with their image of progress. Some students suggested that World War II was important because it ended the Holocaust or prevented the extension of Hitler’s power, but others looked for a more specifically American connection—and in discussing Vietnam, students framed its importance exclusively in terms of the United States.


While the patterns in students’ explanations of Vietnam and World War II are not as clear and consistent as in their discussion of other pictures, two themes stand out. First, some students noted that these wars demonstrated once again America’s moral superiority. Byron, for example, explained that World War II was important because “it showed that America was a great world power,” and that “we stand up for people”; his interview partner added that “it showed that like you don’t mess with America.” Similarly, Rhiannon thought that in World War II, “we were just basically helping other countries,” and also that we were fighting the Vietnam War “for the Vietnamese people.” Other students, however, sought to relate these wars not to the country’s inherent superiority but to its ability to learn from its mistakes. Reuben, for example, said that Vietnam “taught us that we weren’t invincible, that there are other people who are willing to give up more than us to get what they needed,” while Chad suggested that Vietnam taught us that we “shouldn’t go slowly into a war,” and that we shouldn’t “waste men just trying to decide.” (Fred, on the other hand, thought that both wars taught the United States that “there are other people in the world and they have ideas too.“) Donny summed up this view by noting that wars are important to study “because like the mistakes you made in a war and stuff so it doesn’t happen again.”


Although these sets of explanations regarding war differed in their content, both reveal the extent to which students attempted to assimilate their knowledge of history to a view of the past that provided legitimation for the contemporary society of which they considered themselves a part. Some students described the significance of Vietnam and World War II in terms of their conception of the United States a uniquely moral and just society—an extension of their focus on the development of American freedom and rights. Others justified these wars by pointing to the lessons that were learned—an extension of perception of American history as the story of unfolding progress, a story in which all developments lead to a better future. And students’ emphasis on the impact of war on the United States—rather than in a global context—indicates the extent to which their frame of reference was the national community, as they had first made clear in their concern with events related to the settlement of North America and the creation of the United States as a political entity.

VERNACULAR HISTORY: COPING WITH AMBIGUITY


Next to the unifying and legitimating framework already described, students maintained an alternative story in which the promise of the Bill of Rights was thwarted. All students knew from personal experience that prejudice existed despite the ideal of equality, that sexism existed despite the extension of political rights, and that some events could not be reconciled with images of progress. Scholars investigating “collective memory” note that such progressive and legitimating historical perspectives are not the only available views of the past. Bodnar (1994) for example, points to the existence of a “vernacular” culture that stands in contrast to “official” versions of history. Unlike official histories based on the “imagined communities of a large nation,” vernacular histories derive from lived experience in specific and generally small-scale communities. They often arise from the perception on the part of community members that their values and firsthand experiences are ignored or discounted. Also unlike the patriotic and nationalistic views of history promoted in official culture, “vernacular expressions convey what social reality feels like rather than what it should be like” (p. 14). As Seixas (1991) and Epstein (1994, 1997) found, students’ understanding of and identification with vernacular history can put them in conflict with the history presented in the school curriculum.


Making sense of children’s historical understanding, then, involves more than identifying what children take to be the central ideas of history; it also involves analyzing how children apply those central ideas to different aspects of the past—particularly those events that cannot easily be assimilated to a story of progress and exceptionality (Appiah & Gutmann, 1996). What happens, for instance, when “official” history and personal experience offer conflicting perspectives? What happens, too, when students perceive the historical record to be ambiguous—when people either resist learning from the past or cannot figure out what the past means? In this section, we look at how students tried to make sense of situations that were, from their perspective, more ambiguous than a story of steadily expanding progress.

Racism and Sexism


As we have already noted, students sought to fit events such as the Civil Rights and women’s suffrage movements into a framework of progress and reconciliation. In general, dissent and oppression were flattened in their discussions: As students usually explained it, rights were given, not wrested from a resistant society. Oppressed or disfranchised people noticed that they did not have the same rights as others and asked for amelioration, redress was granted (or was in process), and reconciliation followed. They were aware that some violence occurred—they knew about assassinations, for instance—but they rarely described any forms of civil disobedience or long-term protest. Some events and issues presented more challenge to this schema of ongoing reconciliation than others, however. Continuing racism and sexism were two of these.


For European-American students, the continuation of racism was a puzzle. African Americans “have rights,” Rhiannon said, pondering the problem; Sonja agreed, but noted that “we still have prejudice.” ‘Yeah,” Rhiannon acknowledged, “There’s still prejudice . . . and there are even like other religious groups and other different countries that. . . have prejudice, too. Even if everybody has the right, doesn’t change people’s emotions.” She and Sonja continued to turn the idea around, suggesting that recent immigrants seemed to be treated most badly. Rhiannon said, “illegal—not illegal, but aliens—that have just come here like Puerto Ricans and Mexicans . . . they came here but they’re legally allowed to be here, but people think they’re like taking our taxes and taking all our government stuff that would go to them.” Another group of girls also mentioned hostility toward recent immigrants, noting that California was involved in “making laws” about immigration. As they discussed this disjuncture between progress and prejudice, Rachel mentioned that “people think of America as the land of opportunities but I don’t think they think of racism.”


As Rachel’s remark indicates, there was some recognition among European-American students that the history of expanding opportunities was neither smooth, uninterrupted, nor finished. This was particularly apparent as students discussed the picture of a civil rights march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Several of the eighth-grad-e boys said that King was a hero—“in our eyes,” Byron concluded, then amended, “or, at least in my eyes.” Tony interjected that “I would not do that [march in a protest] if it was all a black community. Say we’re like a family of whites and they treated us the way we treated them. I’d be quiet.” When asked if he meant that he would be afraid to do what King had done, Tony responded, “Yeah!” Later, he expanded on his concern: “Although [African Americans] got to be free we still kinda pushed ‘em . . . we still gave them the cheap neighborhoods so they didn’t live with us.” Lincoln added, “kind of like the Indians . . . and the voting thing for women.” “We-said hey, they’re here, pfft,” Byron said, gesturing as if brushing them out of the way. Similarly, Saara pointed out, “Some places are going back to segregation. I think it’s sad. It took such along time to get it the way it is now.” Rachel nodded and commented, “It’s not perfect, not where we want to he.”


African-American students framed the past as a story of learning from mistakes, as had European-American students, but they sometimes introduced a more complex analysis of progress in extending rights to marginalized people. Isabella was particularly articulate in her commentary. She argued that while there had been progress—people of African descent on U.S. Olympic teams, her own presence in an integrated school—the problems that remained were daunting. She explained that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was important because it “helped toward freeing the slaves . . . he didn’t actually do it by himself. Other people helped . . . but a lot of people remain racist, and even today in a lot of places, like in Mississippi, the schools are still segregated. And even now you see things about the KKK. They even have their own program on the Internet. It’s like you could go anywhere [but] you wouldn’t be accepted, [and] even if you were accepted you wouldn’t go.” The Bill of Rights, she argued, was “only for rich white men who could vote and you had to pay taxes . . . so the Bill of Rights just protected wealthy, white, male landowners, but that [civil rights] applied to everyone and gave everyone a chance.”


Isabella also provided an alternative interpretation to the story of cooperation between white settlers and Native Americans. After her classmate Sylvia, a European American, commented that de Soto was important because the Spaniards “had children and their children had children, and they spread out, and some are here,” Isabella added, “And the Indians, that’s sort of when they broke up the peace treaties, they just went away and disappeared. I think, even now [Native Americans] set up their own organizations and some don’t trust people and they really have to know you for a long time to trust you—to like want you on their land.” Later, Isabella expanded on her vision of American history, identifying at least one source for her perspective. Martin Luther King “went to jail, preached and influenced people like Rosa Parks,” she began, looking at the picture of King leading the civil rights march. “I saw Ghosts of Mississippi. It was about another civil rights worker, Medgar [Evers]. He was also a civil rights leader. People don’t know any other people.” She went on to raise the issue of police treatment of African Americans in the local community, comparing a recent well-publicized incident to the O. J. Simpson trials: “I think that even though they had some evidence they immediately pinned it on him,” she said of Simpson. “And they didn’t actually check on her background to see if people had threatened her in the past. . . . I don’t think anybody should think they know because they don’t, they only know who made phone calls and they don’t know anything else except what was in the tabloids.“7 Later, commenting on the significance of the Civil Rights Movement, Isabella noted that “you don’t really learn about [civil rights] in school. You know I’ve read books about it. My parents have books and I’ve gone to the library and I’ve seen movies and stuff and I mean at this school and at my other school I didn’t learn too much about it ‘cause like you celebrate Martin Luther King but you don’t hear about it . . . you just hear that he helped.”


Isabella’s powerful vernacular history, nurtured by her family and enriched by her own interests, allowed her to offer an alternative to the official story that she found in her schooling. Not all students of color were as outspoken as Isabella, however. Sometimes, when a European- American student argued that “we’re all equal now,” a student of color would drop out of the conversation, at least temporarily. In one instance, Robert, a European American, remarked that one of the results of racism was that “most black people are poor and on free or reduced lunches like 93 percent or so.” Derek, his African-American classmate, looked at him in surprise, pointing a finger at his own chest and shaking his head. He stayed silent, however, until the conversation shifted to Native Americans. This time, when Robert said that Columbus-discovered America, Derek leaned forward and asked, “How did he discover America? There were already people here!” Oliver, a European American, intervened, saying “they didn’t know where the United States was: since they didn’t know it, it was a discovery [for them], but not for the Indians.” Again, Derek withdrew, shaking his head. Similarly, when the eighth-grade girls discussed recent immigration from “Puerto Rico and Mexico,” Patricia, whose father was Mexican American, remained silent during the discussion of legal and illegal immigration, reentering the conversation at a later point to discuss ethnic contributions—food—to American culture. Her classmate Saara, an immigrant from Poland, however, intervened when Rhiannon joked that Saara was an “illegal alien.” Saara forcefully explained that she was legal and had a green card—“actually, actually a green card.”


Women’s suffrage presented a related set of issues for the students. As was the case with slavery and emancipation, suffrage did not strike most of the students—male or female—as controversial. Overall, male and female students thought that the extension of the vote to women was evidence of the same kind of progress afforded by the extension of civil rights to African Americans. As Tania noted, “If women are going to live here, they should get some of the authority.” Saara agreed, explaining that “the Emancipation Proclamation sort of represents [the same thing].” In general, students’ attitudes toward legal remedies for past injustice can be summed up in Tony’s comment that participating in deciding on “what happens in the country makes you equal.” However, while most students were aware of instances of violence and dissent attached to racism in the United States, they knew little about the violence and dissent that accompanied the suffrage movement. In fact, one male student explicitly compared violence against African Americans—“they got like beat and stuff”—with the comparative safety of women, who were told, “Like just go get in your house and stay there.”


Just as students recognized that emancipation had not ended racism, they also were aware of continuing sexism, especially as they grappled with it in personal interactions. Suffrage was distant in time; other aspects of women’s rights played out in the immediate environment of home and school. When Saara argued that males were as likely as females to think women’s suffrage was important, she drew on her experience with her father: “I know my dad would have picked that,” she said. Her classmate Rachel agreed that adult men might pick it but told Saara to remember that “this is the boys in this school!” Similarly, Lincoln looked over the pictures on the timeline and decided that “knowing some of the girls we know, they may not like that [picture] because it’s all men.” Some students also mentioned that women’s rights was a current political issue. Megan noted that “one of the Republicans [in the 1996 presidential race] said women should just stay home and not work and just kinda take care of kids and stuff like that.” Several also suggested that women would look for different characteristics in politics. Women “think differently,” Oliver said, and Megan and Jessica agreed with each other that “women have different perspectives.” On the other hand, some students argued that “we’re not all that different.” Byron, for instance, suggested that “it has a lot to do with the age instead of the gender,” while Jaclyn thought that “it depends on who it is,” not on the person’s gender. Interestingly too, though boys were as likely (or unlikely) to select women’s suffrage for the timeline, boys were convinced that all the girls would select it, and girls were equally sure that none of the boys would.


As students discussed issues of race, ethnicity, and gender, they negotiated their places in American history, drawing on what they learned in school, but also on things learned in other settings. When asked what kinds of history they learned outside of school, Megan, who described her heritage as Irish and Indian (Native American), said, “Like where I come from.” Her classmate Miatta, whose family included both African Americans and Native Americans, said, “That’s important to me. That’s how I learned about Native Americans.” Jared also learned “a lot about black history” at home. Jessica explained that her family’s stories about their past helped her understand why “we do things differently at Christmas because of our history.” Brandon learned about farming in the past, because “my grandpa and grandma live on a farm.” Patricia, who described herself as Mexican and Italian, remembered learning about “different languages and stuff and so maybe there’s things we mix in [to school history].” Fred learned “a lot about present day history. My dad’s a real strong Republican, so I’ve learned a lot about politics from him.” Lewis laughed, remembering learning “too much about the Cherokees’ weather predicting” from his Cherokee relatives. To some extent, then, students across grade levels saw history as fixing their own experience in the constellation of possibilities in the world (Holt, 1990). While some form of collective history was learned in school, other, more personal histories were learned outside of school. Some of these personal histories simply embellished what was learned in school; others, however, provided a counterpoint to official school history.

The Great Depression


Race, ethnicity, and gender were not the only issues that sometimes challenged students’ historical schema of progress over time. Other events whose moral underpinnings were ambiguous were often confusing—and generally interesting. As one group of girls considered the photograph of the Great Depression, for instance, they indicated that it was “really important.” Rhiannon said that “like everybody’s grandparents, like you always hear people talking.” “It wasn’t a good part of history,” Sonja added. Patricia said “it was something to learn from.” When asked what was to be learned from this event, however, they struggled to explain. “Like, that, urn... ” Sonja looked to her classmates for-help. “We should . . . ?” All four girls began laughing. Rhiannon explained, “We don’t know how it started so we like haven’t studied it. We’ve heard about it every other place.” Kathy added that “I’ve only heard about the Depression, how bad it was, but that’s about it. They didn’t tell why it was bad, like what made it, and what people had to go through, things like that.”


While students were often unsure exactly what lesson could be learned from this historical era, they thought that it had something to do with economics, and the need for government. Chad, for instance, thought that the Depression “was the first time our country had become really poor.” The other lesson learned, however, was that national hubris is likely to be punished. J. R. decided that the Depression "just changed the country so much. They realized that they weren’t the god of all countries.” Byron thought that another lesson might be that “it’s not going to be perfect all the time.” “Yeah,” Tony agreed. “We think our country’s perfect-so great!” Thomas added that “we take it for granted.”


Given that none of the students reported studying the Depression (although about half said they had seen films from the era in a humanities class), they had accumulated an interesting array conceptions and misconceptions about it. They knew bad things had happened, though they thought they had happened fairly uniformly to all Americans.8 They also had some idea that government had intervened to try to correct the problem. Finally, they were also fairly sure that bad things did not happen without a reason. They had no knowledge of any other economic declines in American history; as far as they knew their country had, with this one exception, been uniformly wealthy. Like a figure from mythology, however, America confused itself with the divine. It saw itself as the “god of countries” and was punished for its hubris. America, some students concluded, should be more humble in its prosperity. They were less sure, however, about exactly how that might be done and thought that it was something they would learn if they ever got the chance to study the Depression.

The Vietnam War


The Vietnam War presented students with even greater challenges. While some of the students simply assigned significance to Vietnam because it was a war and “all wars are important,” none of the students crafted what they knew about this war into a cohesive narrative. Most found the Vietnam War interesting and confusing. Yolanda tried to explain her confusion. On the one hand it seemed to her that the involvement of U.S. citizens should be recognized “because all the people in there were, like, very sad.” On the other hand, “all the people that died” seemed a high price to pay for a lost war. The war challenged students’ conceptions of history and historical significance on several levels. First, it called into question their ideas about American exceptionality. As we noted, students thought that Americans were different in that they did not fight wars of aggression. With the exception of the American Revolution and the Civil War, which were “our wars,” Americans went to war to “help people . . . we were fighting . . . for other people.” Two groups of students were so convinced that Americans only went to war to help others that they insisted that all wars other than the Revolution and Civil War were “not really our wars” and therefore not significant to American history. They could not, however, reconcile what they knew about Vietnam with this view. They were not sure whom Americans were helping in Vietnam. Rhiannon struggled to explain the identity of the people America was fighting. “The Vietnamese people,” she finally declared. When asked which Vietnamese people, she hesitated. “North or South?” she asked, laughing. Sonja volunteered that she thought “it was like a civil war between like Vietnam, I think.” Lewis speculated that the war “helped Vietnam be different. Well, it helped the north and south or something.” His classmate Peter shrugged and said, “I don’t really know much about the Vietnam War.” After listening to his peers struggle for a while, Jared commented that “they’re trying to make excuses for a war we lost.”


Certainly students at each grade level understood the outcome of the Vietnam War as a loss for America, and most mentioned that it was the only war America ever lost. As already noted, many students tried to discover a lesson in that defeat—thus Briana suggested that “we can’t expect our army to win every time, because they’re only as human as we are,” and another student concluded that “if they’re going to go communist, let them . . . we should stay out of their business.” Clearly, the lessons to be learned from Vietnam were still fluid: There was no single interpretation that seemed to override others, no framework provided by school or home. In fact, the one consistent source of information on Vietnam (mentioned by all but two groups) was the movie Forrest Gump.


Sources such as Forrest Gump did little to help students understand the second feature of the Vietnam War that confused them—antiwar protests. The protests surrounding American involvement in Vietnam made no sense to them. To begin with, protest challenged their schema of cooperation and reconciliation. Why, they wondered, did people object to helping another country? Isabella wanted to know “how [the war] was started and why some of the best people were against it. I mean to me, I want to know why they were against the Vietnamese people.” Lincoln offered the conclusion that “people were going mad.” Oliver, Jacob, and Robert thought that more people died in Vietnam because “you have all these shootings because people in the United States were arguing over something,* but they were unclear as to what the argument was about. They had no inkling that war resistance was a regular feature of America’s history; so far as they knew, Vietnam was a singular incident of dissent. When the master narrative of American history is one of progress, alternative perspectives can scarcely be perceived as needed, much less positive—small wonder, then, that students saw dissent as evidence of failure and were confused as to what lessons they should take from the war. “Disagreement,” Jaclyn said, “can lead to such a big conflict that could have been solved a lot easier.”


Perhaps because their major sources of information on dissent touched largely on the experiences of returning veterans, students also seemed to view the protesters as the cause of conflict. They reported little formal instruction about the history of the Vietnam War, but someone at each grade level had personal experience with Vietnam veterans. Megan’s father and uncle, for example, both fought in Vietnam; her father’s best friend, she said, “got killed standing right next to him.” When her father and uncle came home they were met by protesters. Others knew fathers, grandfathers, friends, and relatives who had fought in Vietnam, and several reported haying heard a Vietnam veteran speak in school; one seventh grader wore an MIA bracelet purchased while on a school visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. If there were similar connections to war protesters, they either did not share these or did not know about them. Tiffany summed up most of what they knew about protests: “When the soldiers came back, they weren’t looked upon very nicely.”


Vietnam was clearly one historical event within the living memory of people they knew and cared about. Participants in the conflict could be called into mind or described in anecdote. Megan recalled a “girl last year, her father used to parachute into the jungle and he’d be shot at.” Patricia told about her grandfather, whose plane was shot down “and he was in a camp for a year and they knocked out all his teeth.” Jessica’s grandfather, meanwhile, “flew planes and he dropped bombs and he wrote poems about it, too. And he said it would be just little dots of people falling over. He didn’t like doing that because he could just see people falling but he didn’t know which side they were on. They just kept falling down.” As Loewen (1995) notes, there is an important distinction between history held in living memory and history beyond the memory of anyone living. For these children the connection was even more immediate. Those who held significant parts of the past in living memory were in personal communication with the students. They provided both their own interpretations of the past and commentary on the interpretations of others. They could claim—and children could believe—that this firsthand knowledge was more accurate than any public report (and it may well have been). As a result, official interpretations of these events were not the only or even most significant interpretation available to the students. The Depression was distant enough that they seemed to trust that with a little more study they could understand it. Vietnam was immediate enough that they were less sure of what they might learn. As Isabella explained, “I want to know how it was started and why some of the best people were against it. I mean like to me, I want to know why they were against the Vietnamese people.”


Even within the wider culture, the public history of Vietnam is still in process. As Kammen (1991) notes, books, films, and other media are creating “a new mythology in which the U.S. government disappears as a devastating force, the Vietnamese people cease to be victims, and the principal focus of concern becomes psychic stress for those veterans who survived” (p. 657). We might add that the antiwar movement also disappears except as a footnote explaining hostility toward veterans. Little wonder then, that the students in our study wanted to know why protesters “were against the Vietnamese people,” and were confused about what help the Vietnamese people sought.

CONCLUSIONS


While the past and its attendant traditions can be interesting in their own right, history serves functions beyond antiquarian interests. History matters politically. By directing attention to real or imagined connections between past and present, history is invoked to legitimate the social order, to bind otherwise disparate people together, or to rally support for social change. Thus the political and social values of a people are shaped by their sense of history—by the official history commemorated in various ways in the society and by the vernacular histories that explain alternative social realities. Such social uses of the past were apparent in the responses of the students in this research.


Most students described little difference between official and vernacular histories. They began with the assumption that the “grand contributions” outlined in the Bill of Bights were worth preserving and sharing. While they recognized that “vicious crimes” had been committed, they did not think that this threatened the legitimacy of their unifying framework. Rather, they saw the Bill of Rights as the vehicle whereby crimes against civil rights could be minimized and inclusion in public memory and public participation maximized. Using this inclusive framework, they ascribed significance to those things that integrated groups and individuals into the “ongoing political structure—the public sphere—with its attendant schedule of benefits and rewards" (Elshtain, 1981, p. 228).


Next to this unifying and legitimating framework, however, students maintained an alternative story in which private prejudices and, sometimes, public policies worked against inclusion and thwarted the promise of the Bill of Rights. All students knew from personal experience that prejudice existed despite the ideal of equality, that sexism existed despite the extension of political rights, and that some events could not be reconciled with images of progress. Unfortunately, they had no overarching framework to help them make sense of these things. This should not be surprising. The complexity of America’s heritage in regard to race, gender, labor, and economics—all elements in the issues that most confused the students—provides a challenge to adults as well. In addition, neither official nor vernacular history provided most students with a coherent framework for understanding the place of dissent or-protest in American history. All students appeared to accept the legitimacy of the dissent and protest that culminated in the American Revolution, and African-American students had a richer vernacular history that included such elements in the more recent past, but overall, students were less knowledgeable about or comfortable with other forms of civil dissent. Nonetheless, students of all racial groups maintained faith in the image of an idea of expanding rights and progress. They were reasonably confident that Americans could (and should) more fully realize these aspirations, although they sometimes doubted that things would ever be “perfect. ” They also expressed interest in exactly those areas of ambiguity that most confused them-and with which they had the least experience in school.


In different contexts student responses might have focused more on these ambiguities. If students had perceived themselves to be part of distinct ethnic groups, for example, their responses might have emphasized more strongly the experiences of those groups. Such collective historical identities can be emotionally powerful (Asher, Goodwin, Genishi, & Woo, 1997). Our students, however, frequently identified themselves as belonging to multiple ethnic groups—Cherokee and African America-n, Native American and Irish, and so on. To some extent then, our students’ self-identifications reflected the complex and overlapping nature of American identity. In addition, students’ discussions might have been different if the interviewers’ backgrounds had been different—or had been perceived by students to be. Our ethnicity, age, or relationship to their schools or their teachers might have influenced students’ responses. Similarly, results might have varied in more homogeneous groups, or in groups with both genders. Although we did group students by gender and grade level, we did not attempt to group them by ethnicity, class, or any other characteristic. Working with groups of different composition might have yielded different results. In some cases, for example, students might have been more likely to bring up examples of historical omissions. Yet even in these relatively heterogeneous groups, students expressed interest in the gaps they perceived in their historical knowledge.


These historical omissions in the curriculum are significant, for schools participate in creating public memory whether they intend to or not. From our perspective, it is not the task of teachers to transmit official history Uncritically—nor to celebrate vernacular history uncritically—but to help children discover history that is useful and relevant to their lives. History of this kind can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the perception of progress (like that shared by the students in our study) provides an image of hope for the future, but it often ignores both current scholarship and long-standing problems and thus teaches “the mistaken lesson of complacency” (Cmiel, 1994).9 An emphasis on the lack of progress, on the other hand, can slip into “a steady corrosive cynicism” that may leave students unable and unwilling to use the “grand contributions” to demand redress for the “vicious crimes.” Appiah and Gutmann (1996) note that “those of us who have been disappointed by this nation’s repeated unwillingness to extend the promise of democracy and freedom to blacks and other racial minorities must never lose faith in this flawed system that nevertheless. remains . . . better than all the available alternatives” (pp. 28-29). The challenge, it seems to us, is to introduce students to the richer complexities of the past within a context that provides some framework for making critical sense out of both legitimating stories and alternative, vernacular histories—and to decide for themselves whether “this flawed system” is better than the available alternatives or not.


One way of helping students grapple with alternatives is by directly exposing them to the complexity and diversity of perspectives that have always existed. Schools should avoid reinforcing simplistic perceptions of historic events in which people work together in a happy consensus to bring about freedom, equality, and opportunity. Students would be less confused about Vietnam if they knew that many colonists opposed the American Revolution, that the Civil War prompted draft riots in the North, or that returning World War II soldiers faced hostility and discrimination. Students’ understanding of history would be more complete if they knew that the past has been characterized by dissent as well as consensus, setbacks as well as advances, restriction of opportunity as well as expansion. If they remain unaware of such complexity in the distant past, then it is hardly surprising that they have difficulty making sense of history within living memory—history in which the complexity has not yet been filtered out.


In particular, controversial issues that are within the living memory of children and of the people with whom they come in contact present important opportunities for historical inquiry (Hunt & Metcalf, 1955). Students can test (and contest) accounts of the living past against their own experience as well as the experiences of others whom they know. With careful teacher facilitation, they can begin to recognize the omissions or inclusions that mark an account as representing a particular perspective. In addition, they can begin to think about the ways in which present circumstances influence the interpretation of the past (Megill, 1995). This is not to say that historical interpretations should be free of constraints; they still must take into account the available resources. The choice of resources, however, and the meanings accorded those resources are shaped by “the viewpoint of the present” (Megill, 1995, p. 164).


The “viewpoint of the present” is perhaps most obvious to students as they encounter history that is still part of living memory and whose interpretation is not fixed in the school canon. The interpretive ambiguity surrounding these topics spurred genuine interest among the students in our study. In addition, history that begins where students already have questions about interpretation is certainly a more authentic experience with historical inquiry than concocted exercises aimed at rediscovering traditional interpretations of the more distant past (cf. Seixas, 1993a). Although few school districts in the United States include twentieth-century history as part of the formal curriculum prior to about eleventh grade, a further advantage of such study is that the sources available for the investigation of current controversies are varied and relatively accessible—photographs, films, television news, and oral history, as well as textual sources that rely on relatively contemporaneous language.


Recognition of complexity would not only make students’ understanding of history more complete; it would also make it make useful. Several studies have shown that students believe a major purpose of history is to learn lessons from the past-particularly to avoid mistakes that have been made before (Barton, 1995; Seixas, 1994; VanSledright, 1997). Students in this study were no exception: They believed there were lessons to be learned from historic events, even when they were not quite sure what those lessons were. But inaccurate, simplistic, or over-generalized history is unlikely to provide many lessons for the present; or more to the point, such history is likely to provide highly misleading “lessons.” Public policy debates often include discussion of purported historical antecedents, and such discussions are frequently based on beliefs about the past that are lacking in evidence—or contradicted by it (Coontz, 1992). We have all heard that social disorder began with the end of school prayer, that students were on grade level when reading was taught by phonics, that children were happy and healthy before women entered the workforce. The incompleteness of such historical perceptions leads to highly simplistic policy recommendations with little chance of success. Students who have a more complete understanding of the past may be able to avoid such oversimplified “lessons” and to base their decisions about public issues on a firmer historical foundation.


There is, then, a communal investment in the critical examination of both official and vernacular history. Students in a democracy cannot uncritically accept the received wisdom of the past nor be kept ignorant of the ambiguities of the present. As Richard Nixon once said, “When information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them, and—eventually—incapable of determining their own destinies” (quoted in Loewen, 1995, p. 232). Avoiding history that is within the living memory of children and of the people with whom they come in contact means that neither official nor vernacular history is likely to be critically examined, and that students will be left with inadequate intellectual tools with which to examine the constantly shifting uses of history in their lives. By making questions of significance an explicit part of their instruction, on the other hand, teachers can provide a forum for student talk about history and a framework for making sense out of these different images of the past (Levstik & Barton, 1997; Seixas, 1991). To the extent that they do so, history can become a compelling part of the curriculum and an important part of children’s civic education.


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This study was funded in funded by the Kentucky Institute on Education Reform, University of Kentucky. The authors would like to thank Lynne Smith, Carol Hill, and Missy Myers for their invaluable assistance during this project, and Catherine Cornbleth and Bruce VanSledright for their insightful comments on an earlier version of the paper.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 99 Number 3, 1998, p. 478-513
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10274, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:08:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Keith Barton
    Teachers College, Columbia University
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  • Linda Levstik
    University of Kentucky

 
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