The Memory Hole: The U.S. History Curriculum Under Siege
reviewed by J. Spencer Clark & Stephanie Speicher - December 15, 2014
Title: The Memory Hole: The U.S. History Curriculum Under Siege
Author(s): Fritz Fischer
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623965322, Pages: 204, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com
As we write this review, students and teachers in Colorado schools are protesting politically charged proposals that intend to revise the history curriculum in their courses. In The Memory Hole: The U. S. History Curriculum Under Siege, Fritz Fischer focuses on several historical topics that illustrate these sorts of movements, which seek to revise the history curriculum in K-12 schools for political purposes. More importantly, he uses the politicization of these topics to promote a focus on teaching historical thinking skills (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Lesh, 2011; Seixas, 1993;Wineburg, 2001) as a way for students and teachers to negotiate the politicized history curriculum in schools. Through his examples, Fisher provides a strong case for engaging students in the work of historians for the purpose of developing their own perspectives on historical actors and events. Discussions and debates about skills versus content in the history curriculum, like in Colorado, are happening in many states, especially in light of the Common Core Standards and the new A.P. US History framework. Thus, Fischers book is very relevant to most recent curriculum conflicts in social studies and history education.
Fischer focuses his chapters on topics and concepts commonly taught in American history courses, and the ways in which these topics have been revised for political purposes. This, in combination with its relevance to current curricular debates, situates the book as an extremely valuable resource for any social studies or history teacher. Fischer provides teachers with guidance on reflecting on the political lenses emphasized in their curricular materials. Specifically, Fischer examines topics such as the founding fathers and evangelical Christianity, robber barons, American exceptionalism, America in the 1950s or the Golden Age, American imperialism, and Ronald Regan. In each chapter, Fischer provides a balanced assessment for teachers by identifying the ways in which the topic has been adapted to either conservative or liberal political purposes, as well as the ways in which these adaptations are problematic. The balanced assessment provides teachers several perspectives to consider as they reexamine their curriculum and teaching.
Fischers book is also valuable to all social studies and history educators because it highlights the value of focusing on skills, specifically historical thinking skills. By illustrating the ways in which these aforementioned topics have been adapted for political purposes, Fischer is making a case against narrowly inculcating K-12 students with problematic historical content; however, every historical text is developed through interpretation, and could thus be considered narrow and politically charged by someone else. Since interpretation and the politics of historical perspective are inevitable and difficult to avoid, Fischer argues that engaging students in their own historical inquiry, interpretation, analysis, and argumentation is the only way to ensure historical texts are not inculcating students with problematic politicized views of history.
We acknowledge Fischers diagnosis of teachers desire for an easy answer to a contemporary or modern problem premised in the past, but we believe a variety of stakeholders (teacher educators, district curriculum specialists, school boards) would all have benefitted from a deeper discussion of this issue in the book. In the concluding chapters, Fischer hints that teachers of history curriculum will require courage. So, is it courage that is needed to navigate the waters of political influence on schools? We believe teachers need courage to ask difficult questions, particularly to be aware of whos truth is being delivered and who is silenced by a particular interpretation of the past and present. The ability to see curriculum through the big picture will encourage students to look deeply into history and serve as a catalyst towards a more balanced approach to teaching history in our classrooms.
Fischer also highlights a struggle in the history of social studies and history education over the curriculum. This book would thus be valuable to teacher educators and pre-service teachers because pre-service social studies and history teachers need to understand the political nature of their profession. They need to be aware of the political climate of the communities in which they will be teaching, and the implications for their curriculum and teaching. More importantly pre-service teachers need to be able to critically assess the curriculum materials that their district or school has assigned them, as well as the types of knowledge and perspectives that are valued by their colleagues, administrators, parents, and other educational stakeholders as they seek professional acceptance (Clark, 2013). Fischer provides excellent examples and models of productive ways for all social studies and history educators to think about and negotiate politicized historical content.
While we agree with Fischer that an emphasis on skills would possibly lessen the political inculcation of students through history content, we would like to consider how this would affect the marginalized voices in the curriculum. We worry that a focus on skills and strictly on the historical method, or just doing history for historys sake, would forego any social aim in studying history. While we want students to learn the skills that historians utilize, we also want them to be able to apply what they learn to the present day as democratic citizens. The anti-historians on both sides may be problematic in their interpretations, but they offer much for historical inquiry. Without historians like Howard Zinn, it might not be possible for students or teachers to make connections between social justice, political structures, and historical actors agency. More importantly, without the work of Howard Zinn many marginalized voices may have remained in the margins, while the current work in history education that is grounded in the historical method and focused on marginalized voices would not be valued or even read today. Our point is that while these politically-charged perspectives may be troubling and/or problematic, they represent the times, and provide sparks that will result in work to either further validate or disprove the foundational works of people like Howard Zinn. This is the work of Historians, and in a way, these perspectives shift and set boundaries for the historical deliberations that we will witness in the future. Fischer may fear that these shifts and boundaries will be permanent, but history shows us that is rarely the case.
Fischers work helps us think about an important question differently: How do we, as a collective society, provide a balanced and applicable approach to history curriculum in Americas schools? The contested nature of the history curriculum can be seen throughout the history of schooling in the US. The developers of the Common Core learned from past failed attempts to develop national standards and avoided developing separate social studies and history standards, and instead included them in the literacy standards. It is difficult to get communities to agree on the history curriculum, let alone states. The history curriculum is undoubtedly complex, and cannot be reduced to a simple set of lesson plans or action items for the teacher in the reality of their four-walled classroom. Yet, Fischer gives us a glimpse of what is at stake when a teacher simplifies the curriculum or becomes dependent on one particular framing of history (from the left or right): Students are deprived of the ability to contextualize the past. In this way, Fischer reminds us of the importance of encouraging students to ask questions of the context of the past, because it might be instructive in answering the questions of the present.
Fishers lasting message seems to be that we must maintain awareness of how curriculum is being shaped in the classroom; otherwise generations of students will not only have problematic understandings of US History, but also problematic understandings of what historians do. Each action, each decision, each utterance has an impact on the course of history and the course of our society. Fischers book provides a basis to maintain awareness in US History and other social studies subject areas. More importantly, Fischers work raises questions for future authors to do similar work in other social studies content areas. For example, a deep examination would probably find that our world history content is also being politicized in certain ways to shape American students worldview. If we believe that teaching history contributes to the development of future US and world citizens, then we must remain vigilant in our critical analysis of the curriculum.
Barton, K. C., & Levstik, L. S. (2004). Teaching history for the common good. Routledge.
Clark, J. S. (2013). Your credibility could be shot: Preservice teachers thinking about nonfiction graphic novels, Curriculum Decision Making, and Professional Acceptance. The Social Studies, 104(1), 38-45.
Lesh, B. (2011). " Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer?": Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12. Stenhouse Publishers.
Seixas, P. (1993). Historical understanding among adolescents in a multicultural setting. Curriculum Inquiry, 23(3), 301-327.
Wineburg, S. (2001). Historical thinking and other unnatural acts: Charting the future of teaching the past. Temple University Press.