Controversy in the History Classroom

The American Historical Association has an online publication called Perspectives on History. I’ve discovered the articles there from scanning the RSS feed of AHA on Google Reader, and became very interested. Although its a cliche to say that engaging students in a history classroom focuses on current events and connections in history, I have always been interested in learning more about what is not taught from our past. Here are a few people who raise interesting perspectives on sex, Darwin, abortion, LBGTQ, and other issues. Here are a few quotes from the articles. All of them can be read here.

Controversy in the Classroom: A Matter for Debate by Pillarisetti Sudhir – “The modern classroom, forged to meet the needs of industrialization, was not meant to be a site for contestations and controversies. From one-room schoolhouses on the prairies of hinterlands to the crowded, redbrick halls of city-center ivory towers, classrooms were mainly locations for the transmission of knowledge. Students were expected, for the most part, to receive the wisdom of their teachers without questioning; and teachers, on their part, were supposed to steer clear of controversial topics. Social and cultural pressures, administrative fiats, parental reactions, and even, at times legislative measures, ensured that for a long time, classrooms, whether in secondary schools or in colleges and universities, remained uncontaminated by debate and controversy (with only the occasional flare-up over such matters as the teaching about Darwinian evolution in a place where it was forbidden by law). This was especially true, perhaps, for history classrooms, as long as the discipline of history itself remained an uncontested terrain. That seemingly happy situation was changed, and changed utterly with the advent of new historiographic perspectives and new histories that, yoked as they were to radical sociopolitical transformations, brought new groups into history books (and classrooms) that had, until then, remained homogenous and anodyne. History, long a subject that induced yawns of ennui and indifference, suddenly became a serious site for controversy, one in which the content of school textbooks became a matter of fierce struggles in locations as distant as India, Japan and Texas, or in which new interpretations of old themes were continually challenged or declared non grata.”


Teaching LBGTQ History: Two Situations by Vicki L. Eaklor – “Too often we historians “ghettoize” experiences of less visible or powerful people into the single lecture or two, but in doing so we reinforce their otherness even as we claim to be inclusive. To mention the debates over Lincoln’s (or Buchanan’s) sexuality, or women who cross-dressed to fight in wars, for example, is to show students something of the complexity of the past, and introduce the arguments over how and why history is done in the first place. I have found students as interested in the uncertainties of history as in yet another recitation of the “facts” they heard in high school.”


Taking the Court into the Classroom: Using Legal Cases to Discuss Controversial Topics by James Coll – “Prayer in public schools? Try Engle v. Vitale. The right to own a gun? Read District of Columbia v. Heller. A march by neo-Nazis in a predominantly Jewish Chicago suburb? Peruse National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie. Abortion rights? Study Roe v. Wade. The powers of the police? Analyze Mapp v. OhioMiranda v. ArizonaTerry v. Ohio, and so on; the list can be quite long.”


Beyond Morality: Teaching about Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide by James Frusetta – “Initially, I had asked students to think about “Why have ethnic cleansings occurred in history?” Now, I reframed this: we would try to answer the question, “Have ethnic cleansings proven useful to their perpetrators?” The intent was not simply to reframe the question in an amoral fashion, but rather to encourage students to think about questions of utility—and how such utility could be stripped away in the future.”

Please feel free to share your thoughts on these articles here.

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