An Interview with Alan J. Singer: Are there People Slanting American History ? (and if so, what can we do about it?)

Apr 10, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Singer, I hear a lot about the Common Core, and some, let me use a few different words—watering down, dumbing down, or slanting of American History. Am I off on this?

Publishers and curriculum developers are racing to align social studies lessons with new national Common Core literacy standards<http://www.pearsonschool.com/index.cfm?locator=PSZv5y&PMDBSUBCATEGORYID=35941&PMDBSITEID=2781&PMDBSUBSOLUTIONID=&PMDBSOLUTIONID=6724&PMDBSUBJECTAREAID=&PMDBCATEGORYID=34201&PMDbProgramID=81586>.

Most are clearly motivated by financial incentives — they want to sell textbooks, workshops, and online packages to school districts anxious to comply with new demands.

I started out very critical of common core but my position has changed as I have talked more with teachers, both social studies teachers and teachers in other content areas. My main concern has always been that the national common core standards place such a great stress on skill acquisition that there is no emphasis on what is important to know and why in history or in biology or in any of the other content area subjects. I recommend that teachers “turn common core on its head.”

They should use the standards as guidelines for instruction and integrate the skills component systematically into lessons, units, and curricula. Students graduating from high school should be able to comfortably read The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. They should be able to analyze charts, graphs, and political cartoons. They should be able to read a speech and assess its validity. But they also have to have an understanding of major historical themes and historical context so they can understand issues and dissect primary source documents. When Colin Powell spoke at the United Nations justifying the U.S. invasion of Iraq I had high school students read the text of his speech, follow it on television, and look at the images he presented as evidence so they could debate whether he actually proved his case. I tried to construct my lesson so there could be real disagreement in class and actual debate.

Common Core is at its best when students in a class can arrive at different positions while analyzing the same material.

2) Now, tell us about this Gilder Lehrman organization and what they purport in the name of history.

At it’s worst, or when misapplied, Common Core has students doing careful reading of primary source documents without providing them with an adequate background or with alternative viewpoints that would support real analysis. I believe the lesson developed by the director of education for the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History on what they call the “First Emancipation,” emancipation of enslaved Africans in some Northern States following the American Revolution, was actually driven by ideological motives.

Gilder Lehrman is selling a point of view about history based on what they see as the uniqueness of the United States and its institutions. In their view, although slavery was bad the U.S. should be commended for ending it. In this lesson they call the end of slavery in the United States inevitable because of the ideals of the American Revolution. But there are two serious problems with the lesson.

First, and for me the most important, they provide documents for student evaluation that do not make it possible for students to arrive at a different opinion, for example, that the end of slavery in the United States was not inevitable because of the growth of the Cotton Kingdom as a source of raw material for northern and European industries.

But second, the documents they selected are not really related to the topic. Many of them address British law and actions that were moot after the Revolution. Unfortunately, the lesson is both bad teaching and bad history.

3) Can history simply be taught by reading primary and secondary sources? Do I need to go back and read the Magna Carta to understand British history?

If you only read the Magna Carta, you will be missing most of British history. The Magna Carta only granted rights to the most powerful nobles. The rest of Britain had to struggle for centuries to secure rights, and they were never inevitable. History is complex, in fact the most important lesson for students to understand is its complexity. Taking one document out of context and saying everything flowed from this undermines what we are trying to teach students and the core of common core.

4) Let’s take a very important piece of American History (at least in my mind)–Common Sense by Thomas Paine. What are some of the antecedents and surrounding events that need to be understood in order to grasp Paine’s message?

“Common Sense” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Sense_%28pamphlet%29) was published in January 1776 and it is a tremendously influential document, but it was not the cause of the American Revolution. The revolution had already begun (http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/revwartimeline.htm): the Boston Tea Party was in December 1773; the first Continental Congress met in September 1774; the Battles of Lexington and Concord were in April 1775; and there were battles in the Southern states in December 1775. In his “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!” speech in Virginia in March 1775, Patrick Henry declared, “The war is actually begun!

The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field!” (http://www.law.ou.edu/ushistory/henry.shtml). What Paine and “Common Sense” did was helped to persuade Americans that the revolution had to be a war for independence, something I think the British were already doing very effectively.

5) Who is this Anthony Napoli, and would you consider him to be an objective, fair, neutral, impartial historian?

I do not know Mr. Napoli personally and teachers who have been in his workshops report that he is a very effective classroom teacher (http://hnn.us/node/30221). My problem is with these lessons. I do not consider the lessons objective, fair, neutral, or impartial.

6) Let’s talk a large leap, and pick on the book Mein Kempf by Adolf Hitler- what would reading that book tell students about the causes of the Second World War?

A fair question. Mein Kempf was published in 1925 and 1926. Hitler and the Nazi Party take power in Germany in 1933. World War II started in September 1939. The Wannsee Conference where the “final solution” was planned was in January 1942. I do not know any historian who argues that the publication of Mein Kempf made the extermination of six million European Jews inevitable.

7) In your mind, should history be perhaps introduced in elementary grades, elaborated upon in middle school and then explored in depth in high school? ( with or without primary sources)?

In New York State, we call this idea the “expanding horizons curriculum,” an approach that I support. It is based on three principles:

(1) young children learn about the world by examining ever larger “circles” or “communities,” and by comparing what they find with what they already know about themselves and their social relationships (e.g., self | family | school | neighborhood | city | state | nation | world);

(2) as students mature intellectually and socially, they will discover new meaning and develop enhanced skills by reexamining familiar topics; and

(3) to prepare students for life in a multicultural society and world, social studies curricula must examine the history and cultures of a broad spectrum of people and civilizations. From kindergarten through third grade, the New York State social studies curriculum moves from self to family, school, community, and world community, as children compare the similarities and differences among people and cultures. U.S. history is formally introduced in Grade 4, and is studied in greater depth in Grades 7 and 8 and again in Grade 11. World history, divided into the history of the western hemisphere and the eastern hemisphere, is introduced in Grades 5 and 6 and is studied in greater depth in Grades 9 and 10. The U.S. government and its political and economic systems are explored in Grade 12.

8) While ” slavery and the emancipation ” are often listed as causes of the Civil War- in the minds of many historians, it was the bombing of Fort Sumter that started the shooting, while in the mind of others, it was the book ” Uncle Tom’s Cabin ” ( not exactly a primary source by any means ). Your thoughts on this?

A major concept in social studies is the difference between underlying and immediate causes. While the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter was definitely an immediate cause of the American Civil War, there were several underlying causes pulling the sections apart. The expansion of slavery in the south with the development of the cotton gin and the expansion of cotton production and the gradual end of slavery in the north were definitely underlying causes. I argue that what precipitated the constitutional crisis leading to civil war was the admission of California into the union as a free state in 1850. It ended the carefully constructed balance between free and slave states in the United States Senate.

Another underlying cause was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850. It set the stage for increased abolitionist resistance to slavery and inflamed southerners who felt that the northern states were looking the other way as abolitionists broke the law.

9) We may need to continue this conversation as more about THE SLANTING OF THE COMMON CORE OF HISTORY comes to pass. But what are your main concerns?

As a social studies teacher, a teacher educator, a historian, and a parent, grandparent, and citizen, I want students to understand the complexity of the world in which we live. This requires content knowledge and conceptual understanding, not just the acquisition of skills. If we sacrifice understanding for skills building and test prep, we risk losing any possibility of developing an educated citizenry.

Alan Singer is Director, Secondary Education Social Studies Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership. He can be reached at 128 Hagedorn Hall, 119 Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY 11549

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