The American history program is once again becoming a political battleground. But what students need to learn is not that America is “great” or bad; is that the story is complicated.

For months, Donald Trump has been attacking the teaching of American history, accusing in a recent speech that schools have become agents of “left indoctrination”. Rather than the “twisted web of lies” promulgated by teachers, he said, American history has been “an unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, guaranteed civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the fairest, most equal and most prosperous nation in the history of mankind. He announced that the National Endowment for the Humanities “has awarded a grant to support the development of a pro -american ”and that he plans to create“ a national commission to promote patriotic education ”.

As evidence of indoctrination, Trump cited Project 1619, an initiative of The New York Times which places slavery at the center of American history and serves as the basis for a curriculum-in the same way critical race theory and Howard Zinn widely used A popular history of the United States, first published in 1980.

Those who remember the 1990s may feel like they’ve seen this movie before – or some version of it. At the time, the triggering event, in 1994, was the publication of national standards for the teaching of history that could be adopted voluntarily by states. Coincidentally funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the standards were developed by an independent organization. The historian who helped lead the effort, Gary Nash, believed– no doubt like many other academic historians – that it was just as important for students to know that George Washington was a slave owner as that he was a great leader.

Standards came under immediate attack, mainly from the right. Lynne Cheney, who headed the NEH when the scholarship was awarded, accused that the finished product reflected “unqualified admiration for politically correct people, places and events” and contempt for the achievements of the United States. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh claims the standards would teach students that America was “a rotten place” where “they don’t stand a chance”. Just like Trump tried to link teaching history to city riots, Limbaugh predicted that if the standards were implemented, the result would be “a bunch of sour people who would grow up, steal, and turn to crime.” After months of controversy, the US Senate condemned the standards with a single dissenting vote.

Trump seems to have chosen the teaching of history as a problem to rally his base. No doubt we will hear more speeches like the one he gave last week, as well as arguments from the other side. Here are a few things to remember.

The federal government – or any government entity – has little control over the content of history teaching. In the United States, the curriculum is a local matter, largely defined by school districts with varying degrees of state control or direction. At the elementary level, it is not uncommon for individual teachers to function without any defined study program. But even with a theoretically compulsory curriculum, teachers often have a great deal of autonomy over which historical topics to cover and which texts to use.

The Conservatives may have won the battle over historical standards in 1994, but so far they have lost the war: the approach they opposed has only spread and become entrenched. In particular, it’s hard to overstate the influence of Zinn’s book, which aims to tell the story of American history “from the bottom up.” With around three million copies sold, it is widely used in high schools and colleges. According to Stanford history teaching professor Sam Wineburg, he appears on college reading lists in a range of courses, especially those for prospective teachers, where it is sometimes the only history book in the program. If teachers’ views on American history have been shaped by Zinn’s book, it’s no surprise that they choose to use it with their own students.

The story must be presented in all its complexity. Over-simplification is a problem at both ends of the political spectrum. Those who would like to portray American history as a virtuous march of progress are clearly missing a lot. But so do those who focus narrowly on the country’s failures – and for many historians, including some on the left, Zinn falls into that category.

Wineburg argued that, like standard history textbooks, A popular story ignores information that does not conform to his argument and ends up substituting “one monolithic reading of the past for another”. historian Michael Kazin, a pillar of the left, To called it is the “bad story” which “reduces the past to a Manichean fable”. Even the New York Times review from the cover of the book, written by Eric Foner, called him “deeply pessimistic” and “as limited in its own way as the story from top to bottom”.

Like Wineburg observed, students need a context to understand the story. For example, they need to know that people in the past maybe attached totally different meanings to the words we still use. They should also learn that historical figures are rarely all good or bad. (Obviously, there are exceptions; the fact that Hitler loved his dog doesn’t need to be pointed out.) It can start early. I’ve seen second-graders grapple with the news that Andrew Jackson was the two the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and a driving force behind the Trail of Tears.

The basic problem now is that the students don’t have a knowledge of history, period.. The proof is Everything around us– and it’s not just the students. Even the man who holds the highest office in the land has demonstrated a shocking ignorance of history.

One reason is widespread contempt among educators for facts, including historical facts – dates, places, events. Better, it is thought, to teach children to “think like a historian. “But historians can think the way they do because they have a huge amount of factual information stored in their brains. Certainly, history shouldn’t. to finish with factual knowledge, but if not understand students are unlikely to come away with any real understanding of this.

Another problem is the almost no history in the elementary classes, and sometimes also in the middle classes. Many students arrive in high school without ever having been systematically exposed to historical subjects. As I’ve seen for myself, this, combined with a general unfamiliarity with academic written language, can make it extremely difficult for them to read and understand any high school history text, including Zinn’s, which is much more engaging than most. While trying to teach a tenth grader who had been assigned a chapter in the book, I found that the only way she could understand the few paragraphs we were focusing on was to rephrase them in extremely language. simple. If teachers need to provide oral summaries — or use the ““young” version of the book, which also happens in some high schools – the result is a further simplification of an over-simplified version of the story.

The solution: we need to start introducing history from the first years of school and making students understand its complexity. Unfortunately, this cannot be accomplished by decree. The key is to communicate to future teachers that the story is complex, which is not an easy task, and to ensure that once they are in place, they have educational materials that will help them carry this message to the students. students.

This is surely what is happening now for some students, but I fear especially for the minority who are advantaged, like the 16-year-old from a private school who Recount The Washington Post, “I don’t think there is anything so perfect or so bad that we can exclusively love or hate it, especially with something as complex as a country with such a history. convoluted. ” Maybe she could teach the president a thing or two.