Magazine | October 16, 2017, Issue

History Is for Making Great Citizens

Toward a character-centered approach to teaching our national story

How ought we to teach U.S. history? Well, why do we think young people should learn U.S. history? To avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, or to fill in facts and figures on a mental timeline? Perhaps we, with Tolstoy, look back on history as a fatal wave sweeping along princes and powers willy-nilly. But perhaps the study of history can ennoble and inspire us — if we allow ourselves to meet the great individuals of the past and learn from their choices and characters.

As students troop back to classrooms this year, there’s a teachable moment to be salvaged from our national distemper over public statues of historical figures. Every fight over an image of Christopher Columbus, Robert E. Lee, or Roger B. Taney gives us a chance to discuss whom we remember and whether and how we should honor them. It is easy to set out the stakes: Should we keep up a statue of this explorer, that statesman, those rebel generals? Students should be encouraged to read and think critically about the men and women whose legacies are being debated. There’s an opportunity here to teach rhetoric alongside history: Teachers could open the floor for students to debate the merits of historical figures as role models and civic honorees. And if students argue against a given statue, teachers should ask who else from that figure’s life and times might deserve a statue alongside him — or facing him down.

America’s influential figures can be complex and contradictory. Take, for example, Taney, a Supreme Court justice whose statues were recently whisked away in the middle of the night by officials in Baltimore and Annapolis. Taney was a Marylander and Andrew Jackson crony, the first Catholic in a presidential cabinet and also the first on the Supreme Court. Portraits show him as a gaunt and haggard solon. He’s infamous as the author of the Dred Scott decision, which declared that persons of African descent were not and could not be citizens under the U.S. Constitution. But he was not a Confederate, and indeed was conflicted enough about the morality of slavery that he freed his own slaves and criticized the institution as a “blot on our national character.” Taney administered the oath of office to seven U.S. presidents, including his own fiercest critic, Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, Taney ruled that Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus in Maryland was unconstitutional — only to see Lincoln and his troops ignore that decision.

Does a statue of Taney represent a trailblazing religious minority in the U.S. government, a judge who set back the cause of abolition and whose jurisprudence precipitated the Civil War, or a justice who tried to act as a constitutional check on a wartime president ignoring civil liberties? Whose monument might be raised alongside Taney’s to give us a broader look at this turbulent era of history — perhaps Dred Scott, the slave whose case for emancipation Taney dismissed but who nonetheless died a free man? Here’s where students should be invited to investigate the facts and make their cases.

History needs to look back at us with human faces. If the aim of education is to prepare young people for adult life and civic participation, then young people need to see history as a story of men, women, and the choices they made — not merely a record of trends and impersonal forces. It’s the outsized, history-shaping personalities we encounter who grip us, from hatchet-wielding temperance radical Carrie Nation to Wizard of Tuskegee Booker T. Washington. It’s the people we meet in our study of the past who show us how to shape our own futures. After all, young people can grow up to be great men and women themselves, not to be, say, industrialization.

Museum curators grapple with this challenge as much as teachers do. What they have to display are often physical fragments from the historical period in question — some pottery shards here, some bullet casings there — and while material culture has fascinations of its own, it is not what fires the imagination of the young. They want relics of vivid characters, not cabinets of quotidian curiosities.

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which opened last spring, took this lesson to heart. Its centerpiece is George Washington’s war tent, and the video introducing the artifact casts the tent as a symbol of Washington’s steadfastness and integrity. We hear the famous phrase from Henry Lee’s eulogy for Washington: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” We are reminded of Washington’s stalwartness in the face of a harsh winter in Valley Forge, and of how he defeated the Newburgh conspiracy with deft prop work: Potential coup leaders in the Continental Army were reduced to tears as Washington produced a letter from Congress and said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have grown not only gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

Of course, the “great-man theory” is hardly an unchallenged consensus among educators and curators. But histories written “from below” can introduce us to individuals as well, and men and women who are not remembered with statues can still teach us. The Museum of the American Revolution highlights ordinary people of the era in interactive displays: You can read and listen to commentary and exhortations from loyalist merchants, revolutionary wives, Native Americans weighing whether the Colonies or Great Britain will better protect their interests, and pacifist Quakers refusing to take up arms or even pay taxes to support the war. It’s a canny move to give faces and voices to the non-famous men and women whose choices still shaped the age in which our republic emerged.

Some periods of history must be taught with a kind of “common man as great man” approach. The story of westward expansion and the Homestead Act, for example, finds heroes in ordinary homesteading families. The Great Depression is another event best viewed through the eyes of ordinary Americans struggling to make ends meet. Elementary-school teachers can use classics of children’s literature to make the eras come alive, thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series and Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and its sequels. These books’ fictional (or fictionalized) protagonists serve as representatives of larger cultural moments. But the Ingalls family and the Logan family are not ciphers for “hardy settlers in Kansas” or “victims of racism in Depression-era Mississippi.” They are characters grappling with the moral and practical choices offered by their historical circumstances. The young characters, Laura Ingalls and Cassie Logan, are making choices on the same scale as the young readers themselves (e.g., how to respond to bullying or prejudice), and so teachers can profitably discuss the wisdom of those choices with their students.

From older students, teachers should require more enterprise. The best history class I ever took was a middle-school course on British history and literature that culminated in a night of speeches. Each student was assigned a historical figure (such as Oliver Cromwell or King Charles I) and then composed and delivered a speech in character, drawing from that person’s own writing and contemporary writing about him. In another class with this same teacher, we were instructed to memorize and deliver Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. These were excellent exercises because they created an immediate connection between the student and a great figure from the past rather than requiring students to be passive consumers of history.

If there’s any doubt of the power that person-first history has to inspire interest and passion, then let it be allayed by the success of the Broadway musical Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Even though it takes some liberties with history, the musical captures Alexander Hamilton’s larger-than-life ambition and accomplishments as documented in its source material, Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father. It dramatizes (sometimes in the form of catchy rap battles) the great debates of our early republic between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over national banking and foreign military intervention. And it puts moral choices at the heart of the story, locating its emotional climax in the unmerited forgiveness Hamilton receives from his betrayed wife, Eliza. As I wrote in First Things, Hamilton posits that “our leaders require not only vision and drive, but also strength of character — and that quality, the show suggests, entails humble contrition, repentance after sin, and receptivity to forgiveness. Great Americans must be open to the still, small voice of grace.”

In sum, we should teach history with an eye to forming responsible citizens, partly by emphasizing character in two senses: the great individuals who shaped U.S. history, and the virtues and vices they displayed. Such teaching aims to instill in students a love of this country and an appreciation of the men and women who shaped its story — and, with any luck, to help them become men and women who can keep shaping it for the better.

– Mr. Sargeant is a theater director and culture critic based in New York. He is working on a U.S.-history teacher’s supplement for Great Hearts, a nonprofit network of public charter schools with a classical liberal-arts curriculum.

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