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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why it makes no sense to teach history. "The Appomattox Myth"

I frequently write and speak about why “subjects” need to be eliminated from the school curriculum. While there are those that hate it when I say we need to get rid of algebra, many people do understand. But, almost universally, when I say we need to get rid of history, everyone objects. This is especially true in Europe where people are often extremely upset about my distaste for the teaching of history.

As it happens, today is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War in the U.S.  The New York Times has a lovely article that is worth reading about the myths we have been taught about this.  

A sample of this article:

In the ensuing celebration, a relieved Grant told his men, “The war is over.”

But Grant soon discovered he was wrong. Not only did fighting continue in pockets for weeks, but in other ways the United States extended the war for more than five years after Appomattox. Using its war powers to create freedom and civil rights in the South, the federal government fought against a white Southern insurgency that relied on murder and intimidation to undo the gains of the war.

And yet the “Appomattox myth” persisted, and continues today. By severing the war’s conflict from the Reconstruction that followed, it drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation. It also fosters a national amnesia about what wars are and how they end, a lacuna that has undermined American postwar efforts ever since.

History consists of some very nice stories.Telling them to children makes very little sense unless it sparks a discussion of how you can know what is true and how you can find out what is true. But, of course, in school, history just leads to a test with questions like:

Who did Lee surrender to at Appomattox?


Tim McClung said...

A perfect example of why it makes no sense to teach history the way it is being taught. Marion Brady has an excellent book that he has been trying to get teachers to look at that reinforces your point. Wonder what you think of his approach?

cassandra said...

Roger, just because history is currently taught badly, does not mean it should not be taught. I point you to your article about teaching students to think "rigorously." History, taught well, is not merely the imparting of "stories" or the regurgitation of dates/events. It is the interpretation of different types of data to draw conclusions. Those conclusions, yes, may be presented in the form of stories. But as I know you know (as the author of a book called "Tell Me a Story"), stories are a very compelling way to learn things.