What should our schools teach about American history?

Here’s what our schools should teach our children about US history: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Schools should teach students what happened, with special attention, whenever possible, to primary sources.

K­–12 schools should not indoctrinate students into notions favored by various factions in contemporary popular or highbrow culture: America is the best or the worst, always right or always wrong, God’s chosen vessel or whatever the opposite may be of that. None of that belongs in our curriculum. Teachers should, in age-appropriate ways, teach all that has been done here, omitting no significant elements, hiding nothing, sugar-coating nothing.

Schools should form good citizens, and forming good citizens includes fostering patriotism. You form patriots by letting students see all that has been done and form their own judgments about what was just and good and glorious, what was unjust and evil and shameful. Real history has both. Trust them to make the right judgments. They will.

Teach what the great heroes of American history have done, but don’t insult the students by presuming they need to be told they are heroes. By also means also teach the injustices that have been wrought, but again, don’t insult students by presuming that they need to be told in each case “that was bad.” They will know. Leave them free to form their own resolve to imitate the heroes and not the villains.

When students are entrusted with the whole truth, they will know they must find their own way forward carefully, because it is their responsibility to further the beauty and goodness, heal the injustices, and shake off the besetting sins. You don’t create patriots by teaching ideologically determined mythology in place of history, lies in place of truth. Teach truth. Form students into people who insist on truth, know when they are being fed untruth, and know how to handle the truth when it is uncomfortable.

Whatever you do, do not teach students that whatever their country does is right. If you do that, they will become people who believe that whatever they do is right just because of who they are. People who believe that are morally stunted, at risk of becoming perpetrators of great harm.

This summer I spent several hours on two days reading in the new textbook chosen by our teachers and others for our high school US history course. They chose well. That book, which rigorously avoids either blaming or praising the people whose deeds it narrates, leaves space within which your children can apply to the facts of our history the morals and ideals you have inculcated in them. That book can help teachers teach, and students learn, US history truthfully.

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