Making history classrooms safe for democracy

IS it a paradox? Historian Paul Gagnon says it isn't. It is possible in the 1980s for a college professor to be a ``Hubert Humphrey liberal'' and still agree with the educational ideas of ``Ronald Reagan conservatives.''

Dr. Gagnon, chairman of the history department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, should know. He's the author of an already-influential new study of high school world history books that most conservatives - and many liberals - just love. Titled ``What Must Be Taught,'' and published by the Education for Democracy Project, it closely examines the coverage each period of history is given - from the Greeks to the present - in the most popular history books. ``It's the best kind of analysis we've seen,'' says Harriett Tyson, a noted textbook expert.

These textbooks do not offer insight, coherence, or a framework for critical thought, Gagnon says. Themes, such as the important difference between the French and American Revolutions, or the issues surrounding appeasement of the Nazis in 1939, do not appear.

Instead, he found a ``jumble'' of ideas and events with nothing to tie them together. ``Relying on these books alone,'' Gagnon writes, ``teachers cannot teach, and students cannot grasp, the compelling story of peoples' struggles for freedom, self-government, and justice on earth.''

Gagnon argues for educators and publishers to write more narrow, ``realistic and unsentimental'' studies of other cultures and political systems. And, he says, since many students take only one year of world history, the course should focus on the evolution of democracy as the guiding principle of history in the West.

Such ideas raise the hackles of current educational orthodoxies. They challenge a generation of social studies teachers who feel that white, middle-class youths need strong doses of non-Western culture and that ethnic minorities need their own cultures reinforced. Gagnon's ideas are ethnocentric and elitist, they say.

Gagnon claims he's not grinding ideological axes. His concern (and later, dismay) over the way history is taught in America came about through his own field - French history. In French schools, history is taught as a four-year continuum. ``The French have a long history of class envy,'' Gagnon says in an interview at his office. ``There, it's the liberal-left, the Socialists, who want a common core of history taught. Equal access to knowledge for all children is one of their biggest demands. Elections have hinged on it.''

He's vexed at the charge of ethnocentrism. ``Political literacy - what I'm arguing for - isn't an ethnic question,'' he says. It's even more important in America that all students achieve such literacy: ``Not all students today have a common cultural history. But they do have a common political history. And that's what we need to teach.''

As for elitism, Gagnon acknowledges the point. Social, cultural, and local history are all important and interesting, he says. But one can teach only so much in a year. ``What difference does it make if you know how the common people in 1907 ate and dressed if in 10 years 20 million of them would be killed? Do you spend class time on the origins of World War I or on the cultural styles in Paris?

Unlike some educational conservatives, Gagnon does not ask for democratic history to be parceled out sanctimoniously as a treasure-trove of golden moments from the past. He argues for a usable history: ``If more people knew that the US economy in the 19th century was growing rapidly as a result of unbelievably favorable conditions, there might be less nonsense heard today about the Philippine people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.''

A focus on democratic process yields other insights. Even in the three most historically important democracies - the United States, France, and Great Britain - it took at least 80 years to develop fully, Gagnon says. Democracy in the US wasn't complete until after the Civil War. In France, it wasn't until the 1880s. Even in the best circumstances, ``change takes time.'' If we knew that well enough, we wouldn't expect ``the kind of overnight change we hear demanded of political systems in Korea, the Philippines, and South Africa,'' he says.

Finally, Gagnon is uncomfortable with the idea that ``underclass'' children aren't interested in, or capable of learning, the origins of democracy. He also derides educators' arguments that students today can't follow discussions of human nature or of good and evil.

``You hear that the current generation doesn't talk about these things. Well, I hear kids talk about them all the time! And I have a generally confident view, based on experience, of what students can understand. I'm more optimistic even than Jefferson! If you strip the curriculum of its obscurantist tendencies, you draw in the kids that could be interested.''

Gagnon's work is aimed mainly at teachers. It's part of a long-term effort by the Education for Democracy Project, a coalition of leading American educators and citizens, to upgrade ``political literacy.'' Education for Democracy will hold a series of curriculum development sessions for teachers this fall in Washington, D.C.

``What Must Be Taught'' is available from the American Federation of Teachers, 555 New Jersey Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20001.

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