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Knowing & Learning History: Article Reviews Chapter 15: Linda S. Levstik

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Knowing & Learning History: Article Reviews
Chapter 15: Linda S. Levstik. Articulating the Silences Teachers’ and Adolescents Conceptions of Historical Significance.
Politics and history education are undeniably intertwined. Preparing to teach Social Studies, one must be aware of the political and social implications that history has on the student population and larger society on the whole. Author Linda Levstik's article, Articulating the Silences seeks to explain some of the fundamental problems of social studies in terms of its one-sided narratives and offers some solutions to fix this problem within our curriculum. This review begins with a summary of the article’s key points and concludes with how the contents of this article relates to preparations for teaching social studies at the secondary level.

Levstik’s article begins with an assertion that every nation must make important decisions when considering what events are historically significant and which must be cast aside as less important. She cites the work on Gerstle who notes ‘nationalism demands that boundaries against outsiders be draw, that a dominant national culture be created or reinvigorated, and that internal and external opponents of the national project be subdued, nationalized, vanquished, and even excluded or repelled.’ The very nature of nationalistic behavior has led the American history curriculum and textbooks to promote a single white European narrative.

Without alternative narratives, controversial historical events that challenge the themes of progress and expanded rights cannot be discussed. The problems that occur when history is discussed as a single narrative affect students from all backgrounds. The first is that alternative narratives or perspectives are mystified when they are left out and this mystification often leads to ethnic minority stereotypes and misconceptions. Levstik cites research that ethnic minority students are disenfranchised when history is discussed this way and are more likely to believe history as a discipline is inaccurate and irrelevant to their lives in the present. Students would also be more engaged if controversial topics were discussed. Teachers’ failing to provide students with information about controversial events in American history that deviate from the “progress and expanding freedoms” theme such as debates within the Vietnam War or the Great Depression are ironically cited by students as the events they are most interested in.

The implementations of Levistik’s article for future and current social studies teachers is that history education must make a shift in order to stay a relevant secondary discipline. Firstly, teachers need to present alternative narratives because they are important to giving all students a more complete picture of their history. Secondly, history teachers need to have a meta-conversation early in the school year with their students about how “doing history” is the process of constructing a story from sources of the past. It should be stressed that human perception can be inaccurate so the more perspectives are included within a historical narrative, the more accurate it will be. In order to practically implement the “multiple perspectives” construction teachers will need to provide students will other resources including primary and secondary sources that challenge textbook narratives.

Third, social studies teachers will have to facilitate the validation of historical perspectives that challenge the status quo. Levistik cites one historian who believes that historical study might benefit from anthropological perspective that would encourage teachers to “reflect on cultural variation... combat... ethnocentrism... and see other people's points of view more clearly.” Implementing debates in which students take roles could be another practical way of convincing students that underrepresented groups have equally valid perspectives on historical events outside of the textbook.

With every change comes the possibility that the greater community could backlash. Administrators, parents, students and even other teachers are likely to resist changes to the “traditional narrative” of American history and this will have to be addressed. But there is a strong argument that the benefits of introducing multiple perspectives and “controversial” topics will serve to engage students and frankly make their study of history more relevant and enlightening.

Chapter 6: Gary B. Nash. The “Convergence” Paradigm in Studying Early American History in the Schools
Gary Nash’s article summarizes the ways in which the presentation of early American history to American students has changed overtime. Nash chronicles the evolving philosophy of teaching early American history as a process of reconciling Eurocentric assumptions and narratives with the steady inclusion of perspective that have been downplayed or left our such as Native American and African perspectives by surveying a number of American history textbooks across time. Nash’s understanding of the evolution of early American history education forces us to consider the numerous dangers of presenting the single power narrative and helps us understand how we can combat these difficulties through our social studies education practice.

The earliest history books that were used by the first two generations before the Civil War perpetuated the narrative that European dominance of the North American continent was part of a divine plan by God. This theme went uncontested through the 19th century and was later infused with further “evidence” from the emergence of scientific racism in the early 20st century. Scientific racism taught American students that African and Native Americans were born with birth defects that made them intellectually and culturally inferior to whites. A common theme as a result was that Africans and Native Americans, because of these deficits could not help but often impeded national progress.

It was not until after WWII that scholars and historians began to reconsider the contributions of Native and African Americans to the national historical narrative of the colonial period. The late fifties and early sixties saw the first attempts, in Nash’s words to “imbibe a more realistic, less self-justifying treatment of slavery and Indian relations.” This included conceding some alternative perspectives of colonial America including the fact that white settlers pushed native people’s off their lands. Nevertheless, Native American historical societies found the books riddled with errors and inaccuracies about Native American culture and these textbooks were far from complete.

Through a long process of incorporating native and African narratives through the 1980s and 1990s, Nash explains that contemporary historical scholarship has focused on tri-cultural interactions. This new work of scholarship explains American colonial history as the story of cultural interactions and exchanges between African, Native and European Americans that included the creation of hybrid cultures. Nash uses the example of altered agricultural practices, warfare, diet, crop regiments and material expressive culture as subtler examples of ways in which early American culture was formed from intercultural interaction. The main idea is that the histories of these groups are fundamentally intertwined to the point that none of these groups’ histories can be accurately explained or understood without the inclusion of the other two.

To the modern social studies teacher, there are many lessons embedded Nash’s historiography of colonial American history. The first has to do with social justice. As history teachers, we have a duty to be inclusive and validating of all peoples within a given historical narrative. Secondly, Nash’s article reminds us that lessons on historiography continue to offer us a means of discussing how the creation of history within a specific time period can tell us a lot about that time period. Finally, and possibly the most important lesson, is that including discussion of cultural interactions makes history come alive today. Cultural adaptations, diffusion and absorption are often at the root of many of contemporary global events today and, as Nash mentions in his conclusion, are important discussions to have with students who will be future participants in American democracy.

Chapter 8: Diane Ravitch. The Educational Backgrounds of History Teachers

Social studies education is facing a fundamental content crisis. Diane Ravitch’s article The Educational Backgrounds of History Teacher explores some of the problems that exist which the vetting process for history teachers and offers some solutions. Some of the issues she raises include: the formal education of social studies teachers within their disciplines, the state requirements expected of prospective social studies teachers and the role that history has within the social studies disciplines.

The first issue Ravitch raises is the fact that many social studies teachers have not received any educational experience in history. She cites a lot of data including the shocking fact that 49.4 percent of teachers who teach two or more classes of history or world civilization do not have a history major or minor. Labeling these teacher who are “out of their field,” Ravitch explains that this is do to a popular view that anyone can teach history. This has meant that those holding advanced degrees in history (Masters degrees and PhDs) without educational backgrounds were not valued for the teaching profession. This, in combination with state certification requirements, has led schools to hire those with more educational pedagogical experience.

As a future social studies teacher there are a number of topics and themes from the Ravitch article that are relevant to a social studies education career. Firstly, I think it is a mistake to dismiss pedagogical coursework in lieu of an advanced history degree. I am a firm believer that classroom management skills and educational pedagogical training is important and critical to being a successful teacher. If one cannot manage a classroom, content knowledge means nothing. Secondly, Ravitch does not take into account those who hold degrees that have a foundation in social studies such as majors called “humanities” or “social studies.” Surely people who hold these well-rounded degrees which include course work in history, which actually include the full spectrum of course content that “social studies” covers are equally if not more qualified to teach than those who do have history majors or minors.

I think it is safe to admit that as teachers there is not much we can do about the state certification process or the statistics. What we can affect is how we conduct ourselves as teachers. Whether they have degrees in the content or not, social studies teachers are often required to teach a wide breadth of courses including: Economics, geography, anthropology, psychology, and sociology.

Even with a “social studies” degree I have minimal experience with all of these fields (having only taken 2 economics, 1 geography, 2 anthropology, 2 psychology, and 1 sociology courses at the college level). This article tells me that when we are told to teach a subject with which we have little experience, it is our duty to educate ourselves about it. College cannot possibly prepare us for everything and we must continue to learn and grow as academics. This means that social studies teachers should continue to enrich their content knowledge by attending professional workshops, reading up on their subject, and maybe even taking college courses in the summer regardless of their past formal educational experience in whatever discipline they are responsible for teaching.

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