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For those of you who are keen to teach "just the facts" of history and leave interpretation out of it, try the following description of the events of August 1945 (just the facts, with all interpretive statements edited out).


"On August 6, 1945, a single B-29 released an atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima. Eighty thousand Japanese men, women, and children died as a direct result--burned to death or crushed in demolished buildings. The center of the city, a 1-2 mile radius around Ground Zero, ceased to exist. Three days later, a second atomic bomb did similar damage to the city of Nagasaki. An additional 40,000 Japanese died. Japan surrendered on August 15, and the instrument of surrender was signed on September 2, aboard the battleship Missouri."


Just the facts means just the facts . . . ideas that have been part of the "standard" explanation of the atomic bombings since 1945 (that they forced a surrender that was not otherwise imminent; that they forestalled an invasion of Japan; that they saved millions of lives; that they were legitimate payback for Pearl Harbor, or Bataan, or whatever) are all interpretative statements and are thus out of bounds in a just-the-facts approach.


So, too, for that matter are other statements central to many people's vision of US history:


"Lincoln saved the Union . . . "

"Reagan ended (or prolonged) the Cold War . . . "

"Ford's assembly line transformed business . . ."

"The Civil War was about [fill in the blank] . . ."

"The nuclear family was key to 1950s life . . ."


Virtually any statement about a person, institution, or event . . . beyond the most basic recitation of "this happened, then this happened" involves interpretation. Even "America is a great place to live" is not a fact, but an interpretation of a body of facts. Interpretation, if done intelligently, involves formulating ideas about the facts, testing those ideas against the facts, and choosing among competing interpretations--in short, "critical thinking."


I tell my students at the beginning of every term (and several times thereafter): "I don't care if you agree or disagree with me about how to interpret this or that event. . . I do care whether you can state your position concisely, develop it coherently, and (most of all) support it with evidence.




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Old Grey Eagle wrote: "Can anyone tell me if in Japan when they teach history if the question whether or not the Attack on Pearl Harbor should have been carried out is asked?"


Based on my (limited) knowledge of contemporary Japan, probably not. Japanese schools aren't noted for their emphasis on individual student initiative or questioning established ideas. Nor, apparently, are Japanese history textbooks any more inclined to question the status quo than US ones. Japanese textbooks' soft-pedalling of Japanese atrocities in WWII was the center of a national scandal not too long ago, as I recall.


For what it's worth, I have asked my US students to put themselves in the position of the Japanese high command and consider whether attacking Pearl Harbor (vs. just attacking Guam, Wake, and the Philippines) was the best way to pursue their goal of an East Asia/West Pacific empire. Is a year to consolidate your conquests worth "rousing a sleeping giant" (as Adm. Yamamoto put it)?


It makes for an interesting discussion, usually with solid arguments on both sides.

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I think you misunderstand my point. I dont see how you can teach critical thinking abour history without the facts of what lead up to the event. To discuss the dropping of the atomic bomb in Japan, you have to understand the American mindset and what events lead up the Attack on Pearl Harbor, how the depression shaped values and ideas. I think your four points on teaching history are very valid, I just dont see how you can dismiss teaching facts as irrelevant, unless I misunderstood you.

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And you missed my point too...


Of course, when we say state the facts (before opinion), we mean ALL of the facts. Leaving out "little things" like the attack on Pearl Harbor, or more importantly, the U.S. military's analysis of a conventional attack on the Japanese homeland, defeats the purpose. I prefer professors to limit their opinions. This does not mean state certain facts but not others (this would be just as bad).


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OGE & Rooster--


Hmmm . . . we may be having a "tastes great/less filling" argument here. :-)


I didn't mean to suggest that history ought to be taught without facts. Clearly, as you and others have pointed out, students who are being taught to analyze historical events have to know something about the events they're analyzing (it does no good to ask whether Jefferson was a successful president unless you have a grasp what he did as president). Facts and the interpretation of facts have to go hand in hand . . . though reasonable people can and do disagree about the proper proportion of each.


Nor am I trying to defend teachers who present theirinterpretation of historical events as the only possible Truth and refuse to entertain the possibility that a student might construct a well-reasoned, well-supported, but different interpretation of the same facts.


What I don't buy is the claim that we ought to teach only the "facts" of history. . . a position espoused by many conservatives but perhaps not (in retrospect) by either of you.


One problem with the just-the-facts view, it seems to me, is that it's rarely as simple as it seems. Once you get beyond bare-bones names and dates, you quickly run up against the need to define what's "fact" and what's "interpretation." It's a fact that Columbus made landfall on a Carribean island (probably San Salvador) in October 1492 . . . but is it also a fact that, in so doing, he "discovered America?" Doing so is, in itself, an act of interpretation: How do you define "discover" or, for that matter, "America?"


I'd much prefer that we, as a society, accept that interpretation is an inseparable part of thinking about history, teach our young people to do it well, and (absolutely crucial) judge their interpretations not by how well they agree with our own but by how well they fit the evidence.


I'm not sure if this would create patriots, but I'm pretty sure that, done right, it'd create informed and thoughtful citizens.


[somebody cue the theme music from "Mister Smith Goes to Washington" :-)]

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What people forget about history is the very selectivity of historical fact. What is currently accepted as fact and how that has changed through the years, there is a whole field of history that deals with the changing views of history historiography.

The very inclusion of some facts and the exclusion of other facts are what most groups complain about what is taught our children today. But you cant included all the facts in any age level history text. The age of the student presents limits. The younger child made not understand, be able to read well enough, have the attention span, or the time in class to be presented with all the facts. At any level schooling or any book can not have all the facts presented, it is impossible.

The problem is what facts do you present. Any list of facts will show the bias of the person who is compiling them. There has never been a history written that does not have a point of view.

Then there is the absence of source documents that are the basis of historical fact. Throughout history there have been peoples that have not left much written historical documentation. Some history has come down as tales told over campfire. Other groups we have only observation by people outside their groups. Some groups only have very limited written material. Then we have source material on the same event that directly contradict.

This is why we need to have children learn to have a critical eye when reading and learning history.


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VH, we still misunderstand either other


you wrote


"... A body of factual knowledge? An understanding of how the past shapes the present? An ability to think critically about historical problems? A collection of stories about America's past that "everybody" knows and that forms part of our shared culture?...Given my choice (which, teaching undergrads, I pretty much am), I go for 2 & 3 . . . but I drive crazy those students who come wanting 1 or 4"


I like the way you have it broken out, I dont understand emphasizing any one of these four over another, I think all 4 are equally important.


As Patriotism is a belief, value, or whatever, I am not sure you can "teach" it. I would like to see high schools have a comparative government course where forms of government accross the globe are studied. You may not be able to teach someone to love their country, but you can certainly let them know whats availiable, the rest will take care of itself.



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Many years ago when I was attending college I took a mid level undergraduate history course. On the first day of class the Professor wrote on the board "History does not exist". He went on to state that every history class that we had or would take would merely be the presentation of a writer or speakers interpretation of events.

I believe that his intent was to make us, the students, study history with a critical eye and to question what was being presented.

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I too am concerned about what is taught and how it is taught. History is terribly important and so is critical thinking. What concerns me is the ideological lens that is being used these days to view the history of our country. History, like many subjects in high school and college, is taught in many schools to make people feel good without real thought. One could argue that the same was true about more traditional approaches to teaching history, but today's approach excludes a lot of relevant information, and downgrades the historical achievements of American society to emphasize the negative achievements. For example, while it is true that many of the founding fathers were slave owners, and slavery was protected in the original constitution, slavery was finally abolished as a result of a long and bloody conflict. Contemporary teaching seems to promote the idea of victimhood without showing what has been accomplished.


The ideas and information contained in a body of historical information or belief begins with a common understanding of what happened and then moves to an understanding of how and why things happened. Everybody has an ideological viewpoint in interpreting history, but a fair and honest teacher will acknowledge that.


To anyone who doubts the importance of a common historical understanding I commend a book I recently read entitled "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire" by David Remnick. Remnick is a journalist by trade, but an unusually capable and insightful journalist. He spent several years in the Moscow bureau of the Washington Post during the Gorbachev years through the revolution of August 1991. It is interesting that some of the most controversial dissidents from the communist line during that period emphasized developing factual historical knowledge of how the communist party came to power and maintained itself in power. It is clear from Remnik's book that much of Soviet society was, and probably still is, in a state of collective denial about the evils done by Stalin in particular. It was only when Gorbachev cracked open the archives just a bit that the truth started coming out, with the consequences we see today.


Read on and keep an open mind.

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The people who write history look at the way people felt at the time. They would read letters written. We as a society do not write letters. E-Mail is deleted. We are loosing current history. How about a scout project to collect oral histories from family. With video cameras or just a tape recorder this could be done. It might also be a good topic for a merit badge. The scout would understand events because he would talk to people who lived it.

When I was a kid I sought out holocaust survivors and had then tell me what happened. I now can give an account to counter the deniers.


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A very good point from Its Trail Day. There ought to be a merit badge for collecting oral history. Everybody has a story to tell and younger and future generations can benefit greatly from having that kind of record.


Although emails are routinely deleted, correspondence through email has revived letter writing generally.

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