You’ve all heard the phrase. You might have even said it yourself:
Schools should teach history from the perspective of the time.
It certainly sounds good — both sensible and straightforward. As a teacher, though, I can tell you that the advice is easier said than done.
For one thing, implied in this assertion is that teachers are not currently trying to teach perspectives from the time period they’re presenting. I always want to ask people where they heard such a thing. Where did they hear, for instance, that students are not learning about other forms of slavery besides chattel slavery in the United States? Or that teachers are failing to mention how disease, not just guns, wiped out many indigenous peoples? Or that teachers are neglecting to introduce Marxism and the subsequent history of Communism?
As far as I know, none of these subjects have been omitted from school curriculums or are currently on the chopping block.
What has been omitted — and what is very much on the chopping block now — are unsightly events and policies in our own country. I’ve asked a lot of people over the last few years if they ever learned in high school about, for example, the Tulsa Race Massacre or redlining. Just about everyone has told me they did not. Nor, let the record be shown, did I. When I ask whether they’re okay with this history being taught now, people often say yes, but — here’s that line again — “only if it’s taught from the perspective of the time.”
There are at least three problems with this response.
- First, like I said — and as both my informal poll and actual textbooks from the last 100 years suggest — the history of racism in our country has often been largely skipped over; that means, regardless of how open you say you are to this history being taught, past evidence reveals we as a country cannot say the same. In fact, our history with racism is right now, as I write this, in the political crosshairs.
- Second, bills all over the country purportedly banning “critical race theory” — a theory I studied in grad school, but don’t know anyone who teaches in high school — make it far less likely that teachers will risk teaching subjects such as Ruby Bridges’ desegregation of an all-white school or even MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, let alone Tulsa or the Tuskegee Syphilis Study or redlining or even MLK’s other, harsher, less aspirational words.
- The third problem is more fundamental: to teach “the perspective of the time” requires that, back then, there was one overarching, definable perspective. In the 19th century, according to this assumption, the common place perspective was more pro-slavery, or at least less anti-slavery. But what about the abolitionist movement? If there was a unified perspective back then that slavery wasn’t so bad, how do we explain the awareness abolitionists had that it was nothing short of a moral evil that must be stopped at all costs? Or, for that matter, what about the slaves themselves? Does their perspective on their own enslavement inform our understanding of the “perspective of the time”?
Maybe it’s tempting to make a percentages argument. Sure, one could say, some people were fully cognizant of how bad slavery was, but not the majority of people. It’s worth noting that, in several states, African Americans made up half or more of the population in the decades following the Civil War. And even if, across the country, the number of people adamantly opposed to slavery was less than those who were for it or indifferent to it, I wonder: Do we apply the same percentages standard to today’s perspectives? A minority of voters claim to believe that the last election was fraudulent, including our former president. If you were to ask them whether their perspective on the election is irrelevant, given their numbers, I doubt they’d concur. In fact, I think many would tell you that their perspective is the most important one on this issue — that, indeed, if we had to pick one “perspective of the time” it should be theirs.
There Is No One ‘Perspective of the Time’
In my head, I can hear the next objection: Just share all the perspectives of any given time period. To which I say, fair enough — but sharing different perspectives does not mean we can’t take sides. Are we really supposed to suggest to our students that, back then, it wasn’t clear that slavery was wrong simply because it wasn’t clear to some people … even though it was very clear to many others? Are we really supposed to present the pro- and anti-slavery arguments as equally valid?
Of course, that’s precisely what we did for decades when teaching about white supremacy and racism in America: We claimed that the pro-slavery side was in many ways as legitimate as the anti-slavery side. These rationalizations manifested in “The Lost Cause,” the hugely successful — and ongoing — campaign to glorify those who fought to preserve chattel slavery in America. We told our children that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, despite the Confederate states’ letters of secession explicitly stating that it was. It was about states’ rights, we said. (States’ rights to do what?) During reconstruction, when former slaves took to the ballot box, the argument developed that they must be stopped from voting at all costs because they would vote for socialist policies that would ruin the states and the country. (Sound familiar?)
In the end, of course, I’m not objecting to seeking out different perspectives, from “their time” or ours or any other. So long as our pursuit of these perspectives is driven by a desire to appreciate the contradictions and complexity of human societies and beings, great. That is indeed a noble pedagogical undertaking.
Too often, though, the admonition to tell history “neutrally,” from the perspective of the time period, untainted by our modern sensibilities, is actually intended to accomplish precisely the opposite. Rather than adding nuance, it normalizes; rather than helping us judge past events with greater clarity, it rationalizes and mucks them up.
And then, by failing to render a verdict on the past, we too often justify our present moral failings as well. That is, when we refuse to view history from the present, we wind up witnessing our own time from the vantage of the amoral, enabling past we’ve just constructed for that very purpose.