Let History Speak for Itself!

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A history textbook was once a static, authoritative source that left little room for multiple perspectives and primary source analysis.

Consider this excerpt from the 1st edition of the American Pageant textbook in 1956:

The average ex-slave, freed by the war and the 13th Amendment, was essentially a child. Life under the lash had unfortunately left him immature—socially, politically, emotionally. To turn him loose upon the cold world was like opening the door of an orphanage and telling the children they were free to go where they liked and do as they wished. One of the cruelest calamities ever to be visited upon the much-abused Negro was jerking him overnight from bondage to freedom, without any intermediate stages of preparation… The hapless Negro was in some ways even more of a menace to himself.

This simplistic, false, condescending narrative was presented as fact, with no quotes from African Americans living through Reconstruction. This, unfortunately, was not an anomaly. James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, reached this conclusion when he first surveyed 12 U.S. history textbooks for the first edition of his book in 1995. He wrote, “No book can convey the depths of the black experience without including material from the oppressed group. Yet not one textbook in my original sample let African Americans speak for themselves about the conditions they faced.”

The availability and accessibility of primary sources on the Internet has revolutionized social studies instruction. Students, as active learners in a 21st century classroom, can now corroborate secondary accounts with primary source material. The teacher, no longer the “sage on the stage,” can provide these sources and tasks and guide and facilitate inquiry. This, however, can require extensive and time-consuming lesson planning.

Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook™ provides teachers with many firsthand accounts throughout U.S. history. Discovery Education has done the research for teachers, and the resources are right at your fingertips! Just one portion of one unit, 1.2 Slave Life and Culture, provides a plethora of primary sources that stand in stark contrast to the “old-school” textbook account of slaves from 1956:

Providing these resources to students alone is not enough to craft inquiry-based, student-centered instruction; the task assigned to students is critical to achieve that goal. Social Studies Techbook includes activities aligned to these sources, including document-based investigations into slave family life and culture, and a “You as Artist” activity to allow students to analyze several African American spirituals and create responses that express a perspective on the condition of oppression.

The American Pageant excerpt from 1956 is not entirely irrelevant in a 2014 classroom. Teachers can also have students analyze primary sources, like those listed above, alongside the old textbook accounts. This would serve as a valuable lesson in corroboration, historiography, and historical interpretation. It would also allow students to #experiencehistory rather than passively absorb it at a lower level.


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