History with Controversy, and History Without

Barbara D. Metcalf, May 2010

Recently, popular television personality Stephen Colbert invited the distinguished U.S. historian and former president of the AHA, Eric Foner, to appear on his nightly Comedy Central cable channel program, The Colbert Report, a rollickingly satirical talk show.1 The subject for “debate” was the annual review and revisions of school textbooks adopted by the elected Texas School Board. This year the board focused on history. None of the members of the board is a professional historian, and the board’s goals, shaped by the particular conservative values shared by their majority, are clearly not those of the mainstream historical profession. In spoofing the current controversy over the Texas School Board decisions, Colbert had a field day. He ominously warned that, despite “the triumph” in Texas, there were still “plenty of liberal text books out there,” and, flourishing a copy of Give Me Liberty!, he welcomed its author, none other than Eric Foner, “to answer for his liberal crimes.”2

Newspapers and others have picked up in particular on the Texas School Board’s excising of Thomas Jefferson from their list of great revolutionary thinkers. Jefferson, after all, had established the principle, “the separation of church and state.” Referring to this, Colbert quipped that the school board had succeeded in going one better by coining their doctrine, “the separation of Jefferson and history.” Amazingly, even amid the one-liners, Foner was able to clarify what it was that the board was doing, namely streamlining American history to invent a narrative that embodies the particular conservative principles the majority of the board members espouse. They were doing this by seeking to keep out from the textbooks discussion of controversial issues, and thus writing out, as Foner put it, the very struggle to make the United States a better country.3

The essays in this issue on “teaching the controversy” give depth and richness to Foner’s argument about what is achieved—and potentially lost—if controversial and complex subjects are either dropped or unduly simplified. The essays are notable for taking up this question in a diversity of settings—national parks, museums, high school classrooms, as well as four-year colleges. Some explicitly echo Foner’s important theme, namely the belief that by including controversy and controversial subjects, by teaching opposing viewpoints, by stretching to understand competing contexts and values—whether in U.S. history or history outside the United States—these historians are indeed contributing both to making better citizens and to enlarging their students’ lives. Laura Feller, from her vantage point in the challenging setting of brief encounters in national parks, writes, “Good history can open hearts, minds, and eyes to possibilities for building a more just society.” And Alicia Decker, writing on the subject of violence in Africa, asks, whether history has a social use—a question whose answer she clearly believes to be “yes.”

The essays have different emphases in relation to the meaning of “teaching the controversy.” The first, especially important for secondary school teachers, is getting subjects that are controversial in our public life today into the curriculum at all. Without discussions of “sex” or “religion,” many historical subjects are, of necessity, treated in misleading fashion. For most of the contributors, however, the rubric opens up a different emphasis, namely strategies for a more sophisticated understanding of events that were controversial at the time, like the Vietnam War, as well as of policies that may not have even been controversial in the past, like cultural assimilation of American Indians, but that are today. Finally, “teaching the controversy” also suggests the importance of teaching historiography, and more broadly speaking, of lay interpretations of history in public life that are illuminated by historicizing the proponents’ own lives and backgrounds. Because they were invited to do so by the editors, most of the contributions here emphasize the second aspect, spelling out the approach and materials they use to enrich understanding of complex and controversial events in the past. And, one might add, in doing so, they are an occasion for pride in the high level of historical and pedagogical expertise our members obviously bring to their varied settings. I am particularly struck by the extent to which these historians seek to cultivate an active imagination. They also give proof that sometimes the old phrases are exactly right: “slow but steady,” “less is more,” “by indirection find direction out” really do win the day. More is gained by letting students work through the whole of Sayyid Qutb’s thought—as Omnia El Shakry does in her classroom—than any number of lectures that cover all the variations of 20th-century Islamist thought. To have students immerse themselves for half a term in the arguments of Galileo’s day both for and against his thought (as Oscar Chamberlain and Anthony Millevolte have done) brings them to the controversies over evolution armed with intellectual tools that they can actively draw on—and ask what kind of reasoning is appropriate to what kind of subject.

In settings like the ones evoked in this issue, students also often learn that there are no short cuts to good historical thinking. A student who works through Supreme Court judgments, 19th-century imaginative writing, Vietnamese memoirs, newspapers, congressional proceedings, and so forth, has begun to do the hard work that good history in fact requires.

Indeed, looking at these essays may give one pause in relation to a goal of great concern to many in the profession, namely finding ways of making history “a resource for decision making” on the part of figures in public life. At a recent workshop under that rubric, one participant explicitly compared the goal of contributing to debates in public life with classroom teaching, noting the time-consuming pedagogical demands of engaging with primary sources, analyzing problems, and writing essays that students go through as part of honing a historical perspective.4 How is it possible to have that kind of impact on a legislator (or members of the Texas School Board, for that matter) without extended interaction?

Stephen Colbert identified a particular problem in engaging with controversial subjects, pointing out to Eric Foner that, after all, the Texas Board was only “trying to give [the students] a moral history.” Not only figures in public life but many others come to history primarily as a source of moral teachings. Keith C Barton and Jennifer Hauver James in their essay on teaching religion in secondary schools remind us, moreover, that some come to history with a conviction that “Providence” or “Divine Will” is history’s only motor.

The issue of history as moral proof and as a moral roadmap has great resonance in the public life of India, my own field of study, where competing versions of history have justified British colonialism, shaped the nationalist movement, contributed to the country’s partition, justified the status claims of those in power, and contested the histories of those with vested interests in favor of the disadvantaged. Writing and re-writing history has been a political project at the national level; and interpretations of history have been used by caste, regional, and religious groups to assert their place within the larger society. A recent article in Perspectives on History reviews precisely these issues about the place of history in India’s public life, citing among others the opinion of the distinguished Indian historian, Neeladri Bhattacharya, that, although historians can try to shape the historical arguments that are advanced in public life, “they could not deny the right of the citizens to express themselves in public, operating with their own sense of history.”5 Particularly when these histories are emancipatory for the disadvantaged, would it be ethical contest them? But what about a situation when “folk” histories serve to incite violence or marginalize some section of the citizenry? Sometimes it is historians who must assert that history is not always the relevant frame of reference for contemporary public policy and pubic actions.

Historians, that is to say, have to be humble; they have to remember that histories are always incomplete and complicated. But they also have to assert that some histories are better than others, and that historians always have to engage controversy. In doing so, they make clear—as the essays in this issue demonstrate—that, for students and interlocutors in multiple contexts, an informed historical perspective that does not shy away from controversial topics best illuminates the path to even such lofty goals as patriotism and emancipation.

Barbara D. Metcalf (professor emerita, University of California at Davis; and Andrew W. Mellon Emeritus Fellow, Univ. of Michigan) is president of the AHA.


1. Available at www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/267540/march-16-2010/i-s-on-edjukashun---texas-school-board.

2. Give me Liberty! An American History, by Eric Foner (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. First published in 2004).

3. For a more elaborate exposition of Eric Foner’s views on the controversy, see his article in the Nation of April 5, 2010. The article is also online at www.thenation.com/doc/20100405/foner.

4. The phrase is David Hollinger’s. He was the primary organizer of a workshop, “History as a Resource for Decision Making” organized for the Department of History at University of California at Berkeley March 12–14, 2010.

5. Neeladri Bhattacharya, “Teaching History in Schools: The Politics of Textbooks in India,” History Workshop Journal 67 (spring 2009), 101. Quoted by Chitralekha Zutshi, “Debating the Past: Academic and Popular Histories in IndiaPerspectives on History, 47:9 (December 2009), online at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0912/0912Int1.cfm. Note accessed March 30, 2010.