Politics, History Don’t Always Mix

UNC Professor’s Book Examines Anti-History Threat in U.S. Classrooms

George Washington in prayer at Valley Forge

This iconic image has become a political rallying cry for those wishing to invent a new George Washington that supports their own political beliefs. UNC Professor Fritz Fischer explores this topic, among other historical events that are adapted to fit current political views, in his new book The Memory Hole: The U.S. History Curriculum Under Siege (IAP – Information Age Publishing Inc.)

A movement fueled by political ideologies jeopardizes social studies curriculum and teaching in U.S. classrooms, according to a new book by a University of Northern Colorado professor who's past chair of the National Council for History Education.

Fritz Fischer

Fritz Fischer, a former secondary school teacher who spearheaded the creation of Colorado's teaching standards for social studies, examines the anti-history threat in The Memory Hole: The U.S. History Curriculum Under Siege.

Fischer provides examples — from the founding fathers and evangelical Christianity, to the Great Depression and the New Deal's role in recovery, to dubious teachings about Christopher Columbus and Ronald Reagan — and evidence that deflates claims by agenda-setting politicians, from both the left and right, who adapt history to fit with their present-day views.

"Ignoring facts, refashioning other facts and pretending that there are no rules in the telling of history, these re-interpreters of the past place the minds of America's young people in danger," Fischer writes in an overview of the book.

The book provides research-based context for historical events and how they transpired. For example:

George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge: An iconic image used to support the position that the United States should return to its evangelical Christian roots. Facts: The story was first published in a Washington biography in 1800. Fischer notes that history shows that while Washington attended church, he wasn't known to pray in front of his troops (as was depicted by an artist in 1866 — the prayer in question took place in winter 1777-78), never took communion at church, and did not seek to spread Christianity in the country. The same 1800 biography also includes the first reference to the mythical account of Washington chopping down a cherry tree as a child and admitting to it when confronted by his father. A popular color painting influenced by the original appears in a historical document on teaching virtues. "For some people who seek to mis-teach history, the paintings symbolize the essential Washington, but the paintings depict a false, incomplete and misleading understanding of Washington," Fischer said.

Topics as varied as labor history and the history of McCarthyism are being twisted to meet the political needs of current politicians, Fischer said. Lessons on Reagan and Columbus may present the two as villains or heroes, depending only on political views rather than an examination of the actual history of the times.

In teaching history, Fischer advocates the need to allow students to seek their own understanding of the past. Rather than teaching students a politically tainted view of the past, teachers need to teach students to understand multiple perspectives, historical context and the complex nature of the past.

"In my classes, I don't try and feed my students a particular version of what happened in the past based on my political leaning," he said.

At UNC, Fischer coordinates the History Education program and teaches classes on U.S. history, teaching history in secondary schools, and on culture. He's also the author of Making them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s.

Best Practices for Teaching History

Fischer, who led efforts as past chair of the National Council for History Education to establish best practices in teaching and learning history, offers this advice for uncovering the past:

  • Understand multiple perspectives
  • Understand complexity
  • Understand how to use evidence from the past to craft an argument about what happened in the past

More online at: http://www.nche.net/best-practices-of-effective-history-teaching