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On Why Objectivity is a Lie When Teaching History

I was a diehard history major, dedicated and married to what I studied. I treated history like my engineering friends treated their engineering classes. I genuinely believed that it held a special place and framework for understanding the world. I took my study and training in it seriously. I took upper-division classes as a freshman. I wrote passionate, serious research in several classes, in the case of a few I wrote stuff that was groundbreaking. I loved my major so much that the original plan, before my anger at Stanford drove me into education, was to get a PhD in history. My undergraduate adviser is a pure and very intense academic. His class was so feared that when people found out that I was his undergrad advisee was I awarded immediate respect. I chose him as my adviser because he chewed me out when I did anything mediocre and I respond really well to that kind of pushing. He loves research in a way few people can fully understand. Most people in PhDs right now don’t even want to do research, that’s why what sounds like the most fun way to spend a day ever to me, is something people spend years hating. I loved doing research as an undergraduate, I couldn’t believe that there were people paying me to, to as Professor Mullaney (my undergraduate adviser) would say, find the answers to the questions that haunted me. As my frustrated grew, as things deteriorated back home, the questions that haunted me changed and so he advised me to answer those.

I got a fellowship to go to Stanford’s Teacher Education Program (STEP) which was rewarded in part on the strength of my historical training. I have content knowledge deep enough in Asia that I would have easily qualified to enter a PhD program there, and I have more content knowledge in European history than most high school teachers in the classroom right now. Because of my activism, my bases are also covered in US. Because of my training, it doesn’t take me long to learn enough to understand any of the places I didn’t already study, which is why I now know a lot about Latin American history too. I am telling you this so that you will understand what I walked into STEP with, because the next part is going to be very confusing if you don’t understand that information.

I was very clear about why I wanted to teach in my application; I was applying for the sole purpose of contributing to the dismantling of what I see as an immoral system. I have no other motivation for being a teacher; that is what gets me up in the morning and gets me through the day. I assumed I was admitted because they wanted that in their program. I immediately landed myself in trouble by mentioning on the first day that I was there for “social justice reasons.” I further got in trouble when I got annoyed that we were having theoretical arguments when I was supposed to be looking at student work, particularly because I had lost my prep time trying to help identify needs and services for a kid that wasn’t even my own. For my first assignment, before we had been assigned to placement, I made a lesson on the thing that came easiest to me, the Great Leap Forward. I did exceedingly well on that assignment. When we went back into our content courses, however, I was teaching not history but AP Gov, which didn’t align with our curriculum at all. Government is a Poli Sci class, not a history class so few of my assignments for STEP at that point could be tied into my class, which meant that I was doing a lot of extra work, but also that I could easily see that what we were being taught in class wasn’t “the way.” I would never teach Gov as historical, it is for me, an injustice. My job is to prepare them for the world they are entering and there is no excuse for not using current issues to connect the concepts in Government.

My grades quickly dropped in my curriculum courses. I also suddenly found myself at the center of very heated debates, it became clear that I just wasn’t aligned. I got pulled into meetings. My male friends had to speak up for me, literally, at some points saying “hold up, Heather has a point here.” I’ve never been one to scream sexism. I’ve sat in the room with the biggest and baddest of men and I’ve held my own. I never felt, in my male dominated history classes, in anyway like I couldn’t speak for myself. But a pattern was emerging. I soon found out that my social justice stance was a direct challenge to the director of our curriculum program. We were told not to try to teach empathy, or to ask the kids the big moral questions of history and to choose only texts that seemed to very much favor only educated people in power. All of my attempts to expand the definition of text immediately got me in trouble. I was told I had an agenda. People accused me of brainwashing my kids. During the first day of class we were supposed to tell people what we remembered from the film Pocahantas, an exercise designed to illustrate that normal people know nothing about that history. The problem? I have never seen the Disney film, my mom thought it was racist. Also we didn’t really have T.V. growing up so I’ve missed most films and cartoons. I read all of the history textbooks I could my hands on, I already knew labor history by the time I was 14, I knew the entire history of the Black Panthers by 13, and I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History when I was 15. I literally had no way to connect to the exercise and a few quick phone calls home and I realized that none of my friends did either. I didn’t have the same cultural upbringing, when I tried to point that out they thought I was being obstinate. To this day, I still refuse to do that exercise with my students, which is part of the standard curriculum for our program. In fact, all of my “beginning of the year” exercises I made up on my own, except for the letter I have them write. I still use the framework of my program, and explain it and introduce the skills. They do primary sources, and learn the historical skills, I just choose to use different sources and frame things different. I do a lot more group work. I almost never use the resources that currently exist, except occasionally the sources. However, my students work with primary sources everyday and are also being taught to write as researchers (which is not part of our curriculum, I just think writing is super important-some of my students write more in my class than their English classes).

One lesson was a set of sources about Lincoln, in which he displays shades of racism pending on the audience, the conclusion kids are supposed to reach is that politicians cater to their audience. There is of course, no lesson on racism or voices from slaves in the curriculum. We were told not to try to answer those questions. A lot of historians will say, “we can’t judge because it was what things were like at the time!” As if there weren’t resisters to oppression from the beginning. And if we can’t decide that some things are morally wrong, like say, OWNING PEOPLE, based on the past, when ARE we supposed to decide that? With that mentality there would still be slavery. The only people that ever say that kind of stuff are the folks who were never affected by those decisions.

White men always claim to be objective, but no one is objective. That is nonsense. That is white privilege. When you can assume that your way of looking at the world is somehow without bias or lens and that everyone else has a bias you can assume that because you are unmarked category. No one is objective, and the blinder you are to your own b.s. the worse the teacher you are going to be. They saw their process as somehow without filter, but this is impossible. We have to select documents to share with students, the documents you select and the questions you ask will very much come from your filter. When I teach slavery in my class, we read Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. When I do Civil Rights? Malcolm X, Mamie Till, and Freedom Summer. When I taught the industrial revolution, the sources were from the perspective of workers. This is not brainwashing kids, this is simply the lens in which I see the world. It is the history I was taught. It is my filter. I always tell my kids what my filter and bias is. I never pretend to be objective. I spend a huge portion of the beginning of the school year teaching them to assess bias and agendas. I tell them upfront what is influencing my beliefs. All historians do this and should do this. The only historians who are claiming to be objective are either delusional or liars. In my Civil Rights Unit, I covered the Black Panthers, I had to write a justification for it and I had several reasons for including it that can wait for another time. One of my reasons was that it was left out of the curriculum entirely, it was left out because white people think the Black Panthers are evil fringe groups and not responses to the inability of our government and people to eradicate our own evil and dark past. I had to pull that justification out in the final draft that I turned into STEP because I was told that it wasn’t fair to say that they were intentionally leaving it out. So either the people that write the standards know very little about American history and are therefore grossly negligent or it was kept out for a reason. By the way, if you don’t know how important the Black Panthers are, you need to send me an email so I can explain it to you because that means you don’t know enough about history, my friends.

Something disturbing happened in the teacher’s lounge this week. One of the older white male history teachers was arguing against Common Core on the grounds that it was dangerous because “a teacher could just cover African American history all year and nothing else and use docs and be doing Common Core.” And because “when I go to a dinner party, I need a certain amount of content knowledge.” First of all, covering Black history using docs would be a vast improvement over having the kids outline the textbook hunting for basic and nonsensical facts, at least then they’d actually be reading and writing. Secondly, I like how his fear is the covering of Black History. Notice he didn’t say, all Asia or all World War II or all England. Nope, covering Black history is the fear. Thirdly, I am not going to any dinner parties and neither are my kids. My kids are going to college, at best, and to war or prison at worst. Lastly, why is “stuff white dudes talk about at dinner parties” the standard for content? How is that not profoundly biased? How is the teacher teaching Black history the biased one here? I am not teaching to train my kids to go to dinner parties, I am teaching them to be functioning adults in this stupid system they have to exist in.

It was about this time that I pieced it all together. I didn’t struggle at STEP because I was crazy (I heard that term thrown at me quite often) or radical (that one too), or wrong about history. I struggled at STEP because I one of the few people in the room that wasn’t completely delusional. I was one of the few sane ones. This is how the system replicates. Now you know why I hide in my room.

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