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Selecting History's Lessons: Deciding and Justifying What We Teach

Amit Kobrowski


     Many well meaning academics and politically motivated politicians have attempted to create a list of names, documents, events, and dates that students must learn to be "good citizens" or "well-educated" in history. In nearly every case these curriculum lists are controversial both for what they include and for what they exclude. In my own state of Oregon, the list of state knowledge standards relegates most of world history to elementary and middle school, with high school limited to post-Reconstruction U. S. history and the directive to "analyze the complexity and investigate causes and effects of significant events in [20th century] world history"1

     When at all possible, many high school teachers frustrated by the superficiality of these attempts, close their doors, ignore the bulk of the suggested (or even required) curriculum, and teach what they believe their students need. However, it is conceivable, when removed from the political process, for educators to discuss a core of historical knowledge that students should possess at graduation. What follows is a suggested guide to 6-12th grade teachers looking to revamp their history curriculum with an eye toward creating agreements around a core of historical themes. The intent is to encourage educators to stop creating lists, and instead select and justify what we teach based on what it reveals about a society's past and present. A few examples drawn from the history of the United States and World History can demonstrate how certain historical topics are rich with content knowledge and high in student interest but also deeply important to a better understanding of the cultures in which they take place. Each example generates possible questions for long or short-term inquiry. These "historical waypoints" are not suggested as required topics. They are examples of a process in which selecting the history we teach identifies core themes and knowledge with the purpose of generating historical content standards. Teachers are encouraged to disagree and argue for an alternative. This is part of the process. The end goal is not to generate a list of topics but to identify the themes and ideas that have shaped history.

     Why are we teaching History? In my home state of Oregon, there is no state test measuring historical knowledge. The Common Core asks social studies teachers to provide opportunities for students to practice literacy skill but does not ask for specific content knowledge. In many classrooms, teachers have moved away from the conventional Western Civilization model with its Egypt to Athens, Twelve Tables to the Magna Carta, Martin Luther to Napoleon curriculum. This however, should not raise hopes that a "Big History" approach is the future of high school history. Instead, the most common framework to world history appears to be the Modern Problems or Global Studies catchall examining current events that seemingly float atop a history rarely explored beyond the 20th century.

     The study of history, both at the world and national, should do more than just attempt to answer a "how did we get this problem?" question. It also needs to be more than a justification for the magnificence of a particular culture's achievements. Great history tells us about our shared humanity. The study of other cultures gives us insight to our own. It enlightens us on how our species has attempted to address particular but reoccurring questions, while informing us on how time and place shape the answers to these questions. We learn of how interactions between groups create new questions and new answers. The study of solutions that humans arrive to when facing cultural, environmental, political, social, or military challenges, can guide our own decisions, inspire our thinking and occasionally shock our sensibilities.

     While the "Big History" paradigm might fit with the history scholarship of the last thirty years, it is not reflected in the knowledge base of most of the middle and high school teachers with whom I have worked. In fact, there appears to be a reluctance to engage in the kind of learning that is required for a new view of history.2 Given the current demands on a teachers' time this reluctance is both understandable and justifiable. However, it also means that teachers will resist calls to change what they know and what they have done. Many of us are not historians but social studies teachers, we know a little about a lot. We teach courses in psychology, sociology, world religions, global studies, street law, economics, etc. Some of us may have focused in on a particular area of the world in our undergraduate years. Nevertheless, our specific knowledge of the U. S., Africa, or the Middle East, does not translate into a pan-historical examination of human development. Until teachers are afforded the time and training for the professional development necessary to create a fresh approach, it is best to find a way to encourage teachers to have conversations with each other not only about what and how they teach history, but why.

     Like many school districts, mine is struggling with increased demands and decreasing budgets. Students are placed into ever growing classrooms. The state has adopted the Common Core Standards and the pressure is on for schools to get students ready for the standardized tests. The district has introduced a Student Information Systems (SIS) that requires teachers to report on student achievement of specific learning targets from a Standards Based Learning System. All of this is occurring in a national political climate where teacher "accountability" seems to be a euphemism for blaming teachers for poor student performance. In this climate it is difficult to ask teachers to fully engage in yet another change.

     Yet, in the spirit of school reform, it is clear that the quality of the history class experience is dependent not only on the teacher, but on which local school a child attends. One way to address this disparity is to engage teachers across the district in a process that allows them to generate a history course syllabus.3 Creating a history course syllabus is a daunting task that raises many questions. What is the scope of the historical period? Is thematic or chronological the best approach? Should we take a political or social history perspective? What skills will students hone? What tasks will they undertake? However, even before determining the important questions it is worth examining which moments or vignettes are essential to our understanding of world or U. S. history.

     In the last three years I have had the opportunity to be a part of a history curriculum redesign at both my high school and at a district wide social studies articulation. This work has included hours of conversations, arguments, and agreements about what our students should know and how they must demonstrate that they know it.4

     In the midst of these two experiences, I realized that as we discussed what history students should cover, there was a great deal of hesitation and consternation among teachers in expressing any "core" history. Talk of a "canon" elicited a range of reactions from head nodding to a slight grimace to what appeared to be a mild seizure. It was clear that creating a grade 6-12 content guide would be an overwhelming task. Each of us has a favorite unit or area that we teach. Placing all of these in a district content guide creates long, aimless, and unusable lists. The alternative, to simply create social studies skills targets without naming any content standards, strikes me as too post-modern failing to create any historical meaning.5 There is such a thing as historical knowledge and one of our tasks is to help students attain it.

     When I examined my own curriculum, I realized that four distinct demands drive my syllabus. First, there are my favorite units. These are the ideas that I focused on during my university training, the people and places that excited me as a child, the readings that I most recently enjoyed and want to share with my students. Next are the topics that my students need to perform well on the International Baccalaureate [IB exam]. A third component are the items that the state of Oregon has determined necessary for a history class. Finally, there is the stuff that I just feel students should know before they graduate high school.6 The inconsistency in my own method for selecting historical units highlights the problem of attempting to articulate a common curriculum in a large district.

     Every history teacher has his own formula of how he creates a syllabus and curriculum. Each has made her decision on the emphasis to place on state standards or advanced level exams. As the committee attempted to find areas of curriculum overlap among the high schools in the hopes of securing some agreements, I devised a thought experiment in an attempt to ease the tension. What are the essentials that we would teach students about U. S. or World History? My thoughts went from what I would include to what I could not imagine leaving out. Stripping everything away, what are the central units that our students must know before leaving our classrooms? What issues are easily accessible to a teacher, which are rich with content knowledge and thick with interest for students? What units best lend themselves to an analysis of essential facets of humanity revealing deeper and perhaps universal truths?

     From Jamestown to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the possibilities are vast. The American Revolution that inspires so many, US treatment of Native Americans marked with such tragedy, the triumph of American capitalism, are all worthy of study. US foreign policy, involvement in the World Wars, Cold War history; each is valuable in better understanding the pathway to US global leadership. Alternatively, an examination of the role of women, industrialized labor, or the American farmer gives us a much clearer picture of US social history.

     However, for the purpose of the thought experiment, if there is one unit that students must grapple with in examining US history, it is on the problems of slavery and race in America. Students should understand slavery and race not just as the center of the Civil War, but also as the central problem of American history from 1619 until the present day. Allowing students to unravel, understand, and argue with the history of how Americans wrestled, defended, and attacked slavery, gives them insight into the complexity of the history of a nation founded on liberty and equality yet willing to justify and codify human bondage and segregation.

     America's struggle in facing its "original sin" reveals a great deal about its character and its flaws. It sheds light on the limitations of the American Enlightenment. It allows for an examination of how religion both justified and attacked slavery and racism. It also exposes the twisted logic of the Supreme Court in 1857 and its pursuit of justice in 1954. Students can read the words of a future President who knows that a government can not exist that is half slave and half free and they can listen to the words of a King that dreams of a day when a nation comes together to sing "free at last".

     The impact of slavery and race is seen in the legal, political, social, economic, and military history of the U. S. If there were only time for one topic, if I had to cut everything else due to severe budget shortfalls, if I were writing a one chapter "Essential Guide to U. S. History" I would insist on this unit. WEB DuBois was right even if his analysis was too narrowly limited on the Twentieth Century; the problem for the US is the problem of the color line. The issue of race and slavery in the U. S. clearly demonstrates that history is filled with difficulties and that the character of the US, its words and its deeds, are complex, often contradictory, but occasionally worth celebrating.

     As central as race is to the story of the United States, it is difficult to conceive of a U.S History course that does not address U. S. foreign policy. Allowing for an additional unit for this thought experiment, I might start with a quote from Donald Rumsfeld. "We don't seek empires, we're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question."7 The quote makes for an excellent core document of a DBQ. Here is a statement from an acting secretary of defense, at the start of a second Middle East war, to an Arab news program, that strikes even those casually familiar with US history as either willful ignorance or blatant historical revisionism.

     However, in the classroom the quote is as a launching point backward to countless examples of US territorial expansion and intervention. The French and Indian War (Seven Years war in a world history class) with American colonists seeking to move west, the Louisiana Purchase which Jefferson thought might exceed executive power, a war with Mexico that inspired civil disobedience, interactions with Native Americans that includes destroying, removing, and making then breaking treaties with most of the tribes. The abrogation of the Hawaiian monarchy by business interests, a war with Spain that sent our troops overseas to liberate the oppressed, and numerous interventions in Latin America to help civilize and stabilize, serve as historical counterweights to Rumsfeld's statements. Even recent U. S. involvement since World War II in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and South East Asia exposes Rumsfeld's comment as un-tethered by historical reality. Students should have the opportunity to evaluate Rumsfeld's statement while analyzing and reflecting on what is available in the historical evidence.

     An examination of US foreign policy need not be limited to condemnation. As William A. Williams noted, tragedy marks U. S. diplomacy.8 Despite the best intentions of U. S policy makers, their efforts often fail because they misunderstand the realities of the nations they are attempting to change. (One wonders if things might have been different if Rumsfeld read Williams before March 2003). However, there are also real triumphs of U. S. Foreign Policy. Fighting disease, spreading education for all, demanding NATO action in Kosovo, any of these broaden a unit of study on imperialism. A more nuanced discussion might include examples where native traditional cultures clashed with Western U. S. values. Students could debate the positive and negative aspects of cross-cultural involvement and attempts at modernization. Did educating Native Americans in U. S. schools serve only to isolate Native American children or did it create the possibility of successful assimilation? Do African villages benefit from an increase in the standard of living associated with modern farming techniques or is something lost when there is less dependence on community?

     As with slavery and race, the specifics of what makes up the unit of study on U. S. foreign policy and imperialism are less important then looking at how the theme of imperialism is woven into the fabric of the nation. Why, despite so many easy examples, do so many U. S. leaders and citizens reject the notion that the U. S. at least has an imperial past, if not a present and a future? The Rumsfeld quote encourages students to be critical consumers of information. Should they take this high ranking U. S. official at his word? What are the possible reasons for Rumsfeld to make this statement?

     Of course, U. S. imperialism is not exceptional. As the Athenians reminded the Melians, "The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must." If they can, nations "do" imperialism. The definition of imperialism is not limited to only land acquisition. Imperialism also includes the cultural and economic imposition and influence of the hegemonic power. The U. S. military chased Geronimo as he fought to gain back Apache lands but missionaries denied the Sioux the Sun Dance as they attempted to Christianize Native Americans. The Europeans scrambled for Africa and Gandhi spun cloth to fight economic dependency. While sometimes there is opposition and other times acquiescence, imperialism has costs and benefits for both the strong and the weak. Broad essential questions such as "How nations use their power?" or "How conquered and conqueror interact?" take us through human history. The "peculiar" institution of slavery might allow us to examine "Why and how Africans became slaves in the Americas?" or "How another society justified the exploitation of others?" As we widen our view, we find that ours is not a unique experience, we share commonalities with peoples across time and geography. We also find that our actions are not the only possibilities, our resolutions are not historical inevitabilities, and our perception is not the only reality.

     In committee work, the divisions between those who seek to create "content lists" and those who rely on "social studies skills" often appears too wide to bridge. Race and Imperialism are examples of themes that provide the structure to examine broad sweeps of U. S. history without dictating specific content requirements. Starting with themes would ideally lead to small groups of teachers working together to create curriculum in-order to facilitate articulation for vertical grade alignment at their own school. Real professional development occurs because we are no longer examining district or state generated lists for what is missing but instead creating "historical waypoints" for our students on their journey to better understanding the historical themes of U. S. History.

     Next, in a clearly a much more daunting task, I wrestled with the same question for a World History course. Selecting a unit from 6000 years or so of recorded human history that best encapsulates the human experience seems an impossible task. However, it is also liberating. A single unit in world history needs to focus on an aspect of human history that highlights the struggle to grapple with longstanding issues. Yet, it is important that it meets the criteria of accessibility to teachers, richness of content and high student interest while at the same time exposing an essential problem of humanity. As with the criteria for selecting US history lessons it should expose a facet of world history that has the potential to reveal a deeper human connection. Agricultural and industrial revolution are interesting candidates. The rise and fall of empires, the travel and trade of merchants, the art and architecture of civilizations can all help to explain the course of human development. Selecting any single period of time and a specific region is an invitation to accusations of bias but as a point of departure in the hopes of constructing a district wide standards guideline and curricular menu, the exercise requires a selection.

     If, as with U. S. History, I were to insist on a fundamental unit for all of human history, I would select the Holocaust. It may seem superfluous to land on the Holocaust as a needed area of historical study. In many school districts and social studies departments, the genocide of six million Jews is often the one area of curricular agreement. Indeed, in teaching a 20th century history course the specifics of the Holocaust provide excellent material for historical study. However, while the Holocaust occurs in a brief moment of human history, it is orchestrated within the context of a long European history. Students will have the opportunity to examine the role of the Church and Christianity in creating and perpetuating anti-Semitism. They could investigate the promises and the hypocrisies of the Enlightenment, wrestle with the why and how of a "modern" cosmopolitan state like Germany organizing for mass extermination, and as importantly but often ignored, "why most of Europe went along and assisted in the killing?" The study of the Holocaust even exposes the morality of the bystander.

     Even in a Current Events class, the Holocaust continues to have relevance both as a political tool and as an understanding of how to approach history. Students examining the current Middle East need to understand the significance of the Holocaust in the establishment of the State of Israel. While anti-Israel sentiment and rhetoric is rather commonplace in the region, there is unique abhorrence, at least in the West, of those that deny the existence or even the scope of the Holocaust. A study of how the legacy of the Holocaust shapes modern politics might generate particular unit questions such as "Can the Muslim world ever find peace with Israel if Holocaust denial remains an accepted form of political speech in the Middle East?" or "In several countries in Europe it is a crime to deny the Holocaust. How did this come to be?" even "Why is anti-Semitic (in this case really anti-Jewish) propaganda banned in much of Europe but a rising and ever more vocal tide of anti-Muslim sentiment gains traction in local and national politics?" A student's knowledge of the Holocaust, its causes and its consequences, allows them to contextualize specifics of Western history but also provides the opportunity to practice historical skills useful in understanding intolerance, conflict, and genocide whenever they occur.

     The Holocaust is especially useful for students looking at historiography. There are several, related questions at the center of twentieth century national histories for many European countries. What did they know and when did they know it? Did French citizens collaborate with Nazis out of fear or common desire to be free of an unwanted minority? Were most Germans truly ignorant of what was happening to the nation's Jews? Did Germans overlook Hitler's anti-Jewish pronouncements because they were so desperate for leadership? Students of U. S. History might ask, "Did the U. S. fight the war to stop the killing? Could the U. S. military have bombed the death camps? Did U. S. immigration policy lead to the deaths of European Jews?" Recent scholarship on these questions demonstrates that each country and its historians have struggled with how to portray the role of their own citizens in these events. Exploring how do nations write their own histories and how they deal with the nasty bits, requires students to become involved in a controversy while demonstrating the vibrancy of the field of history.9

     The selection of the Holocaust is not a substitute for a world history course. However, it serves as a useful example of how we as teachers can use our current knowledge to expand our student's understanding of the deep roots of historical acts. While the Holocaust is a unique event to mid twentieth century Europe, it unfortunately offers lessons of universal significance that perplex humanity before 1933 and after 1945. Since most social studies teachers have a working understanding of the events and consequences of the Holocaust, it is a good "historical waypoint" from which other examples and issues can be explored. What rights and privileges are minorities afforded or denied? What actions will individuals take when faced with moral issues of life or death? Has there been any progress in human history on the issues of genocide or ethnic cleansing? These questions require historical content knowledge beyond a single unit and it is here that teacher choice can build a classroom curriculum. Identifying genocide or ethnic cleansing as an historical theme allows teachers to pull from what they know but also build or explore examples with their students.

     As we focus on the Holocaust in our classroom, we can also acknowledge that genocide is not limited to the "distant past" or to a particular religious minority. The Holocaust becomes a baseline for the exploration of more recent genocides, each generating their own set of questions. While we should stay away from comparing the suffering of the victims of genocide or the depravity of the perpetrators, we can encourage our students to provide analysis of the patterns of genocide and ethnic cleansing. What role does nationalism play in the targeting of "the other"? Is the animosity based on religious disagreements or competition for scarce resources? Did the intervention of foreign powers shape the conflict or did they remain aloof and only later regret the outcome?

     Sadly, the choices for recent genocides are too many. The "Killing Fields" of the Khmer Rouge includes the murder of 1.7 million fellow Cambodians. How did Cold War politics, civil war, ethnic tensions, and a utopian nightmare conspire to allow this to occur?10 In Africa, the study of Sudan, Rwanda, Eritrea, and Somalia allow students to explore how scarce environmental resources, poor governance, and the legacy of colonialism led to war and genocide. The Sunni–Shiite clash in Iraq is just one of the more recent examples of co-religionists using doctrinal disputes in the midst of foreign occupation to settle old scores. However, the study of Iraq also provides an opportunity for students to analyze how interventions create power vacuums that quickly fill with crisis, conflict, and civil war. Soon students will arrive to our classrooms from Syria. Our lessons on establishing democracy will have special relevance for those who have experienced the cost of demanding change from a dictator.

     Investigations in the genocides and ethnic cleansings of the last forty years may resonate personally with some of our students or their immediate family. While it is possible that students from these war ravaged areas will offer our classrooms an analysis of the causes of violence, it is more likely that what they share will be rooted in the first hand-experience of the horrors of genocide. As our schools reflect the consequences of a globalized world, utilizing the narratives of these recent survivors of ethnic cleansings helps in constructing an approach to learning about the Holocaust. Skilled and knowledgeable teachers will help students place recent experiences in an historical context.

     Thankfully, no state budget, school board, or administrator has yet instituted draconian cuts requiring limiting US and/or World History to just a handful of targets. However, as districts move to a Standards Based Learning System, local teachers must have an active role in creating the content standards. Encouraging a process that asks teachers to identify what they believe are the core lessons and examples of history, is an important first step in collaboration. As teachers examine and discuss the "what and why" of historical instruction they can better identify and address the essential questions in human history. Selecting history in this way does more than just fill a page with content standards and suggested curriculum; it sharpens our teaching and creates meaningful professional development. Curriculum that is easily accessible to teachers, rich with content knowledge, and thick with interest for students, provides opportunities for analysis of the essential facets of humanity. Keeping these criteria in mind, teachers can select an expanded core of historical knowledge that all students should experience.

     Working with a committee of teachers has allowed me the time to go back and examine previous efforts at state or national standards. The best standards move away from the "one damn thing after another" of list making and instead look to provide teachers and students with a framework of historical issues and problems to examine. The History/Social Science Content Standards from California are a good example of a set of standards that combine general historical skills with some specific content knowledge that helps to shape a teacher's curriculum. The most recent Oregon standards replaces the previous list of names, terms, and events with the equally frustrating and unsatisfying nebulas language of "explain important events. . ." or "major innovations" while offering little guidance on what these might be. What is the likelihood that students in the same school, let alone the same district will have a common experience in their history education?11

     Though standards from California or other states might serve as an easy guide for all teachers to adopt, I do not believe that a top-down approach to content targets or curriculum can ever work in a profession that requires the autonomy of each teacher. However, I do believe that teachers, who also view themselves as learners, will eagerly engage in professional development that invites us to select, grapple, and justify what we teach. As we generate our essential lessons and questions, we will create a more meaningful curriculum that all students can experience. Perhaps this goal is too ambitious given the political and cultural controversies in selecting a national history curriculum. However, providing teachers with meaningful professional development that allows, encourages, and requires engagement with new curricular ideas will produce a dynamic core of historical content standards. It is upon this core that teachers can build a rich classroom curriculum. Here all of our students can stand on a foundation of historical knowledge and skills that will prepare them well for the future.

Amit Kobrowski is a history teacher at Sunset High School, Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at He welcomes questions or comments about the process of creating content standards as his district and department continue to fine-tune a Standards Based Learning System.


I would like to thank Matt Hiefield, Pat McCreery, Murray Carlisle, and Robin Kobrowski for their inspiration, insights, and patience during the creation of this paper.

1 Oregon Social Sciences Academic Content Standards, Adopted August 15, 2011 (July 22, 2013).

2 As part of the work for my department, I purchased multiple copies of textbooks and books of some of the recent "Big" historians. Our professional library is replete with David Christian's Maps of Time and This Fleeting World, Cynthia Stokes Big History, John McNeil's The Human Web, Patrick Manning's Navigating World History, Bentley and Ziegler's Traditions and Encounters, Sterns' World Civilizations, and Dunn's The New World History. Sadly, the great majority of these remain unread.

3 Here I am using syllabus in reference to an outline of a course of study, not the specific content that comprises a curriculum.

4 While the district committee continues to examine these issues, my own department has made significant changes to the scope and sequence of a high school students' history experience. All students are now required to take two years of World History and one year of U. S. History. Most IB students will go on to a fourth year of history. Non-IB students can choose to take social studies elective like Law or Psychology concurrent with their history class or as a senior. The two years of required World History has meant a great deal of learning for most of our department but it has also created exciting opportunities for the sharing of best practice and curriculum.

5 As a colleague retorted, "Can a kid submit a paper on the history of how Peter Parker became Spider Man and fulfill the historical skills learning targets?" It is possible to teach historical skills with any story, but sticking with a few facts and some real events might prove useful.

6 Nov. 22nd 1963, Columbus' ships, Neil Armstrong, the European capitals, the Seven Wonders of the World, etc. The list is endless and mostly trivial but if they do not get it from us how are they supposed to enjoy Jeopardy?

7 Eric Schmitt, "Aftereffects: Military Presence; Rumsfeld Says U. S. Will Cut Forces in Gulf," New York Times, April 29, 2003, 19. Available on-line at Accessed July 22, 2013.

8 William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1988).

9 With numerous accounts of nations struggling to explain their role in the Holocaust, I achieved some success in class by utilizing excerpts from Max Hastings, "Germans Confront the Nazi Past," New York Review of Books 56 (February 26th, 2009).

10 Nearly 1.7 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1975-1979, 21% of the entire population. This and more information on the actions of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are available from the Cambodia Genocide Project at July 22, 2013.

11 California History-Social Studies Content Standards Accessed July 22, 2013.

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