Thursday, September 02, 2010

History in Schools, Museums and more

Chapter 7 of Margaret MacMillan's book Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History is titled "History Wars". It begins with a discussion of the controversies over the teaching of history in schools in various countries. It occurs to me that she might have considered the purposes of the history curriculum in schools:

  • Teaching historical facts
  • Teaching how to interpret historical trends and influences
  • Teaching how to find historical information in the future
  • Teaching how to reasonably assign credence to historical information that is found
  • Impart a love of learning
  • Impart a respect for those who are truly learned
  • Teaching how to do that which a historian does
  • Teaching from historical example how to live a virtuous life
Schools as they teach history are also charged with teaching students about the history of the institutions that are important to the societies in which they live and the way those institutions work. 

Americans (and I suppose people in other countries) are especially concerned that schools play a role in the acculturation of students so that they accept these important institutions. This function is perhaps more of an indoctrination in that students are intended to accept values fundamental to the operation of democratic government and other key institutions of the nation.

Problems occur at all these levels, as people disagree on which assertions are factual, and which should be taught versus left untaught or censored. They disagree on which trends exist and which are important, and they disagree of which sources of historical information are trustworthy. They disagree on the importance of historiography, and they disagree on what constitutes a virtuous life. There is a long historical trend of anti-intellectualism in American life, and I assume it is reflected in factions which differ in both their enthusiasm for learning and their respect for the learned. Finally, they disagree on which institutions are important to national life and how to teach about them.

MacMillan comes down strongly in favor of teaching fact and exploding errors, which I find to be fundamental to education. Fortunately I live in a society which feels that public education is a right and that public education should not seek to teach religion, while allowing those who want religious schools to have them.

MacMillan also discusses the wars over historical content in museums (and she might have included zoos, aquariums and other institutions that can and do teach aspects of history). Clearly, as her examples demonstrate, there are controversies over the content of exhibits in these venues. The problem I see is that these are very diverse, ranging from major national institutions such as the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to such institutions as the Baseball and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. Some have missions of education, some of conservation of heritage, and some of entertainment. 

Finally, MacMillan discusses decisions in the public domain as to which historical events and personages to commemorate and how to commemorate them. I would suggest that the decisions in the Catholic Church as to which saints to commemorate have similar aspects. I am most impressed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that were created in South Africa and Chile to help those countries deal with traumatic past events. Perhaps it might not be bad for the United States to create such a commission to deal with the treatment of African Americans, Native Americans and other ethnic groups in our past.

This is one of a series of postings on Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History:

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