Politicizing the Past: Can History be Taught Objectively?
Professor Charles Hill is not for want of histories. Hill, the Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy and an International Studies lecturer, is reading a book in his office at 31 Hillhouse Avenue, itself lined with volumes on every surface, when I walk in. He places his paperweight of choice, his father’s axe head, in the open book’s spine, gestures for me to take a seat, and waits for me to begin speaking.
Hill has taught at Yale since 1997. Before coming to Yale, he was a linchpin United States Foreign Service member and alternately a senior aide to George P. Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He has seen generations of Yale students come through the Directed Studies program, an intensive humanity and philosophy track for first-years, and in Hill’s mind, he teaches them nothing but the truth.
The telling of history in this country has been a contested subject since the birth of the American republic. In the early 20th century, William Archibald Dunning, historian of Reconstruction, noted the subjectivity of interpreting the past. In a 1914 essay in The American Historical Review entitled “Truth in History,” Dunning asserted, “We must recognize frankly that whatever a given age or people believes to be true is true for that age and that people.”
Historians’ attempts to discover “truth” are situated in their own political moments, just as the histories they study are situated in theirs. But as partisanship has heightened in the past decades, these debates have become increasingly divided, especially on contentious subjects like race and identity in America.
In January 2020, an article in The New York Times reignited this dispute.
The piece by reporter Dana Goldstein tracked key differences in the same edition of textbooks distributed across the United States. Among the eight textbooks covered, Goldstein notes one particularly striking difference in a McGraw-Hill textbook. The California version notes relevant gun legislation on an annotated Bill of Rights; the Texas version ignores arms regulation, deleting the annotation completely while keeping the rest of the page intact.
Still, Goldstein’s article acknowledges that this controversy extends beyond textbooks. The 2016 presidential election in particular marked a watershed moment in the way high school history courses are taught. Since then, the article posits, polarization and partisanship have occupied an increasingly noticeable presence in classrooms, as some teachers feel compelled to discuss their personal beliefs, opinions, and experiences. Beyond regional discrepancies, individual teachers and their various idiosyncrasies can determine how their students learn history.
Despite noticing a shift in the way students approach history—which Hill attributes to high school teachers increasingly imbuing their classes with their own perspectives—he believes it is possible to teach history free of external political influence. After all, he says, that’s what he does.
When Jose Guerrero ‛23 walked into his Advanced Placement (AP) United States History class his sophomore year at Harris County High School in Hamilton, GA, he was surprised.
“I remember learning about states’ rights in the Civil War [in middle school],” said Jose in an interview with The Politic. “From what I learned, I thought that Robert E. Lee was a good general and good person.”
But in his class at Harris County High, the message was different.
His teacher, one of the few black faculty members at the school, pushed against the grain of his conservative hometown politics by placing an emphasis on alternative historical narratives, especially regarding African American history. “She really challenged us to look at different perspectives,” Jose said.
But many of Jose’s high school friends who weren’t in his AP U.S. History class still believed the perspective they were taught. “The idea of states’ rights was definitely emphasized in [their] classes,” he remembered.
This disparity in the way American schools teach history is twofold. It reflects not only regional politics, but the kind of history education made possible in different kinds of schools, and even within schools.
Nine hundred and sixty-one miles north of Hamilton, at the Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Brooklyn, NY, Shoshana Hershenstraus has no problem with teachers going beyond the assigned textbook. “I always inject the personal,” Hershenstraus shared in an interview with The Politic.
As the daughter of Holocaust and World War II survivors, she cannot separate her past from her classroom in Manhattan Beach. She describes herself as a Baby Boomer—“a child of the sixties”—who frequented anti-war protests, women’s rights demonstrations, and, most memorably, Woodstock. “My parents had no idea [I was there] until I found a phone booth and called them,” Hershenstraus remembers. “Those are the kinds of things that affect you.”
To Hershenstraus, adding her personal narrative is not only useful, but is the only way to get at historical truth. If she solely focused on what would most likely be tested on the AP exam in May, Hershenstraus would have omitted elements of America’s past—particularly around activism and social justice—that she finds essential to the country’s history. Sanitized historical narratives don’t cut it.
Although some students “might have thought I spent too much time discussing race or xenophobia or the labor movement,” she knew it was vital. “I really saw it as affecting me.”
At the same time, Hershenstraus insists that bringing the personal into the classroom does not justify sacrificing accuracy or fact. Rather, she hopes her experiences enhance students’ understanding of why history matters. “I really was very careful, I hope, to provide lots and lots of information and documents and have them sort of reach their own conclusion, and then have them debate,” she said.
Plus, trying to conceal how her life affects her teaching would be disingenuous. “No matter what period you cover, [the students] feel like you lived it,” she laughs. “I always tell them, ‘You know, Abe Lincoln and I really weren’t neighbors or anything, and I didn’t even know FDR, for that matter.’”
After teaching Directed Studies classes for the past 23 years, Hill thinks his students are sometimes “giving you the words of their high school teacher.”
Indeed, to Hill, the debate over the subjectivity of history is just a ploy for teachers to follow popular trends, to the detriment of their students’ learning. In an interview with The Politic, Hill lamented that “America is a bad country” is now the prevailing historical narrative. By these newer methods, historians are expected “to tell the American story in a certain way and point out how every stage, every person, and every authority was bad.”
It’s just plain bias, he says.
In an interview with The Politic, Michael Franczak, a lecturer in History at Yale who teaches The United States in the Global 1970s: Politics, Economics, Society, said that he sees his role as “[making] students more conscious of the consequences and limitations of American power. That is not to say it can’t be wielded for good.”
Walking into the classroom, he, like Hill, is acutely aware of students’ divergent pre-college curricula and preparation. “Students that didn’t have the prep experience weren’t on this track since they were kids,” Franczak explains.
He points, for example, to a Texas law that mandates that all public schoolers take a course in Texas history. These courses often espouse textbook-endorsed views about the Second Amendment that you wouldn’t find in the North. He wants students to question the truths they’ve been taught, and he doesn’t purport to have the perfect account either.
Yale students themselves recognize that history is not a monolith. Alex Martin ‛23, for one, actively seeks this subjectivity when choosing classes. In Constitutional Law, which Alex took last fall, Professor Akhil Amar is known for teaching the Constitution from his own liberal originalist perspective. “I think it’s great when professors put their perspective into class material,” Alex said in an interview with The Politic. “It makes going to school intellectually exciting.”
Alex, a native of Arkansas, was first introduced to the subjectivity of history at the Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock. Alex considers himself lucky: his teachers placed more emphasis on critical discussion than the intense memorization required for standardized test prep.
Inspired by his AP U.S. History teacher’s passion for Little Rock’s past, Alex independently researched the city’s history of discriminatory housing policies, specifically redlining laws from the 1900s resulting from Jim Crow laws and sharecropping.
But Alex’s friends at other schools in Arkansas did not receive the same support to pursue research on tougher questions. History curricula were inconsistent, even within the same school district.
Shane “Chief” Martin, a high school history teacher at Mountain Brook High School in Birmingham, AL, finds that many AP courses create a false sense of security in absolute truth and an undeserved respect for memorization. As best he tries, it’s impossible to be fully objective. There is an “obvious human bias we have toward our content,” he said in an interview with The Politic.
Regardless of personal background, history is never so cut-and-dry. Martin is proud of his school’s approach, which teaches students how to be critical thinkers and historians, and treats facts as a jumping-off point for discussion and debate.
In nearby schools, though, students don’t have the same experience. Martin described communities where “it’s just get-the-content, just throw the facts at them and let’s move on. It’s kind of a churn-and-burn.” Mountain Brook, on the other hand, “is about learning.”
Alex remembers his own friends’ frustrations about their “churn-and-burn” schools, particularly in the public school system. There is “a lack of emphasis on harder topics, like the atrocities Columbus committed and the brutality of U.S.-Native American interactions,” Alex explained.
But things have been changing, at least in Mountain Brook. Martin shared, “It’s not the traditional old views the way it used to be—it’s a lot of change and a lot of it is because…we’re willing to have discussions and have debates and ask tough questions.”
Hill describes his intention as an educator as “teach[ing] everything as it [was] to the people who did it. I teach Marx as a serious Marxist. I don’t teach it as a bad thing; I don’t try to give a coloration to what I’m doing. I want to take it for what the people say it is.”
“In other words,” Hill clarified. “I want to tell the truth.”
Despite increased national debate over history curricula, however, evidence suggests that today’s college students are even less interested in historical inquiry than were generations prior. According to a 2019 New Yorker article, “The Decline of Historical Thinking,” collegiate history department enrollments have been “declining more rapidly than any other major, even as more and more students attend college.”
Although this is only his first semester lecturing at Yale, Franczak has already realized that history is taught differently here. “Yale is the only school in the country where history is the most popular major. It is such a unique place [for that],” Franczak said.
Alex finds that the strength of the history major lies in its malleability. “I think if we got to a place where professors thought that their perspectives weren’t important—that their teaching must be dissociated from a perspective—it would be pretty bad,” he said.
Alex worries that if professors hide their own views, “we’d have a situation where extremely talented, knowledgeable, well-researched professors would teach about something they’re passionate about without giving the perspective as they understand it.”
Franczak and Hill, although representative of two different teaching approaches, agree that Yale’s emphasis on a nuanced understanding of history—and its shift away from the AP scantron bubble sheets many Yalies filled out in high school—is what makes its department so strong. This shift isolates Yale from both the rudimentary pedagogy of textbook learning and the regional politics that define the education of high schoolers across the country.
But does this goal always yield the truth? Is the truth even possible to achieve? Although, unlike Alex, most of Jose’s high school history classes were taught by textbook, both students came to Yale to learn from the backgrounds of their professors and peers.
Perhaps most importantly, does it even matter? It is unclear if the benefit of the search for objectivity in history is actually in the ultimate goal itself, or whether it is derived from the process of truth-seeking.
“In my opinion,” Martin argued, “if people are teaching from different perspectives, if those people can come together, I think it [ultimately] benefit[s] the kids because it generates such good discussion.”
Hershenstraus agrees. Without bringing the personal into the classroom, history won’t matter because students won’t care. “Just having one paragraph on an event that has a big impact on future events doesn’t do the kids justice, doesn’t do the profession justice, and certainly doesn’t do history justice.”