With apologies to Paul Simon for stealing his song title… I’m cross-posting from the Historian’s Craft website a post about our class discussion last week (Thurs 2/3) about the historical conundrum that John Brown poses – or any complex real historical figure, really, but we seized on Brown in our class session because James W. Loewen makes such a hero of him in his chapter “John Brown and Abraham Lincoln: The Invisibility of Antiracism in American History Textbooks” (Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong) – and because the moral question posed by Brown’s very existence still seems starkly drawn.
So here’s what we did –
1) We wrote the guidelines for Paper #1: here they are. This assignment is likely to serve double-duty as an “embedded assessment” for the History program since, as a requirement, this course will catch majors mid-stream and provides a way to evaluate students’ grasp on the concepts of primary v. secondary sources and their capacity to use them effectively. That’s why I openly asked for their input on the assignment’s guidelines and why, after it’s done, we’ll collectively tweak the assignment to improve it for the next time around.
2) We took the quiz administered by the organization Common Core to 1200 17-year olds, in which the respondents collectively scored a D. Try the quiz yourself and see how you do. If you’re interested in their 2008 full report, “Still At Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now,” you can find it here as a downloadable PDF. It’s worth a read.
3) We also handed out & briefly discussed an exchange from the Boston Globe Magazine this past month. A Tufts professor calls for increased funding for social studies education and giving the History MCAS a go-ahead as a statewide demonstration of commitment to civics education. But a high school teacher criticizes the focus on high-stakes testing as the only measurement of history’s value in the HS curriculum. I excerpted the exchange into a PDF handout.
4) Finally, we discussed the diverse (and not necessarily incompatible) ways that John Brown was treated in our various textbooks. As a main figure in Loewen’s Chapter 6 pageant of “racial idealists,” Brown is a very complex historical character. What word did (or should) your book use to describe him? Idealist? Misfit? Outlier? Visionary? Zealot? Fanatic? Radical? Christian Martyr? Terrorist? Murderer? Traitor? Prophet? How should a classroom teacher discuss the man? Is it enough to present multiple sides and let students judge for themselves, or is taking sides important when it comes to people who break the law in defense of what they claim are higher causes? How would a professional historian go about making Brown’s actions comprehensible and/or relevant in American history?
For more on historical memory of Brown, see St. John Barned-Smith, “The Unquiet Repose of John Brown,” Obit 12/3/2009.