Getting Back on Track

By Ray Raphael

How can teachers begin to change the narrative of our nation’s founding— indeed, the way in which all history is told? We can’t wait for textbooks to catch on and catch up. Here are some tips we can use right now.

  • Watch your language. In class lessons and discussions, try to wean yourself from the default grammar that portrays all historical action as individualistic.
  • Don’t eliminate the Founders and other “important” individuals, but keep their biographies from subsuming the main story. The lives of these folks, like those of shoemakers and farmwives and slaves, can add flavor and color and make history seem more alive—but they belong in the sidebars, not in the central narrative thread.
  • In lessons and discussions, every time the Big Boys seem to drown out the rest, ask the class: Were these people typical of the times? Were they making these decisions all on their own, with everyone else following along like sheep? How would this story look if we take different people as our protagonists?
  • Use simulations that address the political decisionmaking of common people. Students will take on various roles, such as that of slaves deciding whether or not to escape. As students evaluate the alternatives by weighing the dangers against the possible gains, they will be treating slaves as political actors, not simply objects of pity.
  • Use simulations that specifically address common distortions in the language of historical narration. Have the class, or groups within the class, perform some group effort. After the job is done, attribute the results of this effort to a single individual. In the debriefing, students will see how group processes are routinely degraded to tales of individual achievement.
  • In your choice of what to tell and what not to tell, don’t marginalize people just because they have not been included in the gatekeepers’ version of the core narrative. If we marginalize common people of the past, we learn how to marginalize common people in the present.
  • Above all, teach students to be aware of the storytelling process. No text should ever be accepted as the single “authority” on anything. Whoever controls the narrative controls history—this is a powerful message. Those who ignore it will remain blind to the manipulation of others, but those who get it, like the people of the American Revolution, will be able to challenge abusive authority and take control of their destinies.