July 25, 2021
by Steve Stofka
My mother taught fifth-grade for many years. As I was packing away her school texts for a library donation, I browsed her American history book. I was surprised that the teaching of history had not changed much since I was a child decades earlier. “It leaves out a lot of the ugly,” I said.
She thought about that for a moment. “They are fifth-graders. There are a lot of immigrants with different cultural histories,” she said. “We teach citizenship and history.”
She went on to explain that the school board chose a text that highlights the rights and duties of citizens, the benefits of negotiation and trade, and the tragedy of war, when people stop talking.
“I just browsed the text but it seems to let white people off the hook for a lot of stuff that happened,” I said. I mentioned the part where Indians and colonists argued over land rights. “The settlers exploited the Indians, claiming the land when they got one minor chief to sign an ‘x’ on a piece of paper,” I said.
She thought about that. “I wonder if a 5th grader would understand the subtlety of that. We’re trying to get them not to call each other names and push each other down. The height differences in the boys are starting to emerge.”
“That warped view of history will stay with them for the rest of their lives,” I said. “Founding Fathers, yadda-yadda-yadda. Freedom and equality for all. They fought tooth and nail with each other. Jefferson wrote about self-evident truths then kept slaves.”
“I think the school board wants the children to learn those aspirational ideals,” she said. “Contradiction, meanness and dishonesty the kids can see every day in their community, on the TV, perhaps in their families. They don’t need to be taught about those things.”
“They need to understand those conflicts and betrayals,” I said. “It would help them understand.”
She shook her head. “No, they wouldn’t. Not at that age. We don’t teach trigonometry to 5th graders because they wouldn’t understand. We teach a simplified version of history for the same reason.”
“It makes history seem remote from their lives,” I protested. “Its why a lot of kids don’t care about history.”
“History happened before they were born,” she said. “For them, history is remote. Some children probably learn more history as part of their religious upbringing. It’s a connection with the past.” She paused. “There might be an old textbook upstairs in one of the bedrooms. You might compare texts from when you were in school.”
I didn’t find an old grade school textbook on American history, but there was a 4th grade math text. Math teaching begins on a base of arithmetic and the four rules of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, then uses those skills to teach what can be called mathematics – algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus. I wonder if we will ever develop a method of study to teach history in a similar manner. If someone did, would the school board approve?