March 1, 1991

March 1991

The following statement regarding history education was formulated and is endorsed by the Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians. The OAH is the largest professional society created and sustained for the promotion, study, and teaching of American history.

The parties to the current debate regarding history curricula in the public schools profess a common interest in assuring that students receive a good history education. Many of them disagree, however, often stridently, on what a good history education entails. Some argue for the primacy of Euro-American history in the curricula. Others urge concentration on the history of non-Western peoples or on one or more racial minorities. Still others favor forms of multicultural or multi-ethnic history whose contents fall variously between the two polarities. All school teachers, professional historians, educational policymakers, and the lay public have an interest in the issue and should be encouraged to participate in the debate.

In the comments that follow, the Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians offers several observations which it hopes all interested parties will regard as constructive contributions to the ongoing dialogue. History involves a continuing process of discovery, of reinterpretation, and of varying and often clashing perspectives. Therefore, great care should be taken to assure that the history taught in the public schools, whether that of racial minorities, women, and working people, or that of the whole society, be based upon sound historical scholarship. The best remedy for “bad history” and the best assurance of “good history” is well-trained and well-prepared history teachers who, understanding the dynamic nature of historical inquiry, can help students develop a critical perspective on the past.

The history curricula of public schools should be constructed around the principle that all people have been significant actors in human events. Students should therefore understand that history is not limited to the study of dominant political, social, and economic elites. It also encompasses the individual and collective quests of ordinary people for a meaningful place for themselves in their families, in their communities, and in the larger world.

The history of minority groups is critical to an understanding of the American past as well as the present. It should therefore be an integral part of the curricula of public schools. It comprises more, however, than the relations of minority groups to the larger society. Equally significant are the internal dynamics of minority group life as expressed in developments stemming from the roles which members of minority groups have played in their own communities.

Because history is tied up with a people’s identity it is legitimate that minority groups, women, and working people celebrate and seek to derive self-esteem from aspects of their history. The traditional omission of these groups from, or their misrepresentation in, many United States history textbooks and the marginal treatment of societies outside Europe in most world history textbooks further justify such an objective.

A primary goal of history education is to foster mutual understanding and respect among people of different backgrounds and traditions. Historical study should proceed first from the clear acknowledgement that no major group or society has a wholly singular and static cultural heritage. On the contrary, the cultures of all people have become intermingled over time, often in subtle and complex ways that historians are still exploring. Consequently, in addition to contradicting the values which public schools should seek to impart, a history that asserts or implies the inherent superiority of one race, gender, class, or region of the world over another is by definition “bad history” and should have no place in American schools.

The multiple objectives of history education can best be served by curricula that afford students the opportunity in the public schools to study both the history of the larger society and the history of minority groups and non-Western cultures. Whether the people of the United States regard themselves as one nation or many, or as some combination of both, most Americans will probably recognize that they share certain common traditions, values, and experiences arising out of their common humanity and their interactions with one another. These include our political and economic institutions, however imperfect, a mass culture that affects everyone, and a common entitlement to freedom, equality, and dignity. A successful history education should help students understand what binds Americans together while simultaneously promoting respect for America’s pluralism and diversity. We hope it will contribute to realizing a common future of reconciliation and equality across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, and class.