An F in Historical Thinking

I’m just agog at this story from Sun Prairie, WI. I have my head in my hands. As a historian who has worked with teachers for years, where to even start?

Oh, you’re assuming I agree with the critics? Prepare for a shock.

Let’s set aside, for a moment, that I am no fan of worksheets, canned teaching materials, or (as a general rule) facile “what would YOU have done?” questions on history as a way to teach kids how people of the past thought differently (honestly, just leave the question implicit, I say, although I have admittedly made exceptions, such as asking kids how they would deal with peeing in an air raid shelter during the London Blitz). 

Let’s start with the problem that this is a textbook case of adults not thinking historically, and I am not talking about the teachers who have been hung out to dry by their administration. 

The document was presented on Facebook for public scrutiny without any context.  Let me take an educated guess at what that context is: I assume this is a world history class for sixth grade, covering ancient history. The students were studying Hammurabi’s Code, one of the earliest known collections of laws in human history, from Mesopotamia, and dating to around 1754 BCE. That’s Hammurabi in the picture, if you’re wondering.

Most teachers (and professors for that matter, given the pronounced preference of most American history departments for hiring scholars of modern history in a mistaken effort to stay relevant) have a background in ancient history that ranges from zero to none. Early in my career, when I supported the last two years of my PhD with adjuncting work, I had a department chair beg me to teach the first half of world history. “But I know nothing about it!” I laughed. “Neither does anyone else,” he replied. I took the job, and swore I never would again. I sucked at it, because, well, despite the platitude that a good teacher can teach anything, we can’t.

Since I started working with K-8 teachers, I have often received plaintive requests for help finding “resources” for ancient history. It’s not even remotely my field.  I can’t offer them much that doesn’t come down to “Read Mary Beard’s books” (not that that would be a bad thing, but most teachers just aren’t going to read her books or any other historians’, more’s the pity).  No wonder so many teachers  charged with teaching ancient history turn out of sheer desperation to online sites selling other teachers’ superficial lesson plans and teaching materials, .

But that’s not the main problem in Sun Prairie, WI, this week. Here’s what is.

Practically everyone attacking the teachers has failed (or refused) to recognize that the subject at hand is not slavery in American history. The teachers, who are not teaching American history, or about race-based slavery, have been assailed for their alleged indifference to Black History Month, when, since Hammurabi’s code doesn’t directly relate to Black history, it probably never occurred to them to make such a connection.

The critics have castigated the teachers involved for causing trauma to their students with this question, the context of which would be more apparent to the middle schoolers than to their adult defenders. How, I wonder, would such students cope with learning the horrifying truth about slavery and racism in America? Fortunately, 6th graders are made of much sterner stuff. Do the critics want teachers to whitewash the past? Because they’re going the right way about it.

What those who are up in arms in Sun Prairie have done is to make it terrifying for teachers to talk about slavery at all, much less racism. I cannot imagine that teachers now won’t hesitate to discuss with their students that slavery, according to the world’s largest modern organization fighting it,  is far from dead, and that there are more people held in slavery today than at any time in human history.

They will certainly be reluctant, and even afraid, now to discuss the complex history of the  particular race-based nature of slavery in the Americas, and, most relevant to us in the U.S., the particular forms it took in colonial, early national, and antebellum America. How are they to equip students for their inevitable and uncomfortable discovery that slavery existed in early modern Africa, and to help them fight back against racist “bothsidesism”? How will they teach that racism in America has a specific history that does so much to explain the nation today, and is only connected to Hammurabi’s day in that slavery is never a good thing?

Most of all, the critics have shamefully modeled to kids how not to read and think rationally and with evidence, the most important skills anyone can take from the study of history. Based on a headline, or a Facebook post, they leapt to the conclusions that the exercise was about American history, and that it had no context that need concern them.

And let’s be clear: The critics are not just random members of the public. They are administrators, and school board members and journalists (whose coverage, frankly, has been pathetic). They have humiliated, implicitly shamed as racist, and suspended the teachers who innocently assigned this mediocre worksheet. They have refused to consider the context. They have not consulted historians. Instead have leapt on a performative bandwagon, and done real harm to the relationships between kids and teachers, and between everyone and historical truth.  In short, they have modeled the kind of nonsense in American education that I have been working against for years. 

Annette Laing, PhD, is an academic historian of early America and the Atlantic World. She was formerly a tenured professor at Georgia Southern University, where she was a member of the department of history and the Africana Studies program faculty. She is the author of The Snipesville Chronicles series of MG/YA time-travel novels.

Leave a Comment