over time? Does it make a difference which version of the past we accept?
Such questions touch upon every facet of the discipline of history, constituting the foundational problems historians confront when doing history.
Though it might appear obvious, focusing on historical accounts would already represent a major break from traditional history instruction. The accounts that historians write and adults read—such as the currently popular biography of John Adams or the groundbreaking Cheese and the Worms9—are typically too rich and deep, too complex and time-consuming, to find their way into textbooks. Students do not read about John Adams’ life, his relationship with his wife, his travels to Europe, his passions and enthusiasms, but rather read that he was President, that he held certain positions, and that he died on the same day as Thomas Jefferson. Only these discrete bits of information, the traces of historical accounts, make their way into textbooks or into curricular objectives.
Raising questions about accounts helps students see the water in which they are swimming. Historical accounts—or rather, the vestigial remains of historical accounts—are ubiquitous in high school history courses. Textbooks, media, handouts, lectures, classroom materials, technology, and teachers surround history students with fragments of historical narratives and interpretations, yet rarely do students see the nature and structure of these interpretations. Much of high school history finds students exploring vast evidenceless and authorless expanses of curriculum that promote, as historian David Lowenthal10 asserts, a “credulous allegiance” to some version of the past:
Historical faith is instilled in school. “Youngsters have been taught history as they were taught math as a finite subject with definite right or wrong answers,” frets a museum director. Most history texts are “written as if their authors did not exist….” High marks depend on giving the “correct” gloss to regurgitated facts. Textbook certitude makes it hard for teachers to deal with doubt and controversy; saying “I don’t know” violates the authoritative norm and threatens classroom control.
Problematizing historical accounts, then, makes visible what is obscured, hidden, or simply absent in many history classrooms. It helps move school history beyond reproducing others’ conclusions to understanding how people produced those conclusions, while considering the limitations and strengths of various interpretations. By making historical accounts our essential historical problem, we can help students develop familiarity with historical writing; identify ways in which people have interpreted past events; recognize, compare, and analyze different and competing interpretations of events; examine reasons for shifts in interpretations over time; study the ways people use evidence to reason historically; and consider interpretations in relation-