This week in my U.S. History class, we are early in the narrative timeline of the nation’s history.
We’ve just begun learning about the causes of the American Revolution: the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Tea Act, the Intolerable Acts, etc.
“Ho-hum”, is often the reaction student display at this time every year.
To them it is another sign that history is just a list of dates and events to be memorized.
It lulls them into a state of boredom and slumber.
The challenge to me as a teacher is to present these early events in a context that makes them relevant and important – and hopefully inspirational.
In these first days the class is busy with learning new routines, adjusting to homework assignments, seating charts, class rules, teacher expectations and a new style of instruction.
My approach to these early days to to rely heavily on routine while introducing my students to my provocative teaching style.
Occasionally I have students who have determined their opinion about history already.
Most often they have decided simply, “American good.”
In his amazing book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen writes that history textbooks ,”…portray the past as a simple minded morality play. ‘Be a good citizen’ is the message that textbooks extract from the past. ‘You have a proud heritage. Be all you can be. After all, look at what the United States has accomplished.’…
The optimistic approach prevents prevents any understanding of failure other than blaming the victim.”
For the students who have already decided that anything critical of the nation’s past is un-American, the intentional approach is challenging.
This is not a reason to abandon the intentional approach, but in fact it is the opposite: another reason to engage students with critical history.
The optimistic approach is a failed approach to teaching history.
It may seem wrong or un-American to abandon the optimistic approach, but blind patriotism crated blind citizens. I tell my students just this same message at this time of year every year.
I present history as a story well told, and in that I believe that the story needs to capture the attention of the listener. To do that I explain that this comes from a love of my country.
I offer a critical version of United States History because I love America, I explain.
I believe that real patriots love their country, and demand that their nation live up to the high standards it sets for itself.
Having high standards for law, justice, and government is what ensures that American has been and will remain a great nation, if not the greatest nation.
Those who defer criticism of the nation when it falls short of these essential standards do not truly love their nation.
They cannot be patriots and let the nation devolve from what makes it great, I say. Mark Twain once wrote that “Patriots loves their country all the time, and their government when it does the right thing.”
Criticism, in other words, is the highest form of patriotism.
One example of the optimistic approach to U.S. History is the story of Crispus Attucks.
This week we covered many things, among them the narrative of Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre. In our textbook, The Americans, it describes Attucks in the following way:
In the description of the events that led to the Boston Massacre, Crispus Attucks is harassing the British troops because he is angry about the oppression that they represent to him.
The troops reflect the heavy hand of the British king and the government.
They are bad, and Attucks is rising up to cast off the injustice that is so oppressive.
This is the optimistic narrative that Loewen refers to in his denouncement of American textbooks.
So here is where I need to insert myself as the teacher.
This is why students need a physical presence in front of them when they read these vague depictions of their history.
The role of the teacher is to add context and make connections from the past to the present.
In fact this is the role of the historian, and not just the teacher.
I point out how the text describes Attucks: “This Attucks… appears to have undertaken to be the hero of the night…”
So Crispus Attucks is the hero, I repeat.
Why is he the hero, exactly, I ask.
What did he do, I inquire.
Well the answer is very clear that Attucks attacked the British soldier who were maintaining order on the streets of Boston. “He had hardiness to fall upon [the soldiers], and with one hand took hold of the bayonet…”
In fact, Attucks even grabbed the gun of these British soldiers who were representing the law and keeping the peace, much like our modern day police officers do for us today.
So, I continue, Attucks was an African American who was killed by the police in Boston when he grabbed their gun while rising up against government tyranny and oppression.
He was also a “hero” as the textbook clearly describes.
Next I ask about our present day, transitioning to make a connection for the students to ponder and answer for themselves.
I say, “Has it even happened that police have gunned down an unarmed African American in the streets of America?”
The answer is sadly yes.
In fact, according to the Washington Post, police killed 648 people in 2017. Eight of those were unarmed African Americans.
In 2016 police killed 963 people, with seventeen of those killings representing unarmed African Americans.
In 2015, police killed 995 people, with 38 of those killings representing unarmed African Americans.
Crispus Attucks was a hero.
He gave his life for freedom from government oppression.
But his death is similar to others who were also killed, and so represents an opportunity for reflection and comparison.
His life mattered then and it matters now. It wouldn’t be in the textbook if it didn’t obviously.
Once upon a time, I explain, black lives mattered.
How is Attucks different and how is he similar to the killings of unarmed African Americans by police that plague our current times?
I ask my student to think, reflect, write and discuss.
This connection is how to make history relevant to students.
It is possible for them to reject the comparison or to agree with it, but in either outcome the students need to express why they think about Attucks and police brutality.
This expression of reflection must be based on evidence and personal interpretation.
That is what teachers need to ask of their students and how students can come to value the lessons of history.
The British soldiers who killed Attucks were put on trial. They were successfully defended by none other than John Adams, the future Founding Father and 2nd President of the United States. Adams argued that the soldiers had fired in self defense, and therefore were not guilty of murder.
Today when an someone grabs the gun of an officer of the law they can be killed by that officer without question.
Law enforcement is empowered to use lethal force whenever an officer believes that his or her life or the lives of others are in danger.
By this standard officers involved in the killings of Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, Freddie Gray or Michael Brown were all either not charged or were acquitted of all charges.
So if the police today are protected and empowered against something like what Crispus Attucks did, what then might be the value of this lesson?
What value is Attucks to us today, beyond just labeling him as a hero?
I explain that the connection between Attucks and Alton Sterling and other African Americans is important, but another value of history is how it informs us about the consequences of events in the past.
These consequences can help us anticipate similar reactions when history starts to rhyme with the past. In this case the killing of Attucks by the British and the acquittal of the soldiers who killed him did not satisfy the American colonist.
It was the Boston Massacre that led the Sons of Liberty and the other colonists to organize even greater resistance to the British crown.In fact, it led to the Boston Tea Party, and more rioting by the Americans.
The reaction of King George 3rd to these riotous Americans was also telling. King George did not bend to the demands of the colonists.
Instead King George responded with more severe controls, ultimately declaring martial
law in Boston.
law in Boston.
This is not unlike the reaction of many Americans to the riots after the acquittal of police in the killing of African Americans.
Eighty-eight percent of Americans felt that Darren Wilson was not at fault for killing Michael Brown, a killing that led to rioting across Ferguson Missouri in 2014.
We have not come far from the Boston Massacre of 1770 to the Riots of Ferguson in 2014.
Like King George 3rd, President Donald Trump has a similar response to the calls for justice from groups like Black Lives Matter.
Trump famously said in the first presidential debate in 2016, “We have gangs roaming the street. And in many cases, they’re illegally here, illegal immigrants. And they have guns. And they shoot people. And we have to be very strong. And we have to be very vigilant.”
King George has been recorded as saying about the American colonists riots against him, that his government would enforce, “accordingly strictly charge and command all of Our Officers as well Civil as Military; and all Our obedient and loyal subjects, to use their utmost Endeavors to withstand and suppress such rebellion.”
The history is rhyming.
Whether you or I or my students wish to see this is another matter.
The important thing is to make the observation for the students in my classroom.
Next step is to have them wrestle with the implications.
Crispus Attucks was a hero.
He was a patriot.
He was critical of his government.
He died fighting for freedom. His death launched a rebellion.
His was a black life that mattered.
What about today?
The Americans: Reconstruction through the 20th Century. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2003. Print.
Kaplan, Sidney, and Emma Nogrady Kaplan. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. Amherst: U of Massachusetts, 1989. Print.
Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: New, 2008. Print.