Friday, July 17, 2015

Five Questions for History Sources

I just finished reading Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. I highly recommend it to everyone, but especially teachers and homeschooling parents and teens. Most of the book discusses how US history high school textbooks focus on white ethnocentric nationalism and heroism rather than teaching real, balanced history (not even close) and why they do so. It also gives a more complete picture of Columbus, Thanksgiving, slavery, Civil Rights, and the Vietnam and Iraq wars. He discusses how to make history more engaging by igniting curiosity and asking questions of young scholars.

In the Afterward, Loewen present five questions students should ask when facing a source, be it a textbook, museum exhibit, or other source (pages 360-361, second edition). While these directly address history, I think they could be used similarly for any source. Students then learn to discern and think for themselves. I will paraphrase them here.

1) When and why was the source written or painted or produced? Who is the intended audience? What is the speaker intending? What is the social context (called contextualization) for the source?
2) Whose viewpoint is presented in the source? Whose viewpoints are omitted? An interesting project he suggests here is to have students rewrite the story from a different viewpoint, learning that history is not just factual information presented from one way.
3) Is the account believable? Does it contradict itself?
4) Is the account backed up by other sources? Or do other sources and authors present contradicting viewpoints and information?
5) Finally, "how is one supposed to feel about the America that has been presented"? Or whatever the subject. This helps ferret out some of question one - what is the speaker intending?

Loewen then says, "Readers who keep these five questions in mind will have learned how to learn history." (361)

Asking these questions would take up a lot of time in a history class, which typically teach to the test in today's educational milieu. But as homeschoolers, we can give our children fabulous keys to real learning and discernment while also teaching them history by using these questions as a framework for advanced scholarship. While these are written for high school students, a version of them can be presented to younger students as well. When my 9-year-old and I read Story of the World together, for instance, we notice the author's bias towards Protestantism and the patterns of history presented that focus on conquest. Or when we read the Little House books, we discuss her perspectives on Native Americans.

History is alive and dynamic, not dead and boring. By following these critical thinking steps, we can teach our kids not only facts but also how to think wisely about those facts as they are presented. That's good learning!

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