Sensitivities and History

Returning to Great History

Once again this week Axois 🔗 noted a US Senator was used to block a resolution on the Armenian Genocide.  As I completed this article/summary, I began an Education Week article 🔗 on endemic problems with a prominent elementary and middle school publication, Studies Weekly.  Their problems included historical inaccuracies, lack of historical perspective, and cultural insensitivity.  What an interesting juxtaposition between these two articles.   

I thought about how I would have used the two articles with the students in my Social Studies Research class in Arsenal Technical High School’s Foreign Language Magnet.  Time to talk about academic integrity and cultural concerns about the linguistic description of, perspective of, and sociological structures created by engagement with various historical issues.  

My research students covered a range of investigations, one of which was a look at the concept of genocide and the modern international law associated with it.  As they would have covered the World War II Holocaust as required by state law, I broadened it to include extermination of Slavs, Koreans, and Chinese.  (Our magnet students studied one of these languages:  Russian, Arabic, Japanese, or Chinese.)  We started with a look at the Armenian Genocide.  

The Armenian Genocide created some interesting questions the students were forced to address.  

  • Whose voices were heard?
  • Whose voices were not heard?
  • Why did some voices get to the public square and others not make it there?
  • What forces, concern, bias might account for the contemporary discussion of the genocide?
  • Why did the genocide not make it into the history of World War I?  
  • Why is today’s Turkish government’s position so set to the perspective of the Ottoman government when the massacres were first made public?
  • What are the obligations to academic integrity for a historian?  In the West?  In the Islamic world?  In Turkey?  
  • Is historical truth relative (culturally speaking) or is it objective requiring continual refinement of what we know?  Can historical truth, especially historical interpretations of events shrouded in the past ever be free of substantial bias from culture and currentivism?  

Granted this was an unique class created for the magnet students, their capstone social studies class.  And today, I would have the students read The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power.  Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that given the right opportunities, high school students can learn much more than the current show and tell history courses.  And that includes critiquing what comes across as “standard knowledge”.  

Thus, my students also looked into what was taught about Japan’s war in China from 1932-1945.  They learned about the secret biological and chemical warfare research center in China.  They learned the products produced were tried out on unsuspecting Chinese villages and occasionally on Koreans.  They learned just as the Germans used some Slavs as camp police, so did the Japanese use Koreans in China.  

This is not the content of American textbooks.  Nor they learned is Japan’s exploits in China in the 1930s and 1940s to be found in Japanese textbooks.  

I tasked the research students with determining why this was the current practice.  Was this good history, I asked?  Indeed, was this even doing history?  

This branched out to another moment of research. I related to the students the incident of the Waffen SS during the Battle of the Bulge deciding to kill American POWs in order to maintain their offensive forward motion.  Several had learned of that incident.  I asked them to research the American response.  They discovered the incident of an American unit responding in kind and the War Department’s decision to hide the discovery of this action.  I pushed them to move on to the question of why it was hidden now, why was the retaliation missing from American textbooks that recounted the Waffen SS atrocity?  The question was not meant to demean the US armed forces.  Rather, it was meant to historically reflect the brutality of WW II in its final months.  

We have it within our means to return to great history in our classrooms.  We have it within our means to create great social studies courses within our schools.  

The 2019 NCSS national conference is looking at what social studies will be in the 21st century. As we move forward, let us all reflect on the question of 21st century social studies.  Let it be the focus of renewing our professionalism as social studies teachers, and let it be the phoenix rising from the ashes that restores social studies to an unquestioned role as an equal part of the core curriculum.  

Robert Brady

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