How to Teach History in a World of Alternate Facts
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because teachers can tell us about the post-truth world first hand.
By Jack Doyle
How do you teach when your school wants to silence you?
That was the question facing Frank Navarro, a history teacher who has been at Mountain View High School, in northern California, for 40 years. Two days after the presidential election, he compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler during a lesson — and promptly found himself suspended when a parent complained.
Navarro soon became the focus of a heated international news story: A widely respected Mexican-American teacher who challenged the rise of the far right had had his voice taken away. Eventually, pressure from parents and the media forced the school’s administration, which did not respond to OZY’s request for comment, to reinstate Navarro. When he returned to his classroom routine, “I made every effort not to self-censor,” Navarro tells OZY. “My comments were appropriate and fused with historical data. But I have to admit I was thinking of my words, trying to be careful and resenting myself for doing so. My first day back was almost overwhelming.”
I would advise teachers to approach this topic [fascism] carefully, for we are entering dangerous times for truth telling.
Frank Navarro, high school teacher, Mountain View, Calif.
Most of us are aware we’re living in tumultuous times. With “post-truth” as the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016, and “alternative facts” becoming a meme this week, some of us are struggling — and history teachers are on the front lines of this new battleground. After a virulent election season in which references to Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust were commonplace, teaching about fascism suddenly has become more difficult, and more dangerous. With the rise of far-right politics in the U.S., the U.K., France, Austria and elsewhere, it’s tempting to compare current movements to Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, imperial Japan and Franco’s Spain. But is it accurate to use the term fascism? Where should the line be drawn?
It’s not just semantics: Serious ethical considerations are at play. When it comes to teaching genocide, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has explicit guidelines for teachers, urging them to “make responsible methodological choices,” “avoid comparisons of pain” and “not teach or imply that the Holocaust was inevitable.” Teaching the history of fascism and its consequences also are profound and deeply political — but authoritarianism and nationalism are steamrolling into classroom discussions with few guidelines for teachers.
For some educators, the sticking point is in defining fascism in the context of American political thought, which has long been considered immune to authoritarian ideology on the right or the left. During the campaign, Jason Blakely, a professor of political theory at Pepperdine University, in Southern California, published an article in The Atlantic titled “Teaching Trump to College Students.” In it, Blakely argued that the then-candidate’s positions were so far outside the standard framework of American political theory — the sanctity of individual rights, due process and the separation of governmental powers — that he had to revise his syllabus to include a section on fascism. As Blakely explains to OZY, “Fascism is always changing, just like democracy is always changing. If one looks at fascism as a set of family resemblances and not an all-or-nothing game, then yes — it’s quite clear that fascist beliefs, themes and practices are on the rise in America and Europe today.” Narratives used by Trump, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, he argues, “share more in common with Benito Mussolini than they do with Benjamin Franklin or George Washington.”
Classroom teaching materials also have been drawn into the ideological battle. This past year the Texas State Board of Education called for new high school social studies textbooks, which kicked off a months-long donnybrook among academics, activists, publishers and legislators. The brouhaha paralleled hot-button election topics too closely to seem like just another Texas textbook dustup. In the end, the board received only one submission, Mexican American Heritage, which some scholars and critics said was riddled with factual errors and contained offensive cultural stereotypes. The state’s review cited only one error, and the publisher, Momentum Instruction, claimed that passages considered offensive had been taken out of context. Regardless, the board unanimously rejected the textbook. The publisher did not respond to OZY’s request for comment.
The fact that Mexican American Heritage was proposed as a potential textbook for public high schools shows how politicized history and political science education might be used in a “post-truth” world. To Pepperdine’s Blakely, that’s all the more reason for teachers to start getting specific about what they’re teaching and not fall back on old curriculums. He believes today’s civics, history and political science classes should be more explicit about authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism.
Next semester, Frank Navarro says his history class can expect to study fascism more closely — and he won’t be shying away from discussions of Donald Trump. But he anticipates that more cases like his are coming, and not every teacher will receive the outpouring of support he did from students, teachers and strangers around the world. “I fear for teachers approaching the topic. The only reason I was reinstated so quickly was community and national blowback,” Navarro sums up bluntly. “I would advise teachers to approach this topic carefully, for we are entering dangerous times for truth telling.”
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