Social studies is the lowest-priority core class, always. History is not viewed as being as central or important as math and English, and science got a huge boost with Sputnik, the growth of the U.S. space program, and now the focus on STEM areas. I’ve always somewhat begrudged the lack of attention. History teachers have always banded together in the knowledge that we provide the most important core content; after all, if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know where you are going. We have commiserated over the lack of attention. Why does science education get all the cool, fully funded professional development?

But I’m beginning to feel the repercussions of “be careful what you wish for.”

The thing is teaching history—heck, teaching any subject—is never free from oversight and conflicting opinions. In general, K-12 education has been subjected to ever-changing perspectives and demands, some rooted in education-based research and some in generalized public opinion or political agendas. But teaching American history has come under much more public scrutiny in the past several years. This attention has felt more restrictive than the usual focus on test scores or a new instructional methods. This attention is focused on what we teach, from changing the curriculum, to new textbooks, to public discussion of appropriate historical topics, to current legislation trying to restrict what topics can even be brought up in the classroom.

To teach American history today is different from when I started teaching seven years ago. I’ve taught through the heritage versus hate discussion, Confederate statues coming down, increased public support for and the backlash against Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump’s election and presidency, and the rise of both the accusations of “fake news” and actual fake news.

As the concept of the truth has eroded and the need for facts or evidence has dissipated, I have become hyper-aware of the importance of my job. It seems public-policy makers are also aware of our critical role, because now we have the controversy surrounding critical race theory, which has led to a plethora of states introducing bills or working to find other ways to limit classrooms teaching about racism.

As I’ve grown as an educator, it has become clearer—and I have become more resolute in my knowledge—that teaching American history is an inherently political act, despite all the years of advice on how I should work to disassociate teaching and politics. If you try to not be political, you are inadvertently supporting the pervading dominant narrative. For example, if one taught only from the textbook (depending on the textbook), a student may never learn about Ida B. Wells and her groundbreaking work as the first Black female investigative journalist, her range of achievements, or about her integral work in the suffrage movement. Textbooks, state curriculum, and even some standardized tests don’t include Black women as central to the suffrage movement, thus whitewashing history. Both the content and the manner in which content is taught are political acts: They can support the dominant Eurocentric virtuous narrative of American history, or they can challenge it. As an American history teacher, one can teach patriotism as blind pride and allegiance or as thoughtful criticism and questioning.

Some teachers believe that history should be “free from an agenda, just the facts.” But which facts? Whose truth? Which version? Whose voices will you lift up? How are these facts and stories portrayed? History is never free from an agenda. I want my students to know that. I believe it is my job for students to know that.

I have had more students ask for “the real history” or “the stuff they don’t want us to know.” I tell them that it is important to know I am just one person with my own biases, and they should know my biases because what I choose to teach and not teach is shaped by my biases. They appreciate my candor. They love learning about people outside of the textbook. They truly engage with articles and podcasts, making connections between present-day and our past, complicating their understandings of truth and history. I have had students leave American history saying they never liked a history class before this, but my class was great. They enjoyed it: the content, the way they learned.

I’m lucky to teach in Durham. I have not had to fear angry mobs of parents fighting the administration or trying to get me fired for teaching American history that is not sugar-coated white-savior revisionist history. I can, and do, teach topics that complicate our history, and I weave race, sex, and class throughout it all. For example, I teach about redlining and its lasting impacts on housing, education, and financial opportunities, and use local history to highlight both triumphs and issues for the Black community. I have students assess the storytelling aspect of history, comparing textbooks to various sources on the same content.

America was founded with ideals of freedom, and it is my job to try to show those ideals and how we’ve fallen short, in hopes that the next generation works their way toward a freer United States. My job is being made harder as my own freedoms as a teacher are being increasingly infringed upon by changing curriculum standards and pressures from the state legislature to teach American history through a lens of pride. Here in North Carolina—and across the country—legislation is being written to systemically oppress teachers’ freedom to teach multiple perspectives, to uplift the voices of historically marginalized groups, to share controversial pieces of history and help students learn to engage critically.

I will keep teaching the multilayered and messy version of American history. Students ask for “the real history” all the time. They need to know our past is complicated, so they can continue working on becoming a more free and fair country.

Friedlander M.A.T. ’14 is a social studies teacher at Riverside High School in Durham.

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