The Battle Over History Curriculum in Schools

Thursday, January 19, 2012

School photos, classroom, school supplies, pencils, students (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Two conversations this week on the sensitivity of certain subjects in the classroom produced lots of reaction from listeners. A ban on ethnic studies in Tuscon Arizona, and a resistance to teaching Climate Change as an accepted body of knowledge in certain school districts around the country raises a broader question. Are there pieces of history and science that are simply too hot to handle in a classroom where active debate may get away from the truth and consensus on what to teach may be hard to find?

Jonathan Zimmerman is the department chair of the history and education program at New York University. He is also the author of "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools." Zimmerman examines who decides curriculums for classes and how educators teach history.


Jonathan Zimmerman

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer

Comments [11]

Albert Brooke from Plymouth, MI

Hockenberry made the classic blunder of commenting on the Hiroshima/Nagasaki A-bombs through a 60-year rear-view mirror. OK, John, put yourself in Harry Truman's shoes. It's summer 1945, you're the VP. Suddenly you get the news your boss (FDR) just died. Now you're the Prez. In your first top-level meeting, you're told the US has a new weapon that can level a city. The American people have been at war for going on 4 years and have suffered over 400,000 dead thus far. The prospect of a Japan invasion is looming, making the Normandy landings look like a trip to Coney Island. Do you use the new weapon to end the war? Or what, John? Maybe call the Emporer and Hirohito and chat for a few months?

My wife and I are alive, and have a great family, because our fathers (mine in the Navy, her's a Marine) very likely had their lives spared because Truman ordered the bombs dropped. Both men were off the Japan coast waiting for the invasion. The Nagasaki bomb unquestionably ended WWII.

I listen to your liberal-slanted blather on WDET-FM, Detroit.

Jan. 22 2012 10:23 PM

One could start by teaching that Andrew Jackson, slavery, Hiroshima and Japanese interment were all products of Democratic Party administrations.

Jan. 19 2012 11:37 PM

I am giving this story a C-, mostly for this sentence; "Are their pieces of history and science that are simply too hot to handle in a classroom where active debate may get away from the truth and consensus on what to teach may be hard to find."

That sentence, written in an interrogative form, should end with a question mark. And the word that should have been the functional pronoun "there," was incorrectly spelled as the possessive "their."

For further study plans, I am going to recommend that The Takeaway spend more time on basic English grammar, and less time on sociopolitics. Class dismissed.

Jan. 19 2012 02:42 PM
Sean from Worcester, MA

As a public school history teacher it is incumbent upon me to present not just facts from both sides of any historical event, but also, and far more importantly, to teach my students to critically engage those facts as well as search out further information to support and/or modify the opinions they generate through critical debate and thought. Mr. Zimmerman's approach to teaching the atomic bombings of Hiroshima/Nagasaki via comparative text analysis is an exemplary model.

Jan. 19 2012 10:37 AM
Girl Faith from Bermuda

Greenzi comes to mind at suggesting one side of the climate change blunder be taught in schools.

Jan. 19 2012 10:34 AM
Meme Mine from Canada

Climate change is "an accepted body of knowledge"?
I think I'm going to puke!!!!
Even the kids laugh at yesterday's CO2 death threats.

Jan. 19 2012 10:32 AM
Rachel R from New York

I find myself listening to NPR more and more just for a sense of sanity in our current climate -- so, thank you for that.
As to the idea of who decides what to teach, I think children are far smarter, capable and more aware than anyone gives them credit for. They should be taught all facets of history (America's AND other nations') and varying opinions throughout our development. The instruction should obviously be age appropriate, but the content should certainly not be censored. Let them decide what to believe and what to question. To deny them the full story is to limit our own future teachers, politicians and historians.
The fact that this is even a question makes me feel like we are moving backwards to the dark ages!

Jan. 19 2012 09:43 AM
Patricia from Detroit

Read a book once in a while. The bombs on Hiroshima/Nagasaki had no strategic effect? How about the surrender of a racist, genocidal, suicidal fascist dictatorship?

Jon Stewart said something equally ignorant, but at least he said it on commercial television, not on the Federal dime! This show is the best reason for defunding NPR ever. You guys are Fox News in a red bandana.

A good response can be found here:

Jan. 19 2012 09:38 AM
Maureen from Detroit

I am so glad my children go to a private school. This debate is ridiculous. Children need to be exposed to chaotic and divergent ideas thoughtfully. The world is chaotic divergent and not homogenous. Get use to it sooner. Later at their peril.

Jan. 19 2012 08:55 AM
kathy drane from plymouth mass

Any teacher worth his salt is giving both sides of any historical event whether it be the landing of the Pilgrims, the presidency of Andrew Jackson, or the dropping of the atomic bomb. It is not the teacher's role to present the "right" or "wrong" side of the issue; it is the student's job to examine the evidence which is presented and develop his own position on the issue. Hopefully, he is going home and discussing these controversial issues with his parents and developing his critical thinking skills along the way.

Jan. 19 2012 07:53 AM
ernie falvo from Springfield, MA 01128

Just discovered your Web site. Heard you on the radio! Very interested in Springfield, MA Culture make up. I am of Italian Decent and interested in why my Parents came to this Country. I served in WW2

Jan. 19 2012 07:22 AM

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