“The Problem With History Classes”

Michael Conway, writing for The Atlantic, has some excellent observations on “[s]ingle-perspective narratives” in historiography, which he claims “do students a gross disservice.” Conway, using the recent controversy over the movie Selma‘s portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson and other films on historical figures as his catalyst, explains the perils of boiling down history into reductionistic and simplistic narratives that depict historical subjects as two-dimensional or otherwise lack any depth or substance. When competing narratives clash, Conway notes, the results are typically to the detriment of students.

The passion and urgency with which these battles are fought reflect the misguided way history is taught in schools. Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative—a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same. Yet, history is anything but agreeable. It is not a collection of facts deemed to be “official” by scholars on high. It is a collection of historians exchanging different, often conflicting analyses. And rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many “histories” that compose the American national story.

In other words, Conway insists that we’ve been doing a poor job equipping history students to confront ambiguity and contradiction in history and (sometimes vehement) disagreement in modern historiography. This is understandable, since in our modern give-me-the-answer-in-180-characters-or-less generation of thinking many people don’t like complexity or ambiguity. Many want to know the Truth (with a capital T) and want to go no deeper than a five minute YouTube video or a cute meme to find it. Or, better yet, these people want an authority figure to simply dispense said Truth to them without any effort on their part. So, if someone is an “objective scholar” (a problematic phrase if ever there was one) or if the “consensus” says this or that, that’s good enough for these people to accept the ex cathedra pronouncement on the matter.

Conway also identifies the multiplicity of historical methodologies as another factor complicating the situation.

In historiography, the barrier between historian and student is dropped, exposing a conflict-ridden landscape. A diplomatic historian approaches an event from the perspective of the most influential statesmen (who are most often white males), analyzing the context, motives, and consequences of their decisions. A cultural historian peels back the objects, sights, and sounds of a period to uncover humanity’s underlying emotions and anxieties. A Marxist historian adopts the lens of class conflict to explain the progression of events. There are intellectual historians, social historians, and gender historians, among many others. Historians studying the same topic will draw different interpretations—sometimes radically so, depending on the sources they draw from.

This same point has been made by Suzanne M. Wilson and Samuel S. Wineburg. They note that interdisciplinary historical methodologies compel us to reevaluate how we peer at history, and that different disciplines offer different insights. “Learning about disciplines is not simply a matter of acquiring new knowledge,” Wilson and Wineburg emphasize. “It also entails examining previously held beliefs.”[1] This is only to be expected, because once one is exposed to a new historical methodology, one is often forced to take a second look at how one had previously interpreted a set of historical data. “History carrie[s] different meanings and functione[s] in dramatically different ways” depending on what methodology or historiographical paradigm one uses to approach the past. As such, an generic approach to history “when applied to a specific case, is bound to be only partially correct – and in places, almost certainly incorrect.”[2] In short, in order to fully appreciate and adequately account for the abundance of historical sources related to many topics, the field of history has had to move beyond generalized historical narratives that, at best, grossly oversimplify and distort and, at worst, obfuscate. While it was undoubtedly necessary for the academy to move into a stratified field of sub-disciplines, the drawback is that no single individual can fully comprehend, let alone effectively teach, all of the competing historiographical methodologies available at one’s disposal today. “Social studies teachers have to know many things, and it is unreasonable to expect that young teachers will know enough about history and anthropology and sociology and economics to represent them accurately and teach them effectively.” Not only that, according to Wilson and Wineburg, but more often than not, “Learning is not merely an encounter with new information, for new information is often no match for deeply held beliefs.”[3] All of this is basically to say two things: (1) the proliferation of interdisciplinary approaches to history has made matters much more complex, in the same way that, say, quantum physics has made our once relatively simplistic Newtonian understanding of the universe much more complex, and (2) no single individual can get a real grapple on all of these historical sub-disciplines or methodologies, much less expect to adequately reduce this new, highly complex picture of history into an easy-to-grasp narrative that requires no thoughtfulness or nuance on the part of the observer.

Finally, Conway argues that simplistic depictions of historical subjects, as well as simplistic approaches to historical events, are distractions from the really important task at hand for modern students and pedagogues.

Lionization and demonization are best left to the heroes and villains of fairy tales. History is not indoctrination. It is a wrestling match. For too long, the emphasis has been on pinning the opponent. It is time to shift the focus to the struggle itself. Conflict does not necessarily demand a resolution. Disagreements among highly educated, well-informed people will continue. Why should history ignore this reality? There is no better way to use the past to inform the present than by accepting the impossibility of a definitive history—and by ensuring that current students are equipped to grapple with the contested memories in their midst.

Said another way, a more robust approach to history recognizes the seemingly inherent inability of ours to settle on final, absolute, incontrovertible resolutions or answers to all historical questions (or at least those historical questions of any real meaning and importance). This isn’t to surrender to some lazy relativism that values all explanations equally. Some historical narratives are good, some are excellent, some are problematic, and some are downright awful. Rather, it is to acknowledge that the quality of a given historical narrative falls on a spectrum that ranges from bad to excellent, instead of the stark (and false) dichotomy of simply “true” or “false.” The same, too, goes for which authority figures we accept. Save for those charlatan who willfully fabricate data, historians fall on a spectrum of good to bad, with their attending strengths and weaknesses. We must abandon any pretense to historians being “objective” or “unbiased,” since absolute objectivity and total impartiality are illusions, and instead focus on how to frankly and honestly confront (or admit to) our biases while grappling to make sense of the relevant data.

So, what application does this have for Mormon historiography? I can think of two.

First, there are some writers on Mormon things, such as the author of a particularly unexceptional and otherwise execrable letter to a Church Education Systems area director, who are guilty of all of the sins outlined by Conway above. Having little to no historiographical competence, these authors fall victim to precisely those things Conway and others have warned against. Until they dramatically improve their historiographical approach, their writings are best to be avoided.

Second, those experiencing a faith crisis of some sort over issues in Mormon history would do well to take a minute and internalize the points raised by Conway. It is important not only to know the facts per se, but also how to appropriately and reasonably interpret the facts in such a way that better ensures that one is not being led astray. It’s easy (and lazy) to post a meme on your Facebook wall or browse Google for the better part of an hour and then assume you’ve gotten all you need to know on the subject to make an informed conclusion. It’s much harder, but ultimately much more meaningful and rewarding, to wrestle with ambiguity, contradiction, and uncertainty before ultimately deciding that our answers to many questions are going to remain, for the time being, provisional.

To summarize what I think Conway is ultimately getting at, good, sophisticated historical thinking realizes that a healthy dose of epistemic humility is in order when confronting history.


[1]: Suzanne Wilson and Samuel S. Wineburg, “Peering at History through Different Lenses: The Role of Disciplinary Perspectives in Teaching History,” Teachers College Record 89, no. 4 (1988): 537.

[2]: Wilson and Wineburg, “Peering at History through Different Lenses,” 532.

[3]: Wilson and Wineburg, “Peering at History through Different Lenses,” 538.