By now, nearly everyone is aware that Columbus did not “discover” the Americas so much as introduce their existence to Europeans. Consequently, the use of discovery—a loaded term if there ever was one—in older history texts is one of the most common examples of how bias can creep into social studies classrooms and can inform (or warp) our worldview.
Yet is it possible to teach the subject entirely free from bias?
Perhaps not. But teachers can strive to be as neutral as they can, says Dean Cantù, a professor of teacher education at Bradley University in Illinois whose research focuses on the education of history and social studies. Such an approach will require students to do more than listen to lectures as they develop their own perspectives through inquiry learning and close examination of primary and secondary sources.
As a contentious election season draws to a close during a historic year, Cantù recently spoke with us about how that might look at the classroom level, how sensitive topics can be explored in depth, and the growing importance of media literacy. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
EdSurge: Is it possible to teach politics and history as a centrist?
Cantù: Something that many social studies and history teachers strive for is to try to be as centrist and objective as possible. One of the many reasons for that is the fact that we, as teachers, are not there to try to indoctrinate. We’re not there to try to have our students adopt our ideological positions. We’re there to provide them with the intellectual tools so they can do their own self reflection, their own research, their own evaluation, their own analysis and arrive at their own position.
One of the keys to teaching history today is that we have made tremendous advances over the course of the last 15 years or so. We’ve seen a real shift in terms of state standards for history and social studies. We went from positions where there was an articulation, for example, on key eras in history, individuals and events to a position where we are emphasizing inquiry. We really want to try to help our students evaluate primary and secondary source materials and engage in interpretation analysis. And even that is not a terminal step. We want them to go out there and make well-informed decisions. We want them to take informed action and apply what they’ve learned to the communities in which they live.
Oftentimes they’re going to encounter biases whether they’re looking at historical periods, or biases that they’re confronted with today, through a sociological lens.
We want to help them see biases from more of an intellectual perspective, as opposed to just something that they’re victims of, or something that they read about in the textbook. We see this a lot particularly in an election year like 2020, where there’s a barrage of local, state and national campaign ads. They’re seeing all sorts of information in which there are certain biases that you can recognize. We want them to be well-informed consumers of that information.
Columbus Day—or Indigenous Peoples Day—was just last month. How can that topic be taught from an unbiased, inquiry-based perspective?
I think it’s a great subject in a historical topic to examine. One of the things that we try to do in teaching topics such as Columbus or European exploration is to try to establish historical context.
When we look at events, we don’t just look at it through one particular lens. If you go back a generation or so, when we would introduce topics such as that, it was almost solely from a European perspective. When you do that, you start to introduce things like pronouns, such as “they” and “us.” If you’re listening to the narrative, it becomes pretty obvious which perspective you’re writing from.
But if you look at the Western Hemisphere prior to European exploration, you set up the context for the civilizations, the history, the cultures. When you look at the situation in Europe, you look at the motivation for embarking on exploration. History is very complex. History is that gray area. Along the way you introduce primary documents, writings, diary entries, governmental documents. There are some great primary documents from the time period from the perspective of the indigenous population and from the perspective of the European explorers. Then you help students to arrive at their own conclusions. You can look at its complexity and the legacy of that event.
If you’re trying to avoid painting history with a broad brush, you also help students to recognize how and why our evaluation, our interpretation, our depiction of historical events has changed over time. You’re helping them understand the “why.”
Listening to your answer, two students can sit in the same lessons and come to two different conclusions about that subject.
Ideally, that’s what we should be doing. Well, I would qualify that as long as we ensure the positions that they arrive at are based on historical evidence, don’t have embedded biases and have not embraced stereotyping or are founded on fallacious argumentation or erroneous information.
How do teachers approach something as fraught as the election?
Years in which we have presidential elections are periods that history and social studies teachers absolutely love, because the ads, the commercials, are all nearly ubiquitous. In our current situation with the pandemic, where you see discussions about things like mail-in voting and ballot boxes that you wouldn’t typically find part of the national discussion, it makes it all the more complex in terms of the discussion and debate.
It varies from one teacher to the other how much curricular real estate or time they dedicate to the presidential election. The other day there was something on the contentious 1876 election between Hayes and Tilden. Reconstruction and Gilded Age politics do not usually excite students, but if you can relate it to the current election or the ones that we’ve had where there’s been discussion and debate around popular vote versus electoral vote, then I think there’s a natural piquing of interest. A lot of teachers will give students a discussion prompt to think about or start off with little five-minute news updates.
We hear about teens and adults being radicalized on sites such as YouTube. Is simply doing more inquiry learning really the answer?
The skills that students gain from engaging in inquiry, or this approach that we take to the teaching of history and social studies, isn’t an antidote or a panacea. One of the things that we emphasize in social studies is also media literacy—helping our students to be better consumers of the media and helping them to develop skills where they’re looking at things like validity, reliability, triangulating sources and going a bit deeper in terms of where the story is coming from.
Now it doesn’t mean that some may not go in and try to obtain information that’s consistent with their preconceived notions. Hopefully we’re helping students to understand that’s not the approach that they should be taking.
One of the things historians do before they evaluate a historical document is to start at the bottom and they read up, so to speak. They start off and they say, “Who is the author? When was this written? What was the context for this particular primary document?” And then they read the document itself.
A lot of students typically would read the document and may not even get to the bottom to look into the source materials or the citations. I think the same is true with digital media. It’s helping students to realize even before you read that article or watch that video, you need to find out the source. Do your homework. What are they trying to do? What are they trying to sell you? Find out more about the author. If you do that, there’s much less likely to simply read it and adopt it as your way of thinking, if you will.