In Chicago, Native Americans marched in protest, proclaiming Columbus Day a day of infamy. Not long after, Italian Americans paraded in the streets to honor their hero, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. The controversy surrounding the quincentennial commemoration of Columbus's voyage provided a clear reminder that people will always view historical events from different perspectives. Although it may be unsettling at times, the debate about the merits of Columbus and his "discovery" suggests to us important questions about how we should view history and how we should study it in our classrooms.
We have often presented a narrow view of history to our school children, giving them the impression that there is little, if any, variation in the interpretation of our past. We should remember, however, that the recounting of history is subjective, and, according to Hayden White (1980, 23), "unless at least two versions of the same set of events can be imagined, there is no reason for the historian to take upon himself the authority of giving the true account of what really happened."
Making Judgments About History
Recognition of multiple historical perspectives is fundamental to good history teaching. But Bardige (1988) points out that simply presenting children with multiple perspectives may give them the impression that all perspectives are of equal worth. Therefore, teachers must help students learn how to evaluate the merit of particular interpretations of historical events. Making judgments based on a well-rounded gathering of information is a vital critical thinking procedure, and "part of that exploration [of the past] includes an opportunity to study and evaluate human behavior in a developmentally appropriate context" (Levstik 1989, 136). Levstik also believes that trade book literature provides a better context for the young history student than do textbooks by "inviting the reader to enter into a historical discussion that involves making judgments about issues of morality. ... What was it like to be a person here? What was the nature of good and evil in that time and place, and with whom shall my sympathies lie?" (137).
Comparing Textbooks and Trade Books
One of the problems with most elementary and secondary school history textbooks is that history is presented from a single perspective with few conflicting ideas. "When a textbook is used as the only source of information, students tend to accept the author's statements without question" (Holmes and Ammon 1985, 366). Holmes and Ammon suggest that incorporating trade books (fiction and nonfiction) into content area studies aids in developing critical reading skills such as determining the reliability and authenticity of printed sources. Teachers should guide students toward trade books and other materials that present conflicting points of view, a practice that not only encourages students to make historical judgments but also increases students' interest in the subjects.
William Bigelow (1989, 635) goes a step further, pointing out in uncompromising terms the weakness of history textbooks: "Students don't know ... that year after year their textbooks, by omission or otherwise, have been lying to them on a grand scale." Milton Meltzer (1992, 1) softens this indictment by calling such lying "selective forgetfulness." Patrick Shannon (1989, 101) calls it covert censorship, which he defines in part as "the unconscious presentation of just one side of an issue which distorts reality by making it seem that the one position is all there is worth considering about the issue." For example, one recently published sixth grade level social studies textbook does not mention Malcolm X or the viewpoint of his followers in its eight pages on equal rights. The Holocaust is given a single paragraph, hardly room for any perspective at all. Moreover, this popular text does not even include the words art, music, or poetry in its index. This omission seems to suggest that political and military affairs are the only important matters in history.
Whether intentional or unintentional, the omission of multiple perspectives has debilitating effects on students. Bigelow (1989) uses the treatment of Columbus as an example, pointing out that even the word discovery, as used in textbooks, is a loaded term that subtly suggests a particular perspective. It echoes the perspective of "the invaders, masking the theft" (636) and makes it more difficult for students to empathize with the native populations.
In fact, textbooks avoid the Native American perspective of Columbus. Most fifth grade American history textbooks limit the coverage of Columbus to a page or two of print, and in that brief space offer only a Eurocentric point of view. Any reference to his conquest or cruel treatment of the native peoples is missing. For instance, some fifth grade texts hardly mention the Taino or Arawak people whom Columbus encountered, except to describe them as peaceful. Many of the texts do not mention that Columbus, during his first voyage, captured several of the Indians and later forced them to parade in front of Ferdinand and Isabella, his royal sponsors. Note, however, the following textbook excerpt in which this incident is included.
The two peoples exchanged gifts. ... But these friendly Native Americans offered no silks or spices or gold, for they had none of these to give. Columbus was disappointed that he had found no gold and had not yet found China or Japan. But he was sure he had reached Asia. To prove it, he brought six Indians with him when he returned to Spain. (Bass 1995, 123-124)
Although the text does say that Indians returned to Spain with Columbus, the language conveys a completely positive connotation. The Indians were friendly, so the reader can easily assume that when Columbus brought them along they came voluntarily. Words like forced or captured would give another, more accurate impression.
Multiple Perspectives in Trade Books
Many picture books, biographies, novels, and informational books have been published about Columbus's voyages of exploration. Some of these trade books deal with Columbus in more varied and accurate terms than do textbooks. Compare the following trade book excerpt with the textbook excerpt quoted earlier.
... Lief [ship's boy] heard a heartrending shout. He looked and saw one of the natives standing in a canoe, his hand raised toward them. Lief would never forget the look of grief on his face.
He was the father of some of the children in the group. He begged to be allowed to join his family in captivity. Columbus had the man pulled on board and added to the captives, pleased to have a "volunteer" living specimen. (Foreman 1992, 30-31)
Information in trade books often does not agree from title to title. Therefore, when used together, these books give students the best opportunity to compare, contrast, and evaluate the so-called facts of history. Some titles paint Columbus in purely heroic colors. Others present a balanced view of his positive and negative attributes, while still other titles come close to vilifying the explorer and his conquest.
The American Revolution is another topic often taught from a single perspective that can be approached from multiple perspectives through trade books. Before 1960, authors of children's books about the Revolution used the Whig interpretation exclusively, described by Christopher Collier (1976, 132) as "moralistic and pedantic, depicting simple, freedom-loving farmers marching in a crusade." The classic novel Johnny Tremain (Forbes 1943) exemplifies this viewpoint.
After 1960, children's novels began to provide a broader choice of perspectives about the American Revolution. The consensus interpretation, a more refined version of the Whig interpretation in which good and evil are no longer assigned to sides in the war, was common in the 1970s (Taxel 1983). But some unusual books [My Brother Sam is Dead (Collier and Collier 1974); Who Comes to King's Mountain (Beatty and Beatty 1975); When the World's on Fire (Edwards 1972)] featured young protagonists who are indecisive about or uncommitted to the Patriot cause or even go so far as to reject it. Edwards's When the World's on Fire (1972) takes several unusual yet valid approaches to presenting the Revolution. First, the story is told by a black protagonist, thus confronting the paradox of a war fought for individual liberties in which many leaders held slaves. Also, Edwards does not concentrate on the Whig-Tory division among the colonists, but rather exposes the divisions among the patriots-artisans versus aristocrats.
In the 1980s, a number of books about the American Revolution were published that contained more realistic characters and that examined a wider range of human motives for and emotions about the conflict. In Avi's The Fighting Ground (1984), the young protagonist, Jonathan, changes from being a zealous Patriot to wondering which side, if any, he is on. It is interesting that the battle in Avi's story is against Hessian mercenaries, who suddenly seem to Jonathan no worse than the American corporal who has directed the execution of a Tory family. Sarah Bishop by Scott O'Dell (1980) shows a girl from a Tory family who is brutalized by the war and eventually flees to a place safe from the Patriots and the British alike. James Lincoln and Christopher Collier (1981) wrote Jump Ship to Freedom, the first in a trilogy [War Comes to Willy Freeman (1983), Who Is Carrie? (1984)] that has young black protagonists. Set against the background of the Constitutional Convention, this novel focuses on the futile hopes of American blacks, including war veterans, that the new government might actually provide liberty and justice for all.
Reading about the Constitutional Convention from the black American perspective will help students better understand the human motives leading to the U.S. Civil War. The seeds of civil conflict were sown in 1787 with The Great Compromise, which granted the newly formed states representation based on population. Levy's If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution (1987, 50-51) clearly alerts young readers to the ticking time bomb: "The problem was how to count the slaves. The southern states wanted to count their slaves as people. The northern states didn't want to count the slaves. Gouverneur Morris [of Pennsylvania] asked, 'Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote.'" The question of slavery was not to be answered for another seventy-seven years.
Trade books also offer young readers a variety of perspectives about the War Between the States. In Voices from the Civil War, Milton Meltzer (1989) presents multiple points of view by drawing on documents and letters written by eyewitnesses to the actual events. In Walk Together Children (Bryan 1974) and I'm Going to Sing (Bryan 1982), students experience the agony of slavery through spirituals, especially the sorrow songs such as "Deep River," "Motherless Child," and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I See."
Just as students often believe that all Colonials were Patriots, they often think that all Yankees were Abolitionists. Clinton Cox (1991, 5) in Undying Glory wrote, "Pro-slavery sentiment was so widespread in the North at the beginning of the war that many Union generals allowed slave owners to come into their camps and seize escaped slaves." Using the Draft Riots in New York City as an example, Meltzer (1989, 83) dispels the myth of a unified North: "Whites were being drafted to fight to free the hated 'niggers,' who would then come North to take their jobs at even lower pay."
Ina Chang (1991) in A Separate Battle examines female perspectives of the Civil War by looking at such notable women as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott, and Dorothea Dix-as well as dozens of women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the army. Also, more than 250,000 children and young adults fought in the Civil War and recorded their perspectives in letters and diaries. In The Boy's War, Jim Murphy (1990) shares accounts that paint a disturbing picture of the senseless waste and brutality that transformed children into hardened veterans.
In his historical novel Bull Run, Paul Fleischman (1993) develops sixteen characters with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints on the events surrounding the war's first major land battle. Another historical novel, Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt (1964), tells the story of the Civil War through the experiences of nine-year-old Jethro Creighton. He watches his family and southern Illinois farming community split asunder by divided loyalties.
By examining the black American perspective of the American Revolution and the Civil War, students may be better equipped to connect the past with the present as they learn about the civil rights movement in the twentieth century. In Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, Zak Mettger (1994) spells out the conditions that brought us to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and even to some current states' rights initiatives of the 1990s. She writes, "Slavery was a thing of the past. ... [But] with bureau agents and federal troops no longer on the scene to protect freed slaves, white planters felt free to write restrictive labor contracts, use physical punishment, and create slave-like working conditions" (99-100).
"Jim Crow" laws kept blacks and whites separated for nearly another hundred years. In a biography titled Duke Ellington, James Lincoln Collier (1991, 92) emphasizes these restrictions: "[Ellington] could not, even though he had been invited to the White House, get into the best white hotels and restaurants even in the North. ..." Patricia and Frederick McKissack, Jr. (1994) tell a similar story of black professional athletes who were deprived of equal living and working conditions in Black Diamond: The Story of Negro Baseball Leagues.
Young readers may appreciate another perspective of the African American plight found in the paintings of Jacob Lawrence (1993) as reproduced in The Great Migration. This collection depicts the exodus of African Americans from the poverty of the South to jobs in the North. Music and poetry also can illuminate a historical perspective with unusual power, like the stirring poems of Langston Hughes that capture the African American experience. Students may feel the spirit of the civil rights movement when singing freedom songs or other popular folk songs of that era, such as "If I Had a Hammer," found in Gonna Sing My Head Off! (Krull 1992).
Few perspectives of the same issue seemed as different as those of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. In his biography, Martin Luther King, Jr., David Adler (1989) credits King's strategy of nonviolent protest to his study of
Mohandas Gandhi. Walter Dean Myers's (1993) biography of Malcolm X fleshes out this black leader, telling of the circumstances that led to his espousing a call to arms. In Witnesses to Freedom, Belinda Rochelle (1993) profiles nine ordinary people who helped desegregate schools, boycotted buses in Montgomery, joined sit-ins in North Carolina, or marched on Washington.
Ideas for Helping Students Compare and Evaluate Historical Accounts
William Bigelow (1989) suggests a strategy for questioning historical accounts about Columbus that can be readily applied to other historical topics. The following questions create an atmosphere of critical inquiry that necessitates the inclusion of multiple historical perspectives.
1.How factually accurate was the
2.What was omitted ... that in your judgments would be important for a full understanding of Columbus? [Or Frederick Douglass?]
3.What motives does the book give to Columbus? [Or American Revolution Patriots?] Compare those with his real motives. [Or with motives discussed in other books.]
4.Who does the book get you to root for, and how do the authors accomplish that?
5.What function do pictures in the books play? What do they communicate about Columbus [or Martin Luther King?] and his "enterprise"?
6.In your opinion, why does the book portray the Columbus/Indian encounter the way it does? [Or the
encounters between trade unions and factory owners?]
7.Can you think of any groups in our society that might have an interest in people having an inaccurate view of history? (Bigelow 1989, 639)
With Bigelow's questions in mind, teachers and students are able to use a variety of trade books and other materials to examine history in broader contexts. Here are a few examples of this sort of teaching drawn from actual classroom experiences.
At the beginning of the research days, the loyalist position was ridiculed, and students failed to see how any rational person could have resisted the rebels' call to arms. By studying documents favorable to the Tory position, however, students came to see that both sides had merit and that the issues were anything but simple (Wineburg and Wilson 1991, 410).
Philosopher Ernst Nagel (1961) said that understanding history is a matter of understanding human motives. Because motive is inextricably intertwined with individual perspective about life's events, we must consider these multiple viewpoints if we hope to make sense of our heritage.
Russell Freedman (1993) called history "the story of ourselves." Others have noted that presenting history in terms of a strong, well-defined story seems to provide a natural framework for dealing with these human aims and values (Levstik 1993). Therefore, history-related trade books (both fiction and nonfiction) are one of the finest sources for providing young students with a broader, more complex, and more fascinating approach to telling "the story of ourselves."
Adler, D. A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr. Illustrated by R. Casilla. New York: Holiday House, 1989.Avi. The Fighting Ground. New York: Lippincott, 1984.Bardige, B. "Things So Finely Human: Moral Sensibilities at Risk in Adolescence." In Mapping the Moral Domain: A Contribution of Women's Thinking to Psychological Theory and Education, edited by C. Gilligan, J. V. Ward, J. M. Taylor, 37-110. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.Bass, H. J. Our Country. Morristown, N.J.: Silver Burdett Ginn, 1995.Beatty, J., and P. Beatty. Who Comes to King's Mountain? New York: Morrow, 1975.Bigelow, W. "Discovering Columbus: Rereading the Past." Language Arts 66 (1989): 635-43.Bryan, A. Walk Together Children. New York: Atheneum, 1974.---. I'm Going to Sing. New York: Atheneum, 1982.Chang, I. A Separate Battle: Women and the Civil War. New York: Lodestar, 1991.Collier, C. "Johnny and Sam: Old and New Approaches to the American Revolution." The Horn Book 52 (1976): 132-38.Collier, J. L. Duke Ellington. New York: Macmillan, 1991.Collier, J. L., and C. Collier. My Brother Sam Is Dead. New York: Four Winds Press, 1974.---. Jump Ship to Freedom. New York: Delacorte, 1981.---. War Comes to Willy Freeman. New York: Delacorte, 1983.---. Who Is Carrie? New York: Delacorte, 1984.Cox, C. Undying Glory. New York: Scholastic, 1991.Edwards, S. When the World's on Fire. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1972.Fleischman, P. Bull Run. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.Forbes, E. Johnny Tremain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.Foreman, M. The Boy Who Sailed with Columbus. New York: Arcade (Little, Brown), 1992.Freedman, R. "Bring 'Em Back Alive." In The Story of Ourselves: Teaching History Through Children's Literature, edited by M. O. Tunnell and R. Ammon, 41-47. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1993.Gay, G., and J. A. Banks. "Teaching the American Revolution: A Multiethnic Approach." Social Education 39 (1975): 461-65.Holmes, B., and R. Ammon. "Teaching Content with Trade Books." Childhood Education 61 (1985): 366-70.Hunt, I. Across Five Aprils. New York: Follett, 1964.Krull, K. Gonna Sing My Head Off! New York: Knopf, 1992.Lawrence, J. The Great Migration. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.Levstik, L. "A Gift of Time: Children's Historical Fiction." In Children's Literature in the Classroom: Weaving Charlotte's Web, edited by J. Hickman and B. Cullinan, 135-145. Needham Heights, Mass.: Christopher-Gordon, 1989.---. "'I Wanted to Be There': The Impact of Narrative on Children's Historical Thinking." In The Story of Ourselves: Teaching History Through Children's Literature, edited by M. O. Tunnell and R. Ammon, 65-77. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1993.Levy, E. If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution. Illustrated by R. Rosenblum. New York: Scholastic, 1987.McKissack, P., and F. McKissack, Jr. Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues. New York: Scholastic, 1994.Meltzer, M. Voices from the Civil War. New York: Crowell, 1989.---. "Selective Forgetfulness: Christopher Columbus Reconsidered." The New Advocate 5 (1992): 1-9.Mettger, Z. Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. New York: Lodestar, 1994.Murphy, J. The Boys' War. New York: Clarion, 1990.Myers, W. D. Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary. Scholastic, 1993.Nagel, E. The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961.O'Dell, S. Sarah Bishop. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.Rochelle, B. Witnesses to Freedom: Young People Who Fought for Civil Rights. New York: Lodestar, 1993.Shannon, P. "Overt and Covert Censorship of Children's Books." The New Advocate 2 (1989): 97-104.Taxel, J. "The American Revolution in Children's Fiction." Research in Teaching English 17 (1983): 61-68.White, H. "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality." Critical Inquiry 7 (1980): 5-27.Wineburg, S. S., and S. M. Wilson. "Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History." The History Teacher 24 (1991): 395-412.
Michael O. Tunnell is Associate Professor of Education at Brigham Young University where he teaches children's literature. Besides numerous professional articles, he has written or edited several books, including The Story of Ourselves: Teaching History Through Children's Literature (Heinemann), Children's Literature, Briefly (Merrill/Prentice Hall), and several titles for young readers.
Richard Ammon is Associate Professor of Education and teaches children's literature and language arts at The Pennsylvania State University/Harrisburg. He has published professional articles in numerous journals, edited The Story of Ourselves: Teaching History Through Children's Literature (Heinemann), and written several nonfiction books for young readers.