"Any History is Someone's History"Listening to Multiple Voices from the Past

Linda S. Levstik

In the days when I studied history the text...was essentially a recitation of fact, leaving the reader to draw their own analysis. Now what you see is a writer's interpretation of fact, which is different.

Senator Diane Feinstein, U.S.
Congress, Senate Testimony, 1995
I would never claim, as a historian, to have the last word on anything.
Edward Linenthal, U.S. Congress, Senate Testimony, 19952
Since no one can be certain that his or her explanations are definitively right, everyone must listen to other voices. All histories are provisional; none will have the last word.

Appleby, Hunt & Jacob3
As is clear from the outcry over history standards, the Smithsonian's The West as America exhibit and its more recent Enola Gay debacle, and films such as Oliver Stone's Nixon, history is controversial. In schools and museums, at historic sites, and in the movies, the debate continues. What kind of collective memory does a democracy require? Some people-especially some public policy makers-seem to believe in the possibility of a collective history that is just the facts-information about the past unencumbered by interpretation and free of "revisionism."4 During the Senate hearings on the Enola Gay exhibit, for instance, Senator Feinstein asked: "Is it really the role [of a museum] to interpret history, rather than just simply to put forward historical facts based on the validity of the fact and the historical value?"5
As any historian would argue, there is no such thing as just the facts. Someone sorts through the available data, perceives some facts as more relevant than others, organizes those facts, and assigns them a place, whether in a written narrative, a museum exhibit, or a state curriculum. The sequence and relative attention assigned these facts indicates the historical significance attributed to them. An exhibit of military bombers with the simplest of factual labels nevertheless represents a very different interpretive stance than an exhibit of similarly labeled photographs of "Ground Zero" at either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

New facts-government documents newly released, artifacts unearthed in a dig, or diaries discovered in an attic-may alter our perceptions of what is historically significant. Changing attitudes in the present lead us to attach importance to sources previously ignored. Only recently have historic sites such as Monticello or Mount Vernon attributed much importance to life in the slave quarters. Yet many of these facts were there all along, largely unnoticed until historians (among others) revised both the questions they asked about the past and their assumptions about what data might help answer those questions. Clearly, history must be subject to revision-to hearing new voices, rethinking old assumptions, and searching for more complete evidence.6 In a word, there is no "last word" in history.

School history too often ignores fundamental aspects of historical thinking, presenting a unitary story that emphasizes origin myths over interpretation and consensus over controversy.7 Of course, policy makers who live and die by sound bites may become nervous if students see themselves as capable of historic interpretation and possessing historical agency-especially when that agency is grounded both in a knowledge of history and a healthy skepticism about its public uses. As educators in a democracy, however, we have a vested interest in a very different history-a pluralist or perspectival history in which students participate in meaningful discussion with "an ever growing chorus of voices."8 In this article, I will focus on the promises and puzzles of apprenticing children to a perspectival history from the very earliest elementary grades.

The "Apprenticeship" Metaphor
My discussion is based on sociocultural theory, particularly as it relates to the metaphor of "apprenticeship."9 In an apprenticeship, an "expert" assists a novice through demonstration, guidance, and explanation, until the novice is able to select and use cultural knowledge and skills to solve problems or complete tasks independently. If we are interested in a pluralist approach to history, however, this cultural reproduction model of apprenticeship is inadequate. Along with others,10 I suggest a more dynamic form of apprenticeship, in which teachers and learners engage in a dialogue that results in the co-construction of historical meaning in the classroom.
In an apprenticeship, knowledge and skills are acquired in order to be used, not simply accumulated and regurgitated. This aspect of apprenticeship forces us as teachers to think about the "so what" of history. What questions does history help us answer? What decisions does it help us make? James Loewen makes a persuasive case for rejecting instruction that implies that every historical problem "has already been solved or is about to be solved."11 To begin with, this attitude misrepresents the dynamic nature of history, where interpretations are always provisional and often contested. Just as importantly, it limits the uses of history to what Loewen calls a "simple-minded morality play" that "can become something of a burden for students of color, children of working-class parents, girls who notice the dearth of female historical figures, or members of any group that has not achieved socioeconomic success."12

A pluralist or perspectival approach, in contrast, challenges this morality tale, asking students to consider the cultural uses of history. Why are some voices heard and not others? How is the past manipulated for present purposes? How might different historical voices help us make better sense, not just out of the past, but out of the present? What historical resources might we bring to bear on public warnings not to repeat the past ("It's another Vietnam," "It's another Watergate") or on current controversies over affirmative action, immigration policy, or "family values?" What historical knowledge and skills are required to understand our current involvement in Bosnia and our relative lack of engagement in Liberia?

Perspectival History in an Elementary Classroom
An example of the kind of historical apprenticeship I am talking about is useful here. I will begin with novices-the youngest children entering this intellectual apprenticeship. I will also begin with a ubiquitous topic that appears in the "holiday curriculum" early in the year-Christopher Columbus.13
LeeAnn Fitzpatrick and her five, six and seven year old students are in the midst of thinking about how people become famous, and what fame means.14 Earlier, they developed a survey and interviewed family members, neighbors, and friends about what it takes to become famous. Some thought fame came from being rich, or when you did something "real cool," "head turning," or "out of the ordinary." Famous people they cited ranged from sports figures to politicians and entertainers.

As Columbus Day approached, there was considerable local controversy over how it should be celebrated. LeeAnn and her students began looking more closely at Columbus as an example of a famous person. First, students compared three contrasting picture book biographies of Columbus, dictating information to be written on a comparison chart that noted where the accounts agreed and disagreed. They were particularly interested in how each book dealt with the issue of taking native peoples back to Europe. In fact, after one simulation in which LeeAnn selected a "sample of primary students" to go far away with her, the students declared that people should never be souvenirs.

LeeAnn next divided the class into five groups. One group used maps and globes to locate places that were significant to the Columbus story- countries whose kings turned Columbus down when he asked for financial assistance, the country that gave Columbus the money to finance the voyage, the countries that Columbus wanted to travel to, and the route Columbus followed to get to the Americas. Another group measured the size of Columbus' ship and cut string to the appropriate length (90ft). They also used books, illustrations, and the comparison chart they had worked on earlier to identify cargo (food, firewood, water, wine, clothes, ropes, sails) and draw it on a cross section mural of the ship. A third group investigated the kinds of plants found in the Americas that were unfamiliar to Europeans. Children categorized these plants as fruits, vegetables and non-edibles, drew pictures of the plants in each category, and then labeled their illustrations.

Because the concept of time needed considerable support and visual reinforcement for some children, another group used calendar pages from August to October to create a time line, marking off the number of weeks and then the days of the Atlantic crossing. The last group also developed a visual representation of time, but their task was to show how many hundreds of years separated 1492 and the present. They marked time in hundred year increments by grouping unifix cubes in tens, then placing markers after ten groups of ten to indicate a one hundred year period. Their time line provided an impressive visualization of just how long a span of time separated the children from Columbus.

Was Columbus Famous?
Now LeeAnn drew students back to the original question: Was Christopher Columbus famous, and if so, why? "Each of you will have a chance to be a historian and answer the questions we've asked," she told them as they wrote their own histories of Columbus. At a special presentation for parents, children shared their histories and group projects, and discussed what they had learned. Among their various conclusions were that "books on the same subject can give you different information" and "Columbus did not treat the Indians fairly, so why was he considered a hero and named 'Admiral of the Ocean Sea'? He was famous."
There are several ways in which this example challenges traditional history instruction. To begin with, it is an indepth inquiry conducted in a primary classroom. Instead of accepting the traditional elementary school version of the Columbian exchange, it invites students to participate in the historical debate on at least two levels. First, children are asked to think about how the past influences the present: Why is there a holiday to commemorate Christopher Columbus? Second, they are asked to think about how the present influences our interpretation of the past: Why is there a controversy over the commemoration of Columbus? These two concerns are framed by a familiar concept: fame.

Although quite young, LeeAnn's students became fully engaged in analyzing Columbus and the current controversy over holding a celebration in his honor. In the end, some students wrote that Columbus should not be considered a hero. Their grounds for this decision had to do with the treatment of Native peoples. Columbus had violated basic human rights, especially by enslaving people and taking them back to Spain as souvenirs, but also by trading worthless goods for valuable land and gold.

Other students, however, wrote that Columbus was a hero-he had braved the ocean, survived shipwreck, and discovered a new world of plants and people. A few preferred the old myth that Columbus was a hero because he discovered that the earth was round. While their perspectives differed, these students were active participants in the co-construction of historical interpretations. And while their constructions may still be na•ve, I think it can be argued that they have entered the first stage of a historical apprenticeship.

Overcoming Resistance to Perspectival History
It is not always the case that students respond so positively to history seen from different perspectives. One problem is that perspectival history runs counter to children's perceived need to know "the truth." Children are trained to seek correct answers to their questions more often than they are asked to consider multiple perspectives. As a result, many children find this kind of historical approach unfamiliar and even threatening. They may demand that the teacher "just tell us what you want us to know."15 Moreover, resistance to multiple perspectives in the classroom reflects such resistance in the broader culture.
U.S. culture provides few positive models for attention to multiple perspectives. Public discourse more often presents issues as dichotomous, associating each end of the dichotomy with, if not right and wrong, at least winners and losers. Michael Kammen argues that Americans do not want to deal with the complexities of perspectival history, preferring instead a kind of comforting and guilt-free nostalgia.16 A cursory glance at current debates over history curriculum lends credence to his conclusions.

Teachers on the front lines of this debate have vivid first hand knowledge of how hostile the public can be to multiple perspectives. I will use my own community as one example. A sixth grade teacher who presented students with speakers from different perspectives on the Middle East-both on religion and on an independent Palestinian state-was told by a parent that her children could not participate because "I don't want my child to hear those ideas." Another parent at the school requested that her children be exempt from social studies altogether because "history exposes children to violence and dangerous ideas." In classrooms across the district, parents regularly remove their children from discussions of Greek and Roman myths, human origins, and world religions because they do not want their children exposed to these perspectives. Students are not oblivious to these social pressures. Neither are teachers, who are often reluctant to focus on a perspectival history in the face of such objections.

As Mary Catherine Bateson comments, "putting a version of the past on record is an act of decision and affirmation, setting commitments for the future."17 That, I think, is the crux of the current debate over the history curriculum: whose perspective will be on record and what commitments will be made for the future. In the past, teachers could lay responsibility for a particular perspective at the feet of textbook writers or curriculum developers. Perspectival history, however, removes the protection of an "official story" sanctioned by the school system and enshrined in a textbook. Instead, it suggests that children learn to challenge assumptions, ask sometimes uncomfortable questions, demand support for assertions, and develop supportable interpretations of the past. In the current political climate, this is risky business.

Of course, the argument could be made that students are incapable of handling such a volatile history. After all, there is close to a decade's worth of research indicating that students often confuse and conflate historic events and eras, have difficulty remembering which side was which in major conflicts, don't know in which half century the American Civil War occurred and-even after repeated encounters with national history-seem to retain little more than the persistent myths that are reinforced by the popular culture.18

Yet, children who are given the opportunity to engage in historical inquiry demonstrate rather different patterns than these results would suggest. Indeed, there is evidence that not only are they more enthusiastic about history, but that they recognize that historical stories can be told differently and tend to think that history is something they need to know.19 None of this happens by osmosis.

Our task as social studies educators is to prepare all our students for active citizenship in an increasingly complex and interdependent world. We cannot afford a history curriculum that ignores or de-emphasizes the impact of racial, ethnic, gender, and class distinctions in the past or present. Nor can we afford a history curriculum that renders some of our students invisible and voiceless.

From the time they enter school, students deserve systematic opportunities to develop their own historically grounded voices. They also need opportunities to work both independently and in cooperation with others to exercise historical agency, that is, to act in the world on the basis of their historical understandings. Developing a perspectival, inquiry oriented history curriculum for our classrooms will not be easy. But it is imperative.

1 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Hearings on the Smithsonian Institution: Management Guidelines for the Future, 104th Congress, 1 Session, May 11-18, 1995.
2 Ibid.
3 J. Appleby, L. Hunt and M. Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: Norton, 1994).
4 The vilification of "revisionist" history is particularly notable in the debate over the Enola Gay exhibit proposed by the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. See for instance Senate Resolution 257 (Senate-September 19, 1994) in which Senator Kassebaum described the proposed exhibit as "revisionist and offensive." In the resultant Hearings of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, "revisionist" is frequently used pejoratively, as when Senator Ted Stevens expressed concern that the exhibit "not lead to a revisionist view of history" (May 11, 1995). For a full discussion of the Enola Gay controversy, see also "History and the Public: What Can We Handle," the December 1995 issue of The Journal of American History.
5 U.S. Congress, Hearings on the Smithsonian Institution, 1995.
6 Appleby, et al, Telling the Truth about History.
7 J.W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York: The New Press, 1995); R. Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1993).
8 Appleby, et al, Telling the Truth about History.
9 L. Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978); F. M. Newmann, W. G. Secada and G.G. Wehlage, A Guide to Authentic Instruction and Assessment: Vision, Standards and Scoring (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, 1995); B. Rogoff, Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); G. Wells and G. L. Chang-Wells, Constructing Knowledge Together: Classrooms as Centers of Inquiry and Literacy (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992).
10 Wells and Chang Wells, Constructing Knowledge Together.
11 Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me.
12 Ibid., 3.
13 R. E. Gross, "The Holiday Curriculum" in
Social Education 37, 7 (1973), 670-673.
14 L. S. Levstik and K. C. Barton, "'They Still Use Some of Their Past': Historical Salience in Elementary Children's Chronological Thinking" in Theory and Research in Social Education 14 (1986), 1-19.
15 L. A. Spears-Bunton, "Welcome to My House: African American and European American Students' Responses to Virginia Hamilton's 'House of Dies Drear'" in Journal of Negro Education 59, 4 (1990), 566-576; L. S. Levstik and K. C. Barton, Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle School (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, in press); S. S. Wineburg, 'On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach Between School and Academy" in American Educational Research Journal 28 (1991), 495-519.
16 Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).
17 Mary Catherine Bateson, With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson (New York: HarperPerennial, 1984), xii.
18 M. G. Beck and M. G. McKeown, "Social Studies Texts Are Hard to Understand: Mediating Some of the Difficulties" in Language Arts 68 (1991), 482-90; D. C. Hammack, M. Hartoonian, J. Howe, L. B. Jenkins, L. S. Levstik, W. B. Macdonald, I. V. S. Mullis and E. Owen, The U.S. History Report Card (Princeton, NJ: ETS, 1990); J. Brophy, B. VanSledright and N. Bredin, "What do Entering Fifth Graders Know About U.S. History?" in Journal of Social Studies Research 16/17 (1993), 2-19; J. Brophy et al, "Fifth-graders Ideas About History Expressed Before and After Their Introduction to the Subject" in Theory and Research in Social Education 20 (1992), 440-489; D. Ravitch and C. E. Finn, What Do Our 17-year-olds Know? A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature (New York: Harper & Row, 1987); Peter Seixas, "Students' Understanding of Historical Significance" in Theory and Research in Social Education 22 (1994), 281-304; B. A. VanSledright, "'I Don't Remember-the Ideas Are All Jumbled in My Head': 8th Graders' Reconstruction of Colonial American History" in Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 10 (1995), 317-345; B. A. VanSledright and J. Brophy, "Storytelling, Imagination and Fanciful Elaboration in Children's Historical Reconstruction" in American Educational Research Journal 29 (1992), 837-859; S. S. Wineburg, "On the Reading of Historical Texts."
19 D. Shemilt, Evaluation Study: Schools Council History 13-16 Project (Edinburgh: Holmes McDougall, 1980).

Linda S. Levstik is Professor of Social Studies at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.