©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Saints or Sinners?
The Case for an Honest Portrayal of Historical Figures


Susan I. Kent

Recently published test results indicating a DNA match between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ youngest son offer the most compelling evidence to date that Jefferson may indeed have fathered at least one child by this slave given to him by his wife’s father. It had been long established—but little publicized until now—that Sally Hemings, whose slave mother was owned by Jefferson’s father-in-law, was Martha Jefferson’s illegitimate half-sister. These findings expose today’s students to complex issues about human character and the nation’s past from which some might have preferred to protect them.

Teachers already struggle over how to present the issue of our founding fathers’ ownership of slaves. Now, an even more delicate issue looms. Should this recent evidence be discussed, and, if so, how might teachers best present it? Not only are some issues difficult for young children to understand, many are inappropriate for classroom discussion, especially in the elementary grades. It is ironic that this evidence was released at a time when a growing number of schools aim to instill in children moral values such as respect and honesty through a resurgence of character education programs.

An even greater challenge confronting teachers is how to help students analyze and evaluate the conflicting perspectives and values that have emerged as a result of this evidence. How can the great accomplishments of leaders like Jefferson be reconciled with the implied serious character flaws that now appear undeniable? How can moral issues, such as slavery and freedom, equality, sexual conduct, and the right to privacy be understood in the context of their times and be weighed to determine which are most essential to the survival of a democracy?

Teaching the more includive history that has gradually been integrated into contemporary social studies curricula presents challenges similar to discussing the recent evidence about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. The purpose of this article is to make a case for an honest portrayal of historical figures. The truth, as best we can understand it, should be tempered only by considering the age and developmental levels of the children we teach. Though material might be presented more simply to younger children who cannot fully grasp difficult concepts, it can still be presented honestly. If the history they learned about past leaders had been more inclusively and truthfully presented, perhaps those adults who generally rush to judgment in matters of moral values would be more likely to thoughtfully assess their positions.

Today’s elementary and middle school children are confronted by resources addressing multiple perspectives and conflicting interpretations of events. Through access to a greater variety of resources, they are exposed to knowledge formerly withheld from children. These resources include the media, textbooks that embrace ethnic and women’s history, a wealth of print and electronic primary documents, and high quality children’s literature that offers a more complete and realistic picture of the people that have shaped our nation.

Rather than as superheroes, protagonists in contemporary children’s biographies appear as people with human frailties and fallibilities who wrestled with real problems. Examples of accurate portrayals of national figures can be found in the work of author Russell Freedman, who writes thoroughly referenced histories and biographies for children. Freedman explains, “I have a pact with the reader to stick with the facts, to be as factually accurate as human frailty will allow. What I write is based on research, on the documented historical record.”1

In contrast to the resources now easily accessible to children, only single perspective textbooks were available to my generation. What little children’s literature supplemented the bland texts, such as a sprinkling of biographies of American heroes, was largely fictionalized and didactic. Characters were presented as saintly and clearly superior to mere mortals. The fallacy in presenting such didactic tracts is that depicting historical figures as flawless may create a barrier between the the child and the person being portrayed. The child, knowing he or she is flawed, feels that matching this saintly status is impossible. This may actually dissuade children from trying to emulate the positive characteristics of the historical figures, and suppress any interest in continued learning about them.

According to Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, textbooks of the past attempted to portray history as a “spectacular, flag-waving saga designed to create loyalty, patriotism, and a sense of rightness of everything the U.S. did. But the picture was incomplete, and it was not honest...it ignored important occasions on which we betrayed our ideals.”2 With the overriding goal of fostering a national identity, history—spoken through a single voice—recalled America’s struggle to gain power. This stance, which favored an almost mythical patriotism, remained unchallenged for over a century.3

But blind patriotism is no longer realistic in an age when children, through exposure to modern media and a confessional culture, are more worldly than ever before. As we approach the end of the twentieth century, no longer does the study of history involve only the rote memorization of facts from a single perspective textbook to be spewed back on a test. In place of simply disseminating information, contemporary social studies teaching involves the more challenging task of helping children to develop critical thinking skills that can help them to question, analyze, and evaluate the diverse and often conflicting interpretations they encounter. The Clinton scandal and reactions to it provide a compelling example of the importance of these skills.


Helping Children to Cope with Realism

When students are exposed to a variety of perspectives and interpretations, two challenges arise. First, provocative and unsettling information that teachers may be uncomfortable discussing is likely to be uncovered. For example, in an interview at the conclusion of the audio-recorded version of his book Nightjohn, children’s author Gary Paulsen brings up a topic most teachers would rather not discuss. Paulsen gives an impassioned account of the alleged relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. He accuses Jefferson of “using” Sally Hemings, although others have suggested a less extreme view of this relationship.4 Students may encounter another example of unsettling information about one of our nation’s great heroes in a speech given by Lincoln when he was running for the U. S. Senate in 1858. Children understandably become disconcerted and confused when they read Lincoln’s statements about the inferiority of Negroes and the superiority of whites.5

A third example is provided by Joy Hakim, author of the acclaimed series A History of US, regarding a central paradox in U.S. history: How could we ever have practiced slavery in the land of the free? Slavery was evil, yet many slave owners—Jefferson and Washington among them—were not. How could they have done something we know to be wrong? Furthermore, if we simply attribute the existence of slavery to racism, how can we explain the fact that at the time of the Civil War, 12,000 slaves were owned by free blacks?6 Hakim challenges teachers to directly confront rather than “gloss over” such controversial material.

Helping children to understand the less than heroic beliefs and behaviors of our nation’s leaders, while still revering their accomplishments, is difficult. Nonetheless, teachers cannot avoid this challenge because the very survival of our democratic ideals is dependent on an informed and thinking public. In his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen raised some thought-provoking questions about our tendency to keep children ignorant of historical truth. Why do adults want to keep children ignorant? If our country is so wonderful, why must we lie? We may claim it is to preserve the children’s sense of innocence and idealism, but are we really trying to keep them respectful of authority?7

Ultimately, we must consider whether children will respect authority when they learn they’ve been lied to. Perhaps it is because we do not believe children can think for themselves that we try to shield them from the darker side of our heritage. A grimmer possibility is that our own ignorance about history may prevent us from teaching the truth.

A critical factor deserving teachers’ attention is that, although revisionist history may discredit myths about traditional heroes, it can still inspire admiration for their accomplishments even when the truth reveals less than perfect behavior. “What made them great is there, in spite of what made them human, and therefore fallible.”8 Or, as journalist George Will has pointed out, current trends have “obliterated human magnificence by linking a banality with a non sequitur—the observation that everyone has flaws, and the conclusion that therefore no one merits emulation.”9 As teachers, we must not succumb to such twisted logic.

To ensure that children can both grasp their accomplishments and acknowledge their failures, Loewen challenges us to portray key historical figures as real humans who grappled with difficult problems of their time. If we shield children from the fact that Jefferson owned and sold slaves on the auction block, we are not allowing them to grapple with what appears hypocritical, which could in turn help them to acknowledge and confront their own hypocrisy. And, by protecting students from Lincoln’s white supremacist views, we are “diminishing students’ capacity to recognize racism as a force in American life. For if Lincoln could be a racist, then so might the rest of us be. And if Lincoln could transcend racism...then so might the rest of us.”10

Helping Children to Evaluate Diverse Perspectives

The second challenge that arises from children’s exposure to diverse perspectives is that judgments about the accuracy and completeness of the perspectives must be made. The easy, but mistaken, way out is for teachers to simply imply that one version of history is no more valid or accurate than another, thus precluding the need for analysis and evaluation. This reflects the stance of the cultural relativists carried to the absurd, according to Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, whose thoughtfully balanced and honest book, Telling the Truth About History, encourages teachers to reject the extreme relativist position.11 Loewen similarly implores teachers “not to accede to the now fashionable opinion that all points of view are equally appropriate.”12

Though a more difficult path to take, the way to help children understand multiple perspectives is to foster the development of critical thinking skills that enable students to make sound judgments about the evidence they find. Shanker implored teachers to ensure that presenting various viewpoints does not become more important than weighing the evidence of their validity. According to him, historical theory should not be taught unless it can be validated. We have gone too far if “the teaching of history is no longer dominated by ideas that historians widely accept on the basis of available evidence.”13 Using the example of creationism, Shanker suggested that the reason creationism is not taught as a scientific theory is because it is not validated by the scientific community. A comparable concern, regarding the presentation of multiple perspectives in history, was expressed by Gilbert Sewall, American Textbook Council Director, in stating that “accuracy has been the first casualty of contemporary sensibilities, clashing ideologies, and pressures for inclusion.”14

Teaching children how to make judgments about interpretations of history is daunting because teachers want to be receptive to their students’ opinions and values. In their desire to include and accept everyone’s opinions, teachers may be reluctant to require children to back up statements they make with solid evidence. As George Will observed, “the idea is abroad that there is no moral heritage worth ‘imposing’ on children, respect for whom requires that their selection of ‘values’ be regarded as a mere matter of taste.”15

Will reinforced his statement with an observation from Edwin Delattre, Dean of Boston University’s School of Education, who noted that students almost never criticize a proposition with evidence to the contrary: “They never say, ‘I believe you are mistaken because,’ but instead, give biographical reports such as, ‘I’m not comfortable with that.’ Students regard such reports about their ‘feelings’ as final and no more in need of justification than, ‘I don’t like Brussels sprouts.’”16 Expressing an opinion and backing up an opinion with solid evidence are two different skills. Children readily offer their opinions; teachers need to focus on helping children to substantiate them.

Teachers must also help children understand that values change over time. Just as a child’s values change and mature as his or her moral development evolves, a nation’s values also change. Not only do we have to understand that values change, we must also realize that as we consider the past, our interpretations of it are distorted by current values. Teachers need to help students understand that they cannot fully grasp the past by looking only thorough present-day lenses. Furthermore, values change very gradually. There is no black and white, but many shades of gray falling in between.17

Simply ignoring values when teaching history may seem an easy answer to this complicated issue, but the eminent historian David McCullough reminds us of the impossibility of separating values from history: “History shows us how to behave. History teaches, reinforces what we believe, what we stand up for, and what we ought to be willing to stand up for. History shows us that times of change are the times when we are most likely to learn.”18 Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s Magazine, expressed a similar sentiment: “History is only intelligible as narrative. People who tell stories cannot avoid making judgments—about character, motive, the nature of right and wrong.”19

If we believe the words Jefferson had engraved at the entrance to the University of Virginia, “The truth shall make you free,” we must encourage our students to seek the truth. But what is truth? According to Lapham, “The truth isn’t about the acquisition of doctrine or the assimilation of statistics. It’s about the courage to trust one’s own thought and observation, to possess one’s own history, to speak in one’s own voice.”20 John Jarolimek, in his eloquent introduction to his classic social studies methods text, discusses the “fragile balance between teaching for socialization on the one hand and teaching for social criticism on the other. A major dilemma for a democratic society...is how to socialize children in ways that ensure social tranquility without repressing the necessary dissension.”21

We must help children develop pride in the accomplishments of our country, but at the same time help them develop informed opinions with which to criticize those things that are not right or just. Without questioning the status quo, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and the civil, women’s, and gay rights movements would not have occurred.

Complex moral, social, and political issues currently faced by our world and nation underscore the importance of introducing children to diverse perspectives, helping them to recognize and analyze value conflicts, teaching them to question rather than blindly accept, and providing them with skills for supporting their convictions with solid evidence. Teaching our students to make sound evidence-based judgments is critical, but if they are not first presented with the most complete and truthful evidence available, sound judgments cannot possibly be made. Perhaps more rationale dialogue will prevail in attempts to solve the inevitable crises of the future if our students have been taught an honest and inclusive history.



1. Russell Freedman, “Bring ‘em Back Alive: Writing History and Biography for Young People,” School Library Journal (March 1994): 139-144.

2. Albert Shanker, “Sacrificing Accuracy for Diversity,” A “Where We Stand” Position Paper (New York: American Federation for Teachers, 1991).

3. Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994).

4. Gary Paulsen, Nightjohn (New York: Recorded Books Inc., 1993).

5. In Richard D. Kellough, Integrating Language Arts and Social Studies for Intermediate and Middle School Students (Prentice Hall, NJ: Merrill, 1996), 380.

6. Joy Hakim, “Evil in History: Can Young Students Handle It?” History Matters 7, No. 2 (1994): 11-5.

7. James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York: The New Press, 1995), 289.

8. In Philip Cohen, “Challenging History: The Past Remains a Battleground for Schools,” ASCD Curriculum Update (Winter 1995): 8.

9. George F. Will, “A Trickle-down Culture,” Newsweek (December 13, 1993): 84.

10. Loewen, 142.

11. Appleby, et al.

12. Loewen, 310.

13. Shanker, 1.

14. Cohen, 8.

15. Will, 84.

16. Ibid.

17. William McNeill, “Advancing History Education in American Schools,” A National Council for History Education Occasional Paper (1996).

18. David McCullough, “Why History?” Speech in acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 19, 21.

19. Lewis H. Lapham, “The Republic Is in Trouble,” History Matters 8, No. 5 (1996): 1-5.

20. Ibid., 5.

21. John Jarolimek and Walter Parker, Social Studies in Elementary Education, 9th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 5.


Susan I. Kent is an assistant professor of education in the School of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University at Newark.