©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

A Passion for the Past:
Creative Teaching of U.S. History

James A. Percoco. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998. 149 pages. $17.50.

Reviewed by Murry R. Nelson

 

In this brief book, James Percoco demonstrates the excitement that history teaching can generate when a creative teacher takes the time to do individual research and combines it with enterprising activities that make students active participants in a learning community. The author offers inspiration by presenting ideas that can be easily adapted by others, and by encouraging teachers to break free from their lecture/textbook orientation and to pursue history as much outside as inside the classroom.

Most of Percoco’s book consists of interweaving his own teaching and learning experiences with useful ideas, methods, and resources. He became infatuated with history in high school, and credits his interest to an outstanding teacher, Neal Adams, who sponsored a trip to the former Soviet Union during Percoco’s senior year. This was “ the ultimate learning experience and I knew then how I wanted to approach teaching history.” He also credits Jerome Segal, his cooperating teacher in an inner-city Philadelphia high school during Percoco’s senior year at Temple University, for showing him how to use resources outside the classroom and to have fun teaching.

Despite these models, Percoco emulated the dominant lecture mode when he began teaching at West Springfield High School in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1980. This supports research that contends that much of the teacher education experience is “washed out” by the environment of the school where the new teacher goes to teach. Percoco was fortunate to be located in the Washington, D.C., area, where many workshops and courses were offered to stimulate better teaching in schools. He enrolled in a program at the National Archives, discovered the thrill of working with primary source documents, and determined to introduce this technique to his students. Percoco’s teaching changed dramatically, and continues to do so, as he enrolls in different courses, works with independent scholars, and creates his own research agenda directed at continually improving his teaching and creating excitement for his students. He is gracious enough to share the credit with a number of outstanding teachers he has worked with around the country.

This volume is divided into eight chapters, each focusing on a technique for making teaching and learning history more exciting. The first chapter introduces the notion of applied history and cites examples to be developed more fully later in the book. Percoco describes how he decorates his classroom before the year starts, and how he gives an introductory lesson wherein he reveals his “love affair” with Clio—to the shock of some students. He eschews the use of a textbook and tells his students why—though, admittedly, it is easier to do so in this high school than in many others, given its level of academic achievement. (Having done away with textbooks in my social studies classes in Chicago in the early 1970s, I could empathize with his actions; unfortunately, we are in the minority.) Percoco’s teaching approach emphasizes independent reading, journal writing, and taking fewer tests. He creates a course for students and then asks them to recreate it for themselves—an experience sure to enhance knowledge retention.

Percoco’s second chapter deals with the “art of networking” in order to obtain new ideas and materials for teaching. Subsequent chapters focus on strategies and projects designed to draw students into the historical research process. For example, he suggests having students do research on public statuary and monuments. Why are they located where they are? Who makes such decisions? Who is chosen to be “immortalized”? Who is chosen to create the statuary? These questions are designed to help students ask their own questions about the nature of history and its relationship to power. For Percoco, a field trip is not a brief foray onto some historic ground; he has taken students on lengthy excursions to Gettysburg and Andersonville (and admits to being one of the millions of Civil War buffs).

The author devotes one whole chapter to teaching history through film. He discusses the use of both “Hollywood” films and documentaries, paying special attention to a series I rely upon also, The American Experience, hosted by David McCullough. He also lists many films and other resources for teachers to consider in a fine appendix.

Percoco’s passion for learning and teaching history are obvious throughout this book, rightfully earning him the last word here: “Clearly a dynamic approach to presenting the past to our students can provide them with not only the story of what, why, and who have gone before us, while permitting them to discover their own place in the pageant of the human experience, but it can open our students to a world of opportunities never before imagined.” (131)

 

Murry R. Nelson is professor of education and American studies at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.

 

 

Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong

James W. Loewen. New York: The New Press, 1999. 480 pp. $26.95.

Reviewed by George T. Swain

 

After spending several years cooped up in the Smithsonian Institution pouring over high school history textbooks, James Loewen decided to get out for some air. Following in the tradition of the well-received Lies My Teacher Told Me, he packed up his car and traversed the country to assess how America’s history is presented at the nation’s historic markers, homes, and monuments. Not surprisingly, as the title suggests, Loewen found an enormous gap between fact and fiction. All across America, through omission or outright misrepresentation, myths masquerading as truth litter the landscape. What’s worse, these lies are often literally written in stone.

Loewen tells this tale with both humor and indignation. In ninety-five short vignettes, he takes the reader on an eclectic tour of more than one hundred of the nation’s historical roadside attractions, covering all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Some of the sites, like the one commemorating the purchase of Manhattan Island, are treated ironically; others, such as Stone Mountain, a Georgia shrine to the Lost Cause and the KKK, raise deeply troubling questions. Still others are simply absurd, for example, the site introduced as “Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace cabin—built thirty years after his death!” Most would make powerful teaching tools. We are introduced to sites national and local, large and small, famous and obscure. While many topics are covered, two major themes stand out: the dispossession of the Native American population and the persistence of racism as reflected in these sites.

Loewen argues that our understanding of race in America is distorted by the way our history is told (or not told) across the landscape. At historic plantation homes, for instance, visitors are treated to idyllic tales of the antebellum South that feature anecdotes about the silverware and largely ignore the realities of slave life. On the other hand, he notes the absence of historical markers for the “Scottsboro boys” in Scottsboro, Alabama, and for the 1863 anti-draft riots in New York City. There is no way to know that Reliance, Delaware, was a major center in the kidnapping and sale of free African Americans into slavery, or that Darien, Connecticut, was a notorious “sundown community.” Like hagiographic biographies, memorial monuments omit crucial facts. We are not told, for instance, that Deerborn, Michigan, mayor Orville Hubbard was an arch segregationist or that Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest was also a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. These inaccuracies, or “lies” using Loewen’s word, make it difficult if not impossible for residents and tourists to fully understand American history.

Why do our historic sites depart so completely from an accurate rendering of our past? Like a good historian, Loewen reminds us that historic sites must be understood as “documents” of two eras, the age they depict and the period in which they were created. Many of the markers he discusses were erected in the period 1890 to 1920, a true low point in the history of race relations in post-Civil War America, by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy in order to advance a particular political and social agenda. “Local boosterism” and the competition for tourist dollars also play a role. Additionally, there is the issue of contemporary sensibilities in the communities where these sites are located. As one tour guide at Andersonville, the POW camp for Union soldiers in Georgia, said about his reluctance to focus on unflattering stories said, “I’ve got to live in this community.” It seems that, as William Faulkner once wrote, “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

While this book is well worth reading, there are a few problems. To begin with, as in his previous book, the author reaches conclusions that are not fully supported by his evidence. He claims, for example, that historic sites mould the “consciousness of our citizenry” without explaining how this happens. We know what the plaques and docents at these sites say, but we have no idea what people see and hear. Unfortunately, without a systematic survey of public opinion at the sites he visits, we are left with the assumption that all patrons leave with the same message. The selection of sites is also curious. Why this site rather than others? How representative is this sample? While Loewen discusses a few sites that he feels get history “right,” one wonders if he has simply chosen his evidence to fit his thesis rather than the other way around. Finally, Loewen’s decision to organize the entries geographically rather than topically makes for a choppy read. A thematic arrangement of subjects, as in his previous book, might have been more effective and prevented his argument from becoming redundant.

What does all this mean for teachers of American history? Should we keep our students locked up safe in our classrooms? Of course not. The lies in this book may make for bad history, but they also make for great history instruction. I agree with the author that we need to bring our students out into the world and “into a dialogue with the landscape.” In fact, any teacher who lives within driving distance of the one of the sites mentioned in the book should pick up a copy and reserve a bus. Others could locate nearby historical markers and research them with students to test their veracity. Classes could then propose or create new markers either to correct misinformation or to honor forgotten people and events. The book ends with a helpful list of questions to ask when visiting a historical site. Ultimately, Loewen may be right that especially offensive monuments and markers need to be “toppled” or removed—as they were after the fall of communism in Europe—to museums where they can be observed as historical specimens rather than features of a living landscape. As this book makes clear, there is much work to be done.

After two successful books, where will Loewen head next? As Americans these days arguably learn more about the past through films than either textbooks or historic sites, can “Lies I Saw at the Multiplex?” or “Lies My Teacher Rented at Blockbuster” be far away?

George T. Swain is a Joseph Klingenstein Fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University, on leave this year from his position as teacher and history department chair at the Brooklyn Friends School in New York City.