Tag Archives: Thomas Stowell

Malleability of the Past

Educators today have a tremendous opportunity to engage their audiences or students precisely because of the malleability of the past in the digital world. Chalana and Coslett cited Tilden’s assertion in regards to educating audiences and promoting historical thinking, “the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.” In addition, we should also consider the quotation by Thomas Sowell posted at the WM-NHS entrance ‘‘Cultures are not ‘superior’ or ‘inferior.’ They are for better or worse adapted to a particular set of circumstances.’’ While Tilden invites incitement as the process of historical thinking, Thomas Stowell promotes tolerance. As Chalana and Colsett point out, current demographic, cultural, historiographic, and professional circumstances are changing; therefore our approach to understanding and presenting our shared heritage must also change. The digital world that accompany our physical surroundings not only connect audiences, but also have the potential to reveal perspectives and engage us in a conversation that could change our current perception of history.

A fresh perspective could easily provoke audiences and be perceived as a false interpretation. So, one of the challenges for educators of history is which perspective to choose and how to present it. That is exactly why the digital world, while perhaps complicating the work of history educators, forces them to rethink what they do, say, or show that will become a historical interpretation of students of history. I can’t help but think of my own children’s fourth grade history (actually part of social studies) project about the California missions. They have read the standard story about the Spanish establishing missions, helping the Natives, teaching them by bringing religion and in general civilization. To better understand the historical significance of these events, each student built their own mission to represent the grand vision of this historical success. Classes have also visited and toured various missions. This history class was also part of a religious education as my children were attending a Catholic school at a time. Although, their severely outdated history book may have mentioned occasional mistreatment of the Native Americans, no complicated or provoking questions were discussed or even dismissed. Students simply did not question the mission of this expansion. The Spanish Empire had the right to expand and evangelize the Native Americans. A few years ago, however, when these fourth graders were in my eight-grade Literature class, Junipero Serra was nominated for sainthood by the Pope, which created a string of controversy. Since our latest efforts in writing focused of argumentation, I had presented my students with several articles that discussed both sides of the issue. They have read and probably already heard about Serra’s efforts in the church, but they also examined the Native American perspective. One story detailed two brothers, one that vehemently opposed Serra’s elevation to sainthood and the other who actually became a guide at one of the twenty-one missions. I have obtained a verbal permission from our deacon and religion teacher to actually have students think and write about this issue. Students read the articles, took sides, and argued in small groups citing examples from the articles. As the final step, they shared the essays in small groups and concluded this unit with a whole class discussion. I have also encouraged them to engage their parents and my fellow teachers at the school. Although, visions of the Holocaust and practices of slavery peppered our discussions and were cited in the articles, including primary sources, more students felt that Junipero Serra deserves to be a saint. In this case, the past did not seem so malleable rather stale and incomplete. Since this was my last year teaching this Literature class that followed themes of prejudice, persecution, segregation, slavery, Holocaust, and the Civil Rights Movement I was not able build on it or improve my strategies to provoke a more critical historical thinking. It seemed that avoiding bias or examining sources needed a deeper and broader research.

What complicates history educators’ work is what has been missing from past interpretations of history and the constant evolution of interpreting it. In addition the challenges of incorporating present perceptions of wide-opened, often outlandish opinions that perhaps have no historical relevance or truth may complicate understanding. Educators should use digital tools to expose these complications, provoke, and facilitate in order to foster historical thinking that questions, facts, sources, and is willing to evaluate alternate views as historical truths. Such practices and challenges need not only be explored in parks, articles, or museums, they should populate classrooms to begin the creation of digital sites that accompany them where others may contemplate the views they offer. These disputed and evolving patterns by which Americans remember, rewrite, and contemplate our civic traditions allow us to meet new challenges and ultimately inspire tolerance.

Works Cited

Coslett, Daniel E., and Manish Chalana. “National Parks for New Audiences. Diversifying Interpretation for Enhanced Contemporary Relevance.” The Public Historian 38, no. 4: 101-128. November 2016

Sowell, Thomas, Ethnic America: A History (New York: Basic Books, 1981).
Tilden, Interpreting