UPDATE: Resources for the lesson described in this post are now on this page.
For high school history teachers, comparing secondary source treatments of historical events is no longer just a good idea, it’s the law. In Minnesota that’s state social studies standard 188.8.131.52.2, benchmark: “Evaluate alternative interpretations of historical events; use historical evidence to support or refute those interpretations.” This work is also a requirement for College Board approved AP history syllabi, which is kind of like the law. In social studies it probably has more impact than the law, at least in states, like Minnesota, without state tests in social studies. As a component of historical thinking that requires students to critically work with information, comparing secondary texts is still a very good idea.
All of this has brought the work of Kyle Ward into greater prominence. Kyle has mentored several of the St. Cloud State University student teachers with whom I have worked and has written or co-written books comparing textbook narratives from different times and different places. Ward and Dana Lindman’s History Lessons compares US history textbooks of events with textbooks from other countries. It is an interesting read.
In order to get in on this action, I used History Lessons to create a one day lesson comparing American and Iranian textbook accounts of the Iranian Revolution, including a brief background presentation on the Revolution. Four classes of eleventh grade World History students read the Iranian view of the take over the US Embassy (aka the “American Den of Spies”) and compared it to The American Republic, which they used the previous year in US history. The book includes one large picture and a few paragraphs of text on the Revolution and hostage crisis. Faster readers compared both to our World History book. The results showed that my students had made progress as historical thinkers, but still have a ways to go.
I crafted a primitive processing sheet, updated since, for students. By late May most students were ready to closely read text and most were making at least some annotations without much prompting. As a result most easily identified areas of similarity and difference. Students often identified areas of factual agreement: “that the U.S. embassy got attacked”; “that the US was against the revolution because they supported the Shah”; and, “There were U.S hostages through this event.” Many also noticed that the Iranian account claimed that the Embassy/”Den of Spies” was a center for espionage, while neither The American Republic nor the World History book mention this. For example one student wrote, “Iran said the U.S. had secret documents and the U.S. said nothing of the documents.”
Many students analyzed the tone and narrative implications more deeply, especially in identifying differences. One noted that the accounts: “Disagree on the underlying goal of the US (Heroic vs. Brutal).” Another observed that the texts “all shift the blame differently”. Similarly, a third student wrote “the Iranian textbook tries to sound like the victim and sound reasonable, call U.S. evil, the U.S. makes it sound like they need to step in bc Iran failed.” In some class discussion these observations honed in on how particular word choices convey tone and interpretation, and next time I will encourage students to incorporate more of these understandings into their written responses. Clearly, there was a solid base upon which to build quality interpretations. With encouragement and prompting more students will reach this deeper level of analysis.
Less encouraging were student response to reasons for these difference. Almost all student responses to the question of why the accounts differ roughly fit what Bruce VanSledright calls the “naive relativist” stance in relation to historical knowledge, which I see as akin to The Dude’s classic retort in The Big Lebowski: “uh, that’s just like your opinion, man” [warning linked content contains strong language]. Faced with conflicting narratives many students see variations as rooted in equivalent biases. Along these lines here is how some responded to a question about the cause of the disagreements:
- “Everyone likes to think they are right”
- “their [sic] biased”
- “Neither government wants to make themselves look bad”
- “because of where the books were made”
With the incentive of improving their scores I allowed students to revise and the student who wrote the last comment above then elaborated that the Iranian account “makes them look strong, they attacked a U.S. embassy and they made it look like oppressed and oppressed to make themselves look and seem strong.” Another student’s initial analysis hinted at similar sophistication: “Since this is a U.S textbook, it talks about the tragic losses the US went through. This where different textbooks have their differences related to the tragities [sic] in each country. Also, because there was US hostages the US textbook will talk about that more than the Iranian tragities [sic].” Responses like this were rare, however. More time on the task and more modeling of analysis will probably produce deeper analysis by students next year. But, this shows, again, that historical thinking is not natural for students. Teaching it requires persistent effort.
Additionally, when comparing textbooks students need to know more about their about their production. In this case I think I should have been more clear about the authoritarian nature of the Iranian regime, while also, informing students about the US textbook market. I think some, at least, would have been able to see the differences between overt and more passive politicization of the accounts. I’ve got my beef’s with The American Republic, but it is not the blatant propaganda of the Iranian type.