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Happy Histories

At the end of the year, I give my students feedback surveys. Last year, two students wrote an interesting criticism of the course. They said that the class focused too much on historical sins (oppression, exploitation), and not enough on happy stories, heroes, and American triumphs. I found this an interesting criticism, and I still do. I've been thinking about it in light of the controversy over the new AP U.S. History course outline. Conservatives have been highly critical of the new standards for the same reason, and students in Colorado have been actively fighting to ensure the integrity of the standards. 

Must we abandon our heroes and myths in order to teach history in an intellectually rigorous way? In mulling over this question, I'm also reminded of the recent Ken Burns take on the Roosevelts, which took my heroes and treated them with a nuance and complexity that made them both less and more heroic to me. Can we teach an accurate history and still inspire patriotism? Should history classes be a casualty to the culture wars? Do we owe students heroes to balance out everything that's so harrowing? Like so many things in a history class, only time will tell. For now, what I want to focus on is conveying to my students is that history is complex—that is my responsibility as a history educator.

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