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Teach the Contradictions, in History and Teacher Training Both | Dr Paul Magnuson

I read Lies My Teachers Told Me this past week. Pretty powerful stuff, even the Young Reader’s Edition. Tell it like it is.


For some context: My children have more or less memorized the lyrics from the musical Hamilton. The musical tells the story of one of the founding fathers of the United States. Hamilton had a great deal of influence from the late 1770s into the 1800s. I heard the musical lyrics so often at home I decided to see the show in person after this year’s Outstanding School’s Europe conference in London. My interest piqued, I read Ron Chernow’s (2005) biography of Hamilton. His life in the musical matched the biography: every time I mentioned something about the book, my children started rapping back the related lyrics from the show.

Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton


Now, about the lies my teacher told me. Revisionist history doesn’t come about because we teachers are liars, as James Loewen makes clear in his introduction. There are all sorts of social factors that contribute to a publisher's presentation of history (and our consumption of it, which we pass on to our students). Economically, what textbook will be accepted by parents, schools, and State government agencies? Socially, to what degree do publishers want to protect children from violence and the sordid nature of people? Politically, what agenda has the current upper hand? I’m sure I’m missing many more factors.


Because I had recently read Chernow’s deeper history of Hamilton and the early United States, Loewenn’s demonstration of the shallow information of many (most?) American history textbooks hit home. My knowledge of the formation of the early United States carried with me from high school to age 57, was more of a heroic fable than what the complex nature of creating history really is. The two books caught my bias in a pincer move. 


Eurocentric, cleaned up, making grey into more tidy black and white, side-stepped questions of morality, abuse, prejudice, hate, bias, and violence. The creation of one-sided heroes, or villains, out of complicated, conflicted, culturally-bound personalities. For me, the point of Loewen’s book is that our textbooks not only misrepresent history, but they also instil bias and prejudice and, well, sloppy thinking. History could be much more interesting with all of the conflict built in. A bit more like Chernow’s book, in which few are either heroes or villains, but turn out to be solidly human. 


Now with that context, I invite you to move laterally with me into teacher education. I’m not writing here to persuade you to clean up our presentation of history (although there appears to be a need). I’m writing to ask you to think about the distillation of rich and independent teacher education into a tacit acceptance of the general status quo. Really, read on.


Loewen writes: “Including ideas would bring in uncertainty. It would mean looking behind the line of events to think about the ideas that caused them - and about the possibility that events could have gone a different way” (Loewen, 2019: 127). That is about history. What about teacher education?

Loewen's book Lies My Teacher Told Me


I personally find that I am often cautious about bringing up conflicting ideas with my adult students seeking initial teacher licensure. And lots of concepts are full of contradictions: in the curriculum, in teaching methodology, in assessment. If I bring up opposing viewpoints, or sow doubt, am I being less than a good team player for my institution? At what point do opposing viewpoints muddy the water, and make the current learning objectives unclear? Maybe it is better to stick to a tidy narrative. Will less experienced teachers lose their footing if there are conflicting ideas in play? 


Here is an example that came up in a recent online class. Rubrics are not all that objective. The conflict for me? The majority of assignments in the program are scored with a rubric. Is it safe for me to lead a discussion about the fallibility of rubrics when rubrics are the backbone of the program’s assessment? By allowing students to dig in and question them, am I helping provide future teachers insight or am I confusing them with conflicting messages? Maybe it would be better to leave well enough alone, even at the risk of creating bias and false beliefs. 


Or perhaps we should share exactly this message, this blog in fact, with those future teachers. Let’s wrestle with the world of teaching like it really is - messy and full of contradictions. After all, that’s what we are getting our students ready for, a life full of messy contradictions. And who knows, perhaps if we address the inherent complexity of teaching as we learn our profession, maybe we’ll do a better job of providing counterpoint and balance to the sanitised stories our education publishers find most profitable - and least contentious - to sell.


Chernow, Ron. (2005). Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books.

Loewenn, J. W. (2019). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Young Reader’s Edition. New York: The New Press.

Dr Paul Magnuson


This article was written by Paul Magnuson, Ph.D., director of Educational Research at the Leysin American School in Switzerland and Instructor for Moreland University.

Paul is a member of the International Outstanding Schools Steering Committee and blogs regularly for The International Educator