5. Historical Issues
Issue-centered analysis and decision-making activities place students squarely at the center of historical dilemmas and problems faced at critical moments in the past and the near-present. Entering into such moments, confronting the issues or problems of the time, analyzing the alternatives available to those on the scene, evaluating the consequences that might have followed those options for action that were not chosen, and comparing with the consequences of those that were adopted, are activities that foster students’ deep, personal involvement in these events.
If well chosen, these activities also promote capacities vital to a democratic citizenry: the capacity to identify and define public policy issues and ethical dilemmas; analyze the range of interests and values held by the many persons caught up in the situation and affected by its outcome; locate and organize the data required to assess the consequences of alternative approaches to resolving the dilemma; assess the ethical implications as well as the comparative costs and benefits of each approach; and evaluate a particular course of action in light of all of the above and, in the case of historical issues-analysis, in light also of its long-term consequences revealed in the historical record.
Because important historical issues are frequently value-laden, they also open opportunities to consider the moral convictions contributing to social actions taken. For example, what moral and political dilemmas did Lincoln face when, in his Emancipation Proclamation, he decided to free only those slaves behind the Confederate lines? Teachers should not use historical events to hammer home their own favorite moral lesson. The point to be made is that teachers should not use critical events to hammer home a particular “moral lesson” or ethical teaching. Not only will many students reject that approach; it fails also to take into account the processes through which students acquire the complex skills of principled thinking and moral reasoning.
When students are invited to judge morally the conduct of historical actors, they should be encouraged to clarify the values that inform the judgment. In some instances, this will be an easy task. Students judging the Holocaust or slavery as evils will probably be able to articulate the foundation for their judgment. In other cases, a student’s effort to reach a moral judgment may produce a healthy student exercise in clarifying values, and may, in some instances, lead him or her to recognize the historically conditioned nature of a particular moral value he or she may be invoking.
Particularly challenging are the many social issues throughout United States history on which multiple interests and different values have come to bear. Issues of civil rights or equal education opportunity, of the right to choice vs. the right to life, and of criminal justice have all brought such conflicts to the fore. When these conflicts have not been resolved within the social and political institutions of the nation, they have regularly found their way into the judicial system, often going to the Supreme Court for resolution.
As the history course approaches the present era, such inquiries assume special relevance, confronting students with issues that resonate in today’s headlines and invite their participation in lively debates, simulations, and socratic seminars–settings in which they can confront alternative policy recommendations, judge their ethical implications, challenge one another’s assessments, and acquire further skills in the public presentation and defense of positions. In these analyses, teachers have the special responsibility of helping students differentiate between (1) relevant historical antecedents and (2) those that are clearly inappropriate and irrelevant. Students need to learn how to use their knowledge of history (or the past) to bring sound historical analysis to the service of informed decision making.
HISTORICAL THINKING STANDARD 5
The student engages in historical issues-analysis and decision-making:
Therefore, the student is able to
- Identify issues and problems in the past and analyze the interests, values, perspectives, and points of view of those involved in the situation.
- Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances and current factors contributing to contemporary problems and alternative courses of action.
- Identify relevant historical antecedents and differentiate from those that are inappropriate and irrelevant to contemporary issues.
- Evaluate alternative courses of action, keeping in mind the information available at the time, in terms of ethical considerations, the interests of those affected by the decision, and the long- and short-term consequences of each.
- Formulate a position or course of action on an issue by identifying the nature of the problem, analyzing the underlying factors contributing to the problem, and choosing a plausible solution from a choice of carefully evaluated options.
- Evaluate the implementation of a decision by analyzing the interests it served; estimating the position, power, and priority of each player involved; assessing the ethical dimensions of the decision; and evaluating its costs and benefits from a variety of perspectives.