History Dept. Principles
Teaching and Learning History -- A Statement of Principles
The teaching of history is fundamental to the education of students. History is a never-ending source of joy and wonder. It is the story of the rise and fall of civilizations, of epic battles, and great ideas. History inspires a sense of wonder.
History is also a source of inspiration. It is the story of those who came before us and organized and struggled to create a better world. History teaches humility. It reminds us that many of the things we enjoy – such as freedom of speech – had to first be imagined and then fought for. “We are,” historian David McCullough has written, “part of a larger stream of events, past, present, and future. We are the beneficiaries of those who went before us,” of those who “kept faith in the possibilities of the mind and the human spirit.” History promotes informed, critical thought. It is, an old historian once remarked, “philosophy with examples.”
Above all, a deep knowledge of history is essential for all of us to be good citizens. As the Massachusetts’s Constitution declares, “wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people,” are “necessary for the preservation” of our “rights and liberties.” History informs us of the mistakes that societies have made and should be avoided. It shines a light on the dangers of hubris and arrogance. History also reminds us of the values of perseverance and determination – of the need, if we want to improve our world and uplift our fellow citizens, of more than words but of action. “The time,” The Reverend, Dr., Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “is always right to do right.” Being a citizen is, above all else, about being responsible to others.
To teach history well, to inspire joy and curiosity, and to help our students become knowledgeable and responsible citizens of our Commonwealth and the world, we believe that our past needs to be taught with passion. We strive to show our students what we love so that they too can come to love history. In the careful preparation of our lessons and in our collaborative sharing of creative and engaging ways to teach, so too do we strive to achieve our school’s noble mission: at AMSA, all students of all backgrounds and abilities will excel.
To teach history well we also believe that our classrooms must reflect our school’s core values of integrity, excellence, and community. We seek to foster an appreciation for perseverance and hard work. “Learning,” Abigail Adams wrote, “is not attained by chance. It must be sought with ardor and attended with diligence.” 1
In our lessons and in our interactions with our students, we also strive to create and promote respect and empathy. “Candor, gentleness, and a disposition to speak with civility,” the Revolutionary war hero, physician, and abolitionist Benjamin Rush declared, “are the virtues that matter most.” In our classes, all students will feel welcome, and all students will have a voice.
To teach history well we hold in high regard the goal of teaching history objectively and with a consideration of many different points of view. So too do we wish to instill an appreciation of our common humanity.
To teach history well, we strive to bring history to life and to do so in a way that permits students to form and express their opinions carefully and methodically. Well-informed debate and the open exchange of ideas are hallmarks of our classrooms. We believe, as the Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith said in 1950 when she rose in opposition to the man who started the Cold War Red Scare, Senator Joseph McCarthy, in “the right to criticize, the right to hold unpopular beliefs, the right to protest, [and] the right to independent thought.”
At AMSA, we advocate no one theory of the past or the present. Instead, we seek to open our student’s minds to the varied complexities of the past – to nuance.
All history, including our nation’s history, is neither the story of constant progress nor an unaltered tale of repeated tragedies and errors. Just as our nation’s history is full of stories of violence and racism and hate in many forms so too is it full of stories of brave and courageous people – of women’s rights advocates who organized for the right to vote; of inventors and dreamers who created new modes of business, new technologies and new medicines; of immigrants who crossed the waters in the hope of finding a better life in America; of LGBTQ people rallying together for dignity and respect; and of civil rights advocates like the great poet Langston Hughes who – in his poem Let America Be America Again – called for our nation to fulfill its noble promise:
“O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.”
1 In a letter to Abigail at the start of the American Revolution, John Adams (who was the primary author of the Massachusetts Constitution) wrote that it was imperative to “elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them a habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty and virtue.” In our state constitution, Adams further proclaimed that it was the duty of legislatures and magistrates to “encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”