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Facing History, Data, and Ourselves

May 13, 2010

One of the most rewarding parts of my teaching experience has been my ongoing relationship with Facing History and Ourselves, an organization based outside of Boston that has a track record of more than thirty years engaging teachers and students in deep scholarship around profound moral and ethical issues.  The organization’s founder, Margot Stern Strom, was a teacher who realized that there had to be a better educational approach to hard history, such as the Holocaust.  Through Strom’s leadership, Facing History and Ourselves developed a pedagogical approach that focused on German society between the wars, and asked some challenging questions about causes of the Holocaust: how did an educated and civilized German public become the perpetrators and bystanders in a genocide?  What were their underlying concepts of themselves, as individuals and as a nation?  Whom did they classify as “us” and “them” – and what were the implications of those classifications as the Nazis seized power and began laying the groundwork for the Final Solution?  The teaching methods involved introducing key concepts through a personal approach, but ultimately relied on critical examination of primary sources – documents, speeches, diaries, – along with selected readings from historical scholars.  Ultimately, however, the benefit of Facing History and Ourselves is its insistence that understanding hard history must inform our participation in a democratic society.

In Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s 1948 masterpiece about South African society, the fictional character Arthur Jarvis argues in essence that white South Africans might be forgiven for not stopping oppressive acts they didn’t know about, didn’t understand, didn’t approve, or didn’t intend to cause harm.  Having perhaps mitigated the potential defensiveness of his audience, Jarvis argues repeatedly (speaking presumably for Paton), “But in the light of what we know now… it is no longer permissible.”  I love the simplicity of that idea.  Knowledge casts a light, and in that light, we are responsible for making better choices and moral decisions.  Facing History and Ourselves does not preach to students what those choices should be, but demonstrates how regular people, armed with knowledge and conviction, have become upstanders rather than bystanders or victims.  It’s a message that resonates with teens.  It’s not hero worship, or a cult of personality, but rather the simple and powerful ideal of education: personal and academic inquiry, critical thinking, and the application of essential concepts in new and valuable ways.  It’s the exploration and internalization of a basic but profound truth:  we are inheritors of certain history that shapes our identity, and when we undestand ourselves in relation to that history, we can write, speak, and act in ways that strengthen democracy.

From its beginnings in Holocaust education, Facing History and Ourselves has expanded its focus to include a rich and varied offering of resources and training that relate to other genocides, and various types of discimination and prejudice that have been and still are confronted by millions of people around the world.  What started out in one locality has spread internationally, with tens of thousands of teachers and millions of students benefiting from this work.  Renowned scholars, authors, artists and activists from many nations have collaborated with Facing History and Ourselves, praising the intellectual rigor of their methods and the quality of the historical content they offer and support.  Working with partners in other countries, Facing History and Ourselves has gone right to the source to improve education in some of the most complicated settings to do this work: Northern Ireland, Israel, Rwanda, and South Africa.

As an English teacher, I have used Facing History and Ourselves as an approach to the study of literature, and found that it gives a tremendous sense of purpose to the classroom.  I certainly hope to instill or promote the love of literature in my students, but even for those students who aren’t inclined to love literature for its artistry, the curriculum offers a compelling argument that literature can be part of the development of a rich understanding of the human experience in historically signifcant settings and situations.

When I first encountered Facing History and Ourselves, in 1999, I immediately recognized its potential to help me engage students in the asking and answering of “essential questions.”  This time-honored and research-supported approach is vital to our work in education – for a recent and effective overview of the applications of this approach, you could check out Jim Burke’s latest book, What’s the Big Idea? – and even read Chapter 1 online.  However, if I had not worked in schools and districts that empowered me to make those choices and develop new curriculum on my own, I wouldn’t have been successful in this effort.  For those who worry about alignment with standards, I could demonstrate how Facing History and Ourselves actually made it easier for me to address state curricular standards, and even teaching standards from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.  However, in a setting that required me to stick to the adopted texts from major publishers, or in a situation where administrators worried about controling every classroom that contributed to school test scores, I might not have had the chance to innovate and engage students in such vital ways.  For those who worry about only using research-proven curriculum, I’d love to tell them that their concerns are misguided, that we don’t actually need data on everything.  Except in this case, I can even offer data.  According to the Facing History and Ourselves webpage on program evaluation, there are over 90 studies that find their work effective, including this one:

A new randomized controlled experiment provides definitive evidence of the program’s effectiveness. Independent evaluators conducted a two-year study of the program’s impact on teachers and students using cutting-edge tools in social science research.

While I’m thrilled that they were able to mount this huge effort and have their work validated by external research, I’m worried about the future.  In an era that has almost deified data (Yong Zhao), teachers are being trained to doubt ourselves.  There is a role for data in checking our assumptions and evaluating our work, but there are many types of data excluded in the current debates around testing.  And when the data are inconclusive or incomplete, we ought not to fall prey to those interests who can generate the bigger, prettier spreadsheets, algorithms, and standard deviations.  Being able to quantify answers doesn’t mean they asked the right questions.

Furthermore, I worry about the fate of innovative programs and curriculum in the dawn of national standards.  I’m familiar with the arguments, and even sympathetic to some of the impulses behind the Common Core Standards.  But I’m deeply skeptical of the assurances that these standards will actually improve education.  They will improve standardization, alignment, and inter-state comparisons – but at what cost, and for what benefit?  (Marion Brady offers a recent, compelling response to those questions).

If we face recent educational history and ourselves, I suggest we ought to be upstanders who resist massive national efforts to bring us all into line for purposes of measurement and comparison.  Billions of dollars will be wasted to re-train educators in the use of expensive new materials and assessments that will yield vast data to be picked over by any interested party to find the proof for what they’ve already decided is true.

Do we really need a cabal of appointed professors and test publishers to meet in private and make decisions about the education of every American public school student?   Is it appropriate for the federal government to throw its weight and money around to ensure the “voluntary” participation of the states?  Given the necessary resources, we can do better for ourselves and our students.  We can ask our own essential questions, gather our own information, reach our own conclusions, and own our education and participation in society.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Deb C permalink
    May 15, 2010 5:27 am

    Love what you say about what Facing History has done for you. However, if the federal money leads more teachers to get to know Facing History then I wonder how your ending plays out.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      May 15, 2010 9:09 am

      Deb, thanks for reading and commenting. If it sounded like I’m opposed to federal involvement in education, then I may have overstated it, and if federal grants or incentives lead educators to partnerships with effective programs like FHAO, that’s a good thing. However, the combination of national standards and national tests has me concerned. It might benefit some educational programs, but I would question the prospects for smaller, newer programs without the national presence and established track record. If we transplanted FHAO twenty years ago into today’s climate, might not questions arise about how narrow the FHAO focus is(was), and the lack of data (then) to support its effectiveness?

      A school system worried about adherence to national standards and compelled to show improvement on national tests might be under pressure to go with the curriculum and materials provided by the larger educational programs and test-oriented curriculum from major corporate publishers – to the detriment of small programs and the overall climate for innovation.

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