Roe v. Wade, Confederate monuments, immigration.
All are controversial topics — ones that Allison Fredette, an assistant professor of history at Appalachian State University, says people are told not to talk about, especially at Thanksgiving dinner. But Fredette makes the case that not only should controversial history be discussed widely, it should be taught in schools.
“I think it’s more important than ever,” Fredette said in a phone interview. “I think that teachers, just like sports teams needed to rethink mascots and the use of the Confederate flag…. This is a moment that teachers can think about whose names are in our textbooks, whose names are we covering…. It’s a good idea for teachers to rethink what they’ve learned.”
On Tuesday, Fredette participated in a webinar hosted by the Greensboro History Museum about teaching controversial history. More than 200 participants had signed up for the free virtual event, many of them tuning in from out of state like the Clarksville Montgomery County school system, or the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center in New York.
“Histories are written by people with biases,” Fredette said during the webinar. “History is multiple narratives. We should teach [students] that fluidity and that complication.”
As examples, Fredette brings up how leaving out Japanese internment during World War II or omitting the lesser known Lavender Scare, in which gay men and women were demonized as national security risks in the same time period as the Red Scare in the mid-20th Century, doesn’t give students a complete picture of the time period.
“It includes more people in the story,” Fredette argued during the webinar.
Fredette said that how and why subjects are considered controversial can also be subjective.
“I wish that we lived in a world in which not all of these things were controversial, but for now it’s an imperfect way to signal to ourselves and other educators,” she said. “We can know to be prepared for a particular response from our students and the community.”
Fredette said she initially began thinking about how to teach and talk about controversial history while she was in graduate school at the University of Florida.
“I wanted to integrate local history into what I was teaching, and it led me to some moments of students being like, ‘I never learned any of this,’” she said during an interview. “We often think about history as one thing: pilgrims and Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. But you’re missing things at the local level and you’re missing controversy.”
As part of the Tuesday’s event, educators and organizers with the Greensboro Teaching Alliance talked about the city’s own controversial history — the 1979 Greensboro Massacre — and the need to teach the event in schools across the city.
“When a student learns the truth, that automatically leads them on a path to freedom,” says Erica Wrencher, a former Guilford County Schools teacher and a member of the Greensboro Teaching Alliance. Wrencher taught a lesson plan around the Greensboro Massacre to high school seniors in 2019 and found that none of them had ever heard about the event, in which five antiracist activists were killed by members of the KKK and American Nazi Party.
“The emotion that I got from a lot of them was anger and confusion like, Why have I never heard about this and I’m a senior about to graduate high school?” Wrencher said. “This is important for students to learn.”
During the webinar, Fredette gave educators multiple types of techniques to teach controversial topics such as having students argue from multiple perspectives, writing down thoughts rather than blurting them out loud and using primary documents to form arguments. The purpose, Fredette says, isn’t necessarily for students to attack each other but to learn how to engage in civil discourse.
“They should be based on facts,” she says. “Not attacking people but attacking arguments.”
And she said these techniques can go beyond the classroom and help everyday people have tough conversations with others.
“I think it’s really useful for us to sit and talk and learn about each other’s perspectives,” she said. “It’s about learning how to communicate with people who disagree with you.”
Rodney Dawson, the curator of education at the Greensboro History Museum, agreed.
“In the classroom these are our future leaders,” he said in an interview. “Why not try to get those minds to be more objective and more tolerant?”
Dawson also noted how teaching controversial history not only broadens students’ worldviews but helps the teachers grow as well.
“Eighty to eighty-five percent of educators across the country are young, white women,” said Dawson. “So, when you’re teaching controversial subjects, especially when it deals with race, they don’t want to approach the subject because it’s so sensitive or they think, I’m not the person to do this, but the protests have brought this to the forefront. Now, they’re like, I can’t avoid this. I have to handle this subject in some way because this is what they’re seeing and hearing when they get home, but how do I do this and remain objective and not put my own lens on this?”
The ultimate goal, according to Fredette, is for everyone to have a fuller version of history, even if it’s difficult at times.
“My job is to teach all of history, it doesn’t mean that everything I teach you will agree with or you will necessarily support,” she said during the webinar. “But I am trying to teach the most complete history that I can. So, you’re going to learn about people that you like, you’re going to learn about people that you don’t like, but it’s important that we understand the fullness of history.”