Creating a Middle School American History Program

Wight Martindale Jr.

Sounds easy? It’s not.

A few months ago I undertook the project of designing an 8th grade American History curriculum for a small, four-year-old private school—the Main Line Classical Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Its motto: “Because children are never too young to learn great things.” It is blatantly traditional.

When you walk in the lobby what you first see is a huge wall map of ancient Greece and the Aegean Sea. It is not a school for gifted children, but you have to take this kind of study seriously. Perhaps half of the faculty speak Russian, Hebrew, or French at home. At the moment its highest class is in the 6th grade, so I have a bit over a year to complete the project.

The problem is complicated. Why?

There is no reliable middle school textbook, and textbooks usually set the agenda for the course. American history has been the key subject for the progressive political movement for the last sixty years, but this school remains unimpressed by the changes it has wrought.

There is no reliable high school textbook either. In The American Pageant, Advanced Placement edition, a very popular high school textbook, I could find no topic that was not better covered by Wikipedia. The maps and photographs are helpful but the writing is boring and flat. Every subject is space-constrained—Wikipedia is not. It has no footnotes. The book pays homage to most revisionist perspectives while wanting to appear even-handed—a problem not overcome by its illustrations and color highlighting.

I looked next at blatantly conservative texts, but no luck there either. A Patriot’s History of the United States, over 900 pages and a New York Times Best Seller, is quite well-written, but no pictures or maps. It is also completely predictable; its section on Viet Nam is just as unbalanced in its own way as is the conventional, Nixon-hating narrative. And the title is off-putting.

Land of Hope by Wilfred M. McClay is well-written and, I sense, fair-minded. Gordon Wood, perhaps the dean of American historians, likes it. So does Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal. But with just a little over 400 pages it is too limited in its coverage.

Light to the Nations, Part Two is surprisingly good but it is not well known. The book comes from the Catholic Textbook Project, and it includes great pictures and maps. But the period from 1492 to 1900 is covered in only 180 pages with no notes. It’s good on political history, but light on cultural changes. Perhaps better for younger grades.

The runner up: America, A Narrative History, by David Emory Shi and George Brown Tindall. Close to 1,500 pages with fabulous maps, color photos, and a helpful glossary. It’s a textbook with Chapter Reviews and key terms highlighted. Excellent on wars and battles. It’s solid and complete; it will be used in the course.

The winner: A History of the American People by Paul Johnson. He’s an outsider, not in the club, and his works are seldom taught at the best American colleges and universities. He is a polymath Oxford don who, as one history chair told me, likes to break up the china. Johnson considers John Winthrop to be the first great American and he is hard on Franklin Roosevelt. He is a generalist in a generation of specialists. This book is over 1,000 pages. Johnson has also written A History of Christianity, A History of the Jews, The Birth of the Modern; World Society 1815-1830 (1,000 pages), and Modern Times, The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. All huge projects. Here are the reasons I think he will be our best guide.

  • His book, as the title suggests, is about people. He focuses on brilliant individuals at defining moments in history. Nothing is more interesting to 8th graders (and most of the rest of us) than people, warts and all.

  • He is a massive endnoter. If you think he is missing something, check his endnotes. He tells you where he gets his ideas, so you can trace and correct points of disagreement. Traditional textbooks never do this so you will never encounter serious dissent to the approved storyline.

  • America is complicated, and it is special. Here is how the book begins: “The creation of America is the greatest of all human adventures. No other national story holds such tremendous lessons for the American people themselves or for the rest of mankind.”

  • He is a very good writer so students will like reading and listening to him being read. This is very important for early grades. Right now our 4th grade is studying Greek history. They have an assigned textbook, but the kids don’t like it and they don’t read it. But they love Herodotus, a great storyteller. In the 3rd grade they learned about the Romans from Livy. Why not? Reading aloud to students can really work.

    Last year one of the mothers (my wife) offered an after-school poetry club. Not only was it popular, but at the end of the school year the club (1st through 6th graders) performed a 45-minute version of Midsummer Night’s Dream, which required some of the kids to memorize over 100 lines of poetry. It really worked.

    The school’s English teacher, very much a traditionalist, had his 4th graders begging to hear excerpts from Pilgrim’s Progress in the city of Vanity Fair. I saw it happen. When was the last time a fancy suburban public school read John Bunyan?

Good writing matters.

  • Last reason: Paul Johnson knows more than the other people. No textbook committee will ever be equal to a single, brilliant individual.

Paul Johnson, as good as he is, is not complete. For some reason he seems to have little interest in the individual battles that made up our various wars. For that we need Shi and Brown, who accompany their narratives with excellent maps. We must recognize that in its early years Americans were almost constantly at war—first with the native American Indian tribes they displaced, and then with France, England, and Spain, all of whom challenged our independence and control of the continent.

But today it is slavery that is the lightening-rod issue. For revisionist historians slavery seems to be the only issue; it defines America. The digitally recorded death of a black suspect, George Floyd, while under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in spring 2020, and the massive protests and riots it set off, has deepened the divide. Understanding the subtleties of slavery and its evolution in early America will always be essential. But slavery isn’t everything. Not by a long shot. Just spend some time with Bernard DeVoto’s study of the mountain men who opened up the west—from Oregon to San Diego, in The Year of Decision, 1846 (1943) if you doubt this. On the question of slavery we will supplement Johnson with Shi and Brown. Special attention will be given to America’s most haunting catastrophe, Reconstruction.

Technology and the Internet

My own learning comes almost exclusively from books, but in today’s world that is not enough. Students are accustomed to using the internet.

I was fortunate in meeting Michael Breidenbach, a gifted young historian who teaches American History at Ave Maria College in Florida. Michael did his undergraduate work at Northwestern University and received his Ph.D. from King’s College, Cambridge. He has held research positions at the Sorbonne in Paris, St. John’s and Corpus Christi Colleges at Oxford, and at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. His first book, How Catholics Became American, is being published by Harvard University Press.

He knows his stuff and he knows the internet. His class has no central textbook, but he includes a wealth of on-line sources which he generously shared with me.

The scope of my assignment is set to begin with the early seventeenth century and end with Reconstruction. Later grades will cover the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We can’t do a good job on everything in one year. Too much happened.

So I and others who will teach the course will have read all of Johnson and sections of Shi and Brown. Using these texts as a guide we will select topics to be covered each day. With history taught three days a week that means that for one year we will have to prepare for about 117 classes.

History teachers all have special interests and the good ones are constantly reading books about some aspect of American history. None of this should be lost. My own personal bias is to include more than a conventional amount of seventeenth century studies—what was going on in England and Europe. I look to Hugh Trevor-Roper for background on this; beginning with The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, chapters one and two. I would also spend at least one class reviewing the French Revolution, which was important for us and far more complicated than our own.

Neither of the two guiding textbooks need to dominate every class. For example, as America’s great early leaders emerge, we might set aside three consecutive classes to discuss individually George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. Paul Johnson is a good guide, but there is no party line on these important figures or the questions they raise.

Now a bit more about the school. The school strives to be a technologically updated version of the best in American education of the 1940s and 1950s. All the children memorize poems and recite them in twice-a-year assemblies. Everyone is taught French in the earliest grades and Latin begins in grade four. The school has a high school format in that each subject is taught by a specialist so the kids move from room to room throughout the day. The teachers are highly credentialed (the math teacher received her Ph.D. from MIT). Every student plays the violin and the piano, and art and art history are serious subjects. Although not required, instruction is offered in Hebrew and Christian studies before the regular school day begins.

The modern abhorrence of nationalism is very much a part of the problem this course seeks to correct. England’s recent decision to leave the European Union, Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the persistence of Israel in asserting its autonomy, and the nationalist revivals in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic all irritate the intellectual elites. American academics now ask that we become “global citizens,” that we revere the wisdom of supranational regimes—the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union—those who know best.

Our assumption here is that the world is governed best—not perfectly—when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and following their own interests without interference. These ideas have been expressed, and widely accepted, in the past in America by Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan; by Margaret Thatcher in England, by Mahatma Gandhi in India, by Lech Walesa’s Solidarity labor movement in Poland, and by David Ben-Gurion in the founding of Israel.

The alternative to this, as Yoram Hazony explains in The Virtue of Nationalism, is imperialism. The ambitions of ancient Rome, the Holy Roman Empire of the Hapsburgs, Hitler’s designs on all of Europe, Marx’s world communist movements, and today’s European Union, are the same in that they ask for the surrender of individual state powers to their newly fashioned “world order.” Call it what you will, that is imperialism—bringing peace and prosperity to all mankind by uniting it under a single political regime. Its advocates believe their own virtuous principles—the rule of law, open markets, individual rights, direction from above, whatever they may be—to be good enough so that the independence of national states becomes secondary. Self-appointed bureaucratic elites will make the big decisions; their point of view will prevail—as it should. “What is being proposed,” Hazony concludes, “is a new ‘liberal empire’ that will replace the old Protestant order based on independent national states.”

The battle to discredit and replace our national traditions—specifically American laws and ideals—was taken to American high schools, and eventually the elementary schools, most effectively by Howard Zinn, an energetic, radical, Columbia-educated professor and author of some twenty books attacking the unfairness and racism of America. He is an exemplar of the point that one can have no better destroyer than an individual ablaze with love for a great “truth.” Zinn’s victory lay not in his ideas, but in his plan of execution. He got his 1980 history textbook, A People’s History of the United States assigned in classrooms by America’s public school teachers. He followed this with a simplified version for middle school children. The rapidly rising teachers’ unions are regularly in a protest mode themselves, so his perspective fit perfectly with their own agenda. Zinn’s great victory was getting the teachers’ unions to push his book. Without this, he would have been forgotten years ago.

The study of American history, in my view, is not about cloudless glory and continuous triumph. It is, as Johnson believes, about the greatest of all human adventures, one that has been marked from the beginning by hardship, brutal battles, frustrating rascality, along with most peoples’ desire to lead safe, productive, and decent lives. Our errors were frequent—faults shared by both private citizens, civil servants, and elected officials. But America’s history is too diverse, too interesting, to be smothered by this now fashionable but intentionally misleading progressive ideology.

Hazony argues that the common, critical mistake of universalist utopians is their hatred of the particular, of the one nation, the one individual who achieves something more than the others, or who strives for excellence. For the utopian universalists, dissent is intolerable. So they perfect coercion, censorship, and intimidation. This is how we got safe spaces, microaggressions, and the fierce enforcement of speech codes. This also explains the United Nations’ constant harassment of Israel, the one democracy with widespread prosperity in the Middle East.

For some of us this kind of education is simply not acceptable. I believe, like most people I know, that America’s relative happiness and prosperity is threatened most from within; we’ve had it too easy for too long. I do not believe that the imposition of the new liberal agenda of national guilt, global citizens, and bureaucratic control from Washington is either inevitable nor desirable. The study of our history is much richer than that; it teaches us much more. Our children deserve better.

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