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Nowadays, history and related topics like geography and political science are in resurgence. That’s a wonderful thing. History majors everywhere are celebrating. Seems like we’ve been on the back burner for awhile so a little limelight is good.  

Emerging from the shadows, however, has brought challenges. There’s all that brouhaha going on in Florida. Not to mention that school board meetings across the country now need referees. How did CRT become a curse when hardly anybody knows what it actually is? How can a text book be “woke”? Why have people become frightened by the teaching of history?

I started to wonder how my own history teaching in 1967 would stand up to scrutiny in 2023. I was pretty certain everything I’d learned, and in turn taught, was four-square. I always wanted my students to be woke before woke was a thing. Students needed to know that nothing stands in isolation but ebbs and flows like a living stream. I wondered if my textbook and my teaching actually taught what I remember I taught. 

I decided to go look.

That middle school textbook (Story of the American Nation, 1967, Harcourt Brace & World) went into my library when I eventually stepped down from the classroom. I dug it out and let me tell you, leafing through that ancient book was a blast. It was way better than some of my old sermons. It has all sorts of interesting sidebars, colorful maps appropriately placed, and just enough facts to engage the mind but not overwhelm with detail. A perfect textbook for middle schoolers. It started with the European explorers. The newest and last chapter reached all the way to the Warren Commission and LBJ’s Great Society.  

But then, following that last chapter, there was a little homily summarizing the previous 762 pages. The homily came to this synopsis of the American Story:

First there was the waiting land
Then came the people surging westward
Carrying democracy throughout the nation
Seeking peace and freedom throughout the world

It stopped me in my tracks. A friend once said something similar about the founding of the nation of Israel after the end of World War II. He described that 1948 political decision as “a people without a land, found a land without a people,” as if that adequately summarized an incredibly complex dynamic. The parallel to my American Story was unsettling.

Clearly the flow of the historical record was more than adequately portrayed, but what was this addendum about? Was it simply Manifest Destiny with a Divine Providence undertone? 

I decided to go look.

I soon found this illustration with its portrayal of a now contented “Indian”, complete with headdress, under the benevolent tutelage of the church — the European style cathedral in the background in case we didn’t get the point.

Obviously I’ve cherry-picked an isolated illustration out of several possibilities, but it’s a great one. Clearly the message was that our providential destiny was an irresistible spiritual force for good. The proof for that assertion is that the American way of life eventually influenced the world with the peace and freedom they were seeking.  

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not formulating some sort of hatchet job on history text books. Hindsight in full bloom is not leading me to text book burnings. It’s not even the exceptionalism that reduces Canadian and Mexican history to sidebars of the American Story. It’s not even the exclusion of Tulsa 1921 or the land grab of the Mexican-American War. Plus I certainly do not want to diminish the massive contributions for the good, either.

It was the subtlety of the message that stopped me in my tracks. 

It has been said that history is written by the winners. In this case, however, it’s more like an astute, shrewd gaslighting. It’s a manipulation toward power and control, while maintaining the facade of the craft that is history. It is only one illustration but it’s a token of a subtle proposition. It is suggestive of a powerful force that easily stretches from a 1967 textbook to our current delusional madness. Possibly all the way to Florida or the classroom or to book burnings or to county commissioners. Maybe even to our churches.

Maybe we do need to be woke. . .and teach it to our children too.

Al Schipper

Al Schipper is a retired chaplain and teacher. He is optimistic by nature and enthusiastic by choice. Retirement brought interim challenges, foreign ministry, Red Cross adventures, and authoring COPACETIC: God’s People Transforming Chaos. Now abiding in Grand Rapids, Michigan but always with an eye toward the horizon.


  • Richard Herbig says:

    Thank you for this post. I taught history to both middle and high school students for 32 years. Retired now for 21 years. I have often thought about what and how I taught American history and silently wished I could go back and do it all over again with the knowledge and passion of a “woke” educator. I am saddened by the political games being played with history in states like Florida. My hope is that students coming out of our colleges and universities will be “Woke” enough to teach what I missed.

  • Daniel says:

    I had the good fortune to be taught by “woke” historians at the University of North Carolina in the early 1970s. They introduced me to what was then called “black history.” I suppose it would now be called
    “Critical Race Theory.” I also encountered versions of western expansion that viewed it from the Native American perspective. As a white student these didn’t make me feel guilty, they made me feel sad and angry; sad to realize that the country I grew up in and thought I knew had dark threads running through its history. And angry that I had not encountered any of these well documented stories during my previous sixteen years of schooling including four at a Christian college. In my own teaching of U.S. history, I have tried to offer a more fully orbed account gives attention to both the nation’s accomplishments and its failures. I think students can handle it.

  • Esther Bos says:

    When I hear about the current concerns about what should and should not be taught about the world and national history, I sometimes wonder just what was taught when I was in school. I realize now how limited our perspectives were. It is interesting to see the “old” textbook (newer than when I was in school!) and how students ideas were shaped without concern for a full picture of colonization and appreciation for what and who existed before us. And then to think this is true for all the civilizations around the world and for all time. What injustices have resulted and still result! Not easily remedied in one age and one country!

    • AlSchipper says:

      I’m so appreciative of your global perspective. We don’t have a corner on the false narrative department but I think we are called to address our piece. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Lena says:

    I would suggest that people, especially former history/greography teachers, read the textbooks of today. You might be surprised as to the slant of the text. Maybe a follow up article could be written then, examining the textbooks of today?
    I do agree that the different perspectives should be presented, but it depends on the manner and ages of the students and this is where the concerns come in.

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