Teach American History from the Original Documents

Jeffrey Sikkenga

July 27, 2022

This op-ed was written for the Dallas Morning News. Click here to read the original.

The Ashbrook Center, an independent academic center where I serve as executive director, just wrapped up two more free teacher seminars in the North Texas area — our second and third of seven events scheduled in Texas this year. As Texas continues to debate what its new statewide social studies curriculum should entail, our center is committed to helping teachers address the state’s civics education crisis head-on by sharing with them an educational approach that replaces divisive, perspective-focused classroom teaching materials with a deep and direct study of truths.

Like the rest of the nation, too many Texans don’t adequately understand America’s history and system of government. Recent polling from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only 37% of all Texans, and less than a quarter of those under age 45, can even answer six out of 100 questions of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services citizenship test correctly. That’s nearly 5% worse than the national average.

When young Texans do receive history and civics lessons in the classroom, they are too often caught in political battles or micromanaging of the curriculum.

Education involves reading, wrestling with and reflecting on the words and lessons of the past, not mindlessly memorizing and regurgitating someone else’s opinion of them. Indoctrination and propaganda have no place in the classroom. Not only do they incite arguments and divide the nation further, they also inhibit critical thinking, and a serious understanding of the rights and duties of Americans and the founding principles that have made this country what it is today.

There’s a better way forward.

At the Ashbrook Center, we believe that the right educational approach unites Americans together rather than dividing them further. It doesn’t end political disagreement, but in teaching the truth about America, it equips students to understand and navigate differing perspectives civilly and through our democratic institutions, not in spite of them.

We believe Texas can achieve this through throwing textbooks and other perspective-based education materials aside and teaching directly through primary-source documents. This approach ensures that students learn about America without any spin or personal narration. They wrestle with the words of the past and formulate their own conclusions. There’s no spin or hidden agenda — just a thorough examination and understanding of American history.

Our free teacher seminars in North Texas this month, which focused on civil rights in America and the office of the presidency in modern American history, showcased the utility of this educational approach to a variety of Texas educators. We examined the documents surrounding these topics in the same way they would with their students in a classroom setting and had lively discussions that go to the heart of the American story. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with many teachers remarking that this approach to educating works and is worthy of adoption in their classrooms.

We are truly moved by the number of influencers in the Lone Star State who are working to eliminate classroom bias and advance quality civics and history education, from the legislators who have introduced reform bills to the parents who continue speaking out at school board meetings. We hope that our center’s free seminars, webinars and online resources can continue helping to inform their reform efforts and convince them not to let their personal convictions and ideological leanings get in the way of effecting true change. It’s the only way to ensure that the American story is appropriately examined and learned for generations to come.