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Teaching With DBQs Decreases Teachers’ Political Bias

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by Beth Montgomery

An article in the October 13, 2012 edition of the Economist Magazine addressed bias in textbooks (Economist.com/print).  It Ain’t Necessarily So raised an interesting reason to teach with primary and secondary documents:  doing so helps diminish the teachers’ bias and point of view in the classroom.

It Ain’t Necessarily So explores the nationalistic bias in textbooks from South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Japan.  History texts can be very powerful in countries like Egypt where 88% of households read no books.  “Textbooks in many places are, along with religious texts, almost the only books” people encounter.

The article points out that American textbooks are not immune to the influence of political pressures. Most textbooks in the U.S. are written in California or Texas with California publishers leaning to the left politically and Texas publishers leaning to the right.  Liberals tend to worry that history teaching is too nationalistic while conservatives tend to worry that history texts are unpatriotic and too secular.

School districts increasingly encourage the use of online sources to help present students with a more balanced perspective, and that is a good idea.  But many K-12 students and teachers need guidance in picking a variety of sources that contain different points of view.  If for no other reason than constraints on time, finding a balanced collection of sources that answer a well-respected historical question is tough to do.

Teaching with document-based questions can help teachers limit bias in their classrooms.  When students read primary and secondary sources on their own to answer a question, the student becomes the historian.  Instead of the teacher sifting through the sources to present his take on historical events, the student examines the evidence to determine which evidence stands out.  The student decides whether evidence suggests that the United States’ war with Mexico was justified or whether Hammurabi’s laws were just.   Instead of being taught to worship or demonize leaders like Alexander the Great or Cesar Chavez, students evaluate the actions of these famous people and decide for themselves how their history should be written.

It is true that even choosing documents to answer a question involves choices that may reflect historical bias.  However, encouraging students to read and write with the intention of forming their own opinions diminishes a teacher’s political sway in the classroom.   Whichever spot on the political spectrum a teacher occupies, placing documents at the center of the discussion keeps an intellectual tradition of free inquiry alive and teaches children to distinguish propaganda from logical, evidence- based arguments.  Teaching with documents teaches students to hold and support their own perspectives.

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