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Monday, October 21, 2019

What is truth? Teaching Critical Thinking Skills with History

What is truth in regards to studying history? How can we determine what book is telling the "right" version of history?  Our study of American History has brought to foreground the need to teach my children how to discern truth in a textbook.

Our curriculum, My Father's World (MFW), provides three different books to read for each time period of History. Some days we read all of them, and some days we only read one. The ability to read history from different view points and resources is one of my favorite aspects of homeschooling. As you read multiple books on the same subject, it becomes almost easy to teach about historical bias to your children.

One of the books MFW provided for our past few years of American History is Exploring American History by D.H. Montgomery.  It has such an obvious bias that it stopped me in my track a few times. In some cases the writing went from subtle bias to flat out untrue. The overall theme of the bias is teaching American legend over American fact.

Page 91 Exploring American History

In the above passage Washington "never heard a complaint" from the brave men crossing the Delaware even though it was freezing and they had no shoes. This is an obvious example of teaching legend over fact. In every other book we've read about this time period, we learn how Washington spent most of the war dealing with deserters who were very vocal in their complaints of no shoes.

I almost stopped reading this book entirely after we encountered more of these faulty sentences, but I have chosen to use this book as an opportunity to help develop our critical thinking skills.

We read it with discerning eyes and alongside other resources, which is how all history books should be read. There is historical fact in this book that we need in each chapter but almost every chapter has a few sentences so obviously and opinions that it is hard to miss. These obvious biases are perfect opportunities to teach my children discernment and critical thinking skills.

I don't want my children to live in an echo chamber like most Americans today. I don't want them to see historical bias and a.) run from it or b.) accept it as fact.

The critical thinking skills we are developing are more important to me than the dates we memorize.

As I was discussing my concerns of this book with another homeschool mom, she asked,
"How in the world do you know what is true and not true? It's too much and I just get overwhelmed and give up."
The fact is we can't find objective "truth" in history. We were not there. We CAN discern what is subjective opinion verses objective fact.

To help our children develop critical thinking skills, focus on less on "finding the truth" and more on discerning fact from opinion.

Even as an adult, there are sentences I can discern as opinion only because it differs from my own. Everyday I have to work on my own discernment. The key to critical thinking is discerning an opinion, even when the opinion is yours.

I developed an activity to help my children discern historical opinion from historical fact.
I asked my children to skim a chapter of every history book we have, looking for any opinion sentences. I then challenged my kids to rewrite those sentences as a fact statement.

This was a challenge my high school newspaper teacher used to assign with the whole class, and it helped me develop a more discerning eye to news. She would give us current event news articles and we had to find the opinion sentence(s), and rewrite them as fact.

Page 136 Exploring American History 

In the above picture, I asked my children to find the opinion in the sentence, "The Battle of Tippecanoe did much good because it prevented the Indian tribes from uniting and beginning a great war all through the West."

The phrase "did much good" changes this sentence from a fact to an opinion. I challenged my boys to rewrite the sentence as fact, and all they had to do was take out those three words. Changing just a few words can change a sentence from fact to opinion.

My kids can spot the obvious opinion sentences, but these activities are helping them spot the much more subtle opinions that are throughout our books.

Later on in the book Exploring American History, we read that after the Civil War, "Both sides now shook hands and  became friends."
Page 168 Exploring American History 

My sons correctly pointed out that the word "friends" is an opinion. What makes a friend? This was a good time to teach the vocabulary words of subjective and objective.

The context in this case helped my children spot the subjective sentence. The following sentence about Lincoln's assassination is quite contradictory because friends don't murder each other.

After reading several other history books on the same time period, we came back to the "became good friends"  sentence and rewrote it as fact: "The south surrendered to the North and Reconstruction began."

Sometimes a historical opinion is taught in the more subtle form of legend. The most obvious examples of when legend is favored is in regards to the American founding fathers.

American Founding Fathers did do great things, and that is important to remember, but what definition of great are you using?

When you use the definition of "great" that means distinguished, these men did great things. Christopher Columbus did the great thing of distinguishing himself from the beliefs of his times, leading him to Europe's discovery of a New World. He also made many decisions in the New World that horrifically injured entire people groups.

To reconcile these opposing historical facts, I ask my children,
 "This figure may have been a great man, but he was he also good man?"
And I follow up this question with, "Figuring out if he is a good man is an opinion. It is a fact he did these great things [insert facts of whatever historical figure you are talking about]. It is an opinion if he was a good man or not."

These types of discussions will get your kids to engage in history, and eventually with current events, in a discerning manner.

I hope these activities and questions will lead to productive conversations with your children!

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