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History Book Asks High Schoolers: Right or Wrong?

Anne Lise Halvorsen

What if history lessons didn’t stop with facts?

What if students were asked to judge whether the decisions of others at momentous times in the past were right or wrong?

That’s exactly what Michigan State University scholar Anne-Lise Halvorsen and her co-authors had in mind when they created a new book series for use in high school classes.

The two-volume Reasoning with Democratic Values 2.0: Ethical Issues in American History is not meant to be the main textbook, but as a supplement to help today’s young people understand how core democratic values influenced people throughout our nation’s history—and still do today.

Each chapter explores how an individual or group made a complicated decision. Should the banks have foreclosed on farmers during the Dust Bowl? Should Michigan’s governor have ejected sit-down strikers at a car plant? Should the Colorado baker have been forced to make a cake for a gay couple? The time period ranges from 1607 until present.

“We want students to see that these stories took place in history, but they reverberate and there are connections to contemporary issues,” said Halvorsen, associate professor in the MSU Department of Teacher Education and new director of the Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education (CITE) doctoral program.

“We want them to develop their reasoning. They are going to come to different opinions, but it’s about the strength of the reasons for which they come to a decision.”

History textbooks sometimes include interesting stories about individuals as sidebars.

“But in terms of really having students read about something and then grapple with the ethical dimensions and democratic values, that’s unique,” said Halvorsen.

History in the making

Reasoning with Democratic Values 2.0 was published by Teacher College Press in June 2018. Halvorsen’s co-authors are Paul F. Dain, former American government teacher, and David E. Harris retired University of Michigan professor. Harris co-authored the first edition of the book, back in 1985, with University of Wisconsin Professor Alan Lockwood focused on exploring social responsibility through episodes in history.

“We called it 2.0 because it’s really more than a second edition,” said Halvorsen, noting three-quarters of the content is new. The team selected stories to cover multiple time periods in various regions of the country as well as diverse voices and viewpoints.

Each of the 39 chapters presents facts of the case and a set of learning activities. A teacher can use student Volume I (1607-1865) or Volume 2 (1866 to present) based on what time period they teach, accompanied by an Instructor’s Manual e-book. The package can also be used in community college courses and in methods courses for future social studies teachers.

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