How Should American History Be Taught?

Personal Background

In thirty-six years of teaching, one of the lessons I learned is that injecting politics into educational policy is nearly always a bad thing. That’s partially because politicians often take positions on educational issues that are motivated more by a desire to achieve their own political objectives than to improve education in any way.

Although I spent most of my teaching career teaching English, I am also credentialed in social studies and have taught both US history and US government, as well as being part of a team-taught Advanced Placement Language and Composition/Advanced Placement US History class. In part because of this background, I find the current controversy over how American history should be taught deeply disturbing. It’s yet another example of politics invading the classroom–to the detriment of education.

To give you some idea of how deeply this particular controversy has moved me, I haven’t been able to find much time for blogging in a long while. My last post about anything other than one of my giveaways was August 28, 2019. My last post on a topic related to education was June 25, 2019. That’s partly because I spend a lot of time on the material I post and haven’t had as much time as I’d like in the last few years. But this issue is too important for me to remain silent.

The Problem of Terminology

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As you are probably aware, one of most controversial terms in education today is critical race theory. Even proponents of critical race theory don’t always agree on exactly what it is, and the descriptions of what is provided by opponents clearly don’t do it justice.

That said, I’ve found that sweeping generalizations seldom do justice to the nuanced nature of reality, and to some extent, people of every ideological persuasion are guilty of such generalizations at one time or another. For that reason, and also to avoid knee-jerk reactions that are all too common in our contemporary discussions, I’d like to put the debate over critical race theory as currently interpreted (and misinterpreted) to the side for the moment and attempt to take a fresh look at the issue. Of course, there’s really no way to start with a completely blank slate, but if we examine how the teaching of history affect students and what type of history teaching works best, it will be easier than you think to develop a common-sense approach to the issues involved.

By the way, when I say common-sense approach, I mean one that is not unnecessarily filtered through a political lens. Of course, we all have political preconceptions, but we must be careful not to allow them to keep us from twisting the facts to support our preconceptions.

One of the biggest problems we have today, not only in educational policy but in other areas, is confirmation bias. That is, too many people refuse to accept any input that in contrary to their preconceived opinions, often with ridiculous results. We all do this to some extent, but it is a tendency we need to be aware of and guard against as much as possible. Without a willingness to examine and potentially accept new data, no progress will ever be possible.

What Is the Purpose of Teaching History?

(These are not necessarily listed in order of importance. Any sequence would be debatable, but that isn’t really the debate I want to spark.)

Some of the ideas presented below grew out of my experience. Others come from Peter N. Stearns’ fine essay, “Why Study History?” available on the American History Association website

To Understand the Present, It Is Necessary To Understand the Past

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Think of the number of problems that we solve through a knowledge of what led up to those problems. How often have you looked at recently installed hardware, drivers, or software to troubleshoot a computer problem? How many past actions, like the last time you changed the oil in your car or the washers in your bathroom faucets, do you use as a guide for when to perform those actions again? How often has your doctor asked about your diet or exercise habits in order to help determine causes of health challenges you may be facing?

Every decision you make in life is influenced by (though not necessarily determined by) your past, from the place you decide to live to the career you decide to pursue to the person you decide to marry. Sometimes, we embrace our past. Sometimes, we try to escape from it. But either way, it has an impact on our decisions, large and small.

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Just as people cannot exist in a void, utterly divorced from their past, societies cannot, either. For example, the American political system is the product of a long line of evolution that goes back, not just to the Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence, or even the Magna Carta. Keep in mind that the word republic comes from the Latin res publica and that democracy comes from the Greek democratia. There may be roots that go even deeper than ancient Greece and Rome that have been lost along with other early historical records. There are also often forgotten non-European roots, such as the Iroquois Constitution, whose blueprint for a confederacy of six nations provided some of the inspiration for federalism, among other things.

It’s hard to appreciate the present without knowing something of the past. This is why virtually every society mandates the study of its own history. But such study has value for other reasons as well.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

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There’s no question that learning from experience is a powerful tool, but you can’t experience everything in advance. In any case, it would be a grave mistake not to also learn from the experience of others as well. Aspects of our world such as technology will change considerably over time, but human nature will change much more slowly, if at all. That means the value of other people’s experiences in many areas will not decline very fast.

Among other things, history is a treasure trove of other people’s experiences. Finding similar situations in the past and seeing how they played out can be a good indicator of how a current situation might play out.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were wise enough to consider relevant historical situations while drafting our Constitution. For example, the fact that the Roman Republic degenerated into the Roman Empire, a progression that happened in other societies as well, made then conscious of the need to avoid having a single executive whose power was not carefully restrained.  Montesquieu first coined the term, “checks and balances,” and argued for a separation of powers as one such check, but he, like the delegates, based his ideas not solely on theory but on historical experience.

On the other hand, the delegates were also sensitive to more recent history, particularly American history, so they were well aware that the Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution, created a government too weak to do its job. By looking at divergent examples from the past, they were able to fashion a system that they hoped would be strong enough to govern effectively but in which power was sufficiently dispersed to make a degeneration into despotism unlikely.

Of course, the delegates couldn’t be entirely reliant on historical precedents, in part because what they were trying to do was break new political ground. Greece and Rome hadn’t had representative government in the modern sense; neither did the Great Britain of 1787, with an executive and one house of the legislature unelected, and the other house elected based on a very restricted franchise. (Even by 1832, only 14% of men could vote–and, as was typical of the era, 0% of women.

As a consequence of being in uncharted waters, the delegates made mistakes, some of which were rectified later on. A few still plague us to this day, particular the failure of the delegates to appreciate how powerful political parties could become.

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Parties, which James Madison referred to in the Federalist Papers as factions, he defined in this way: “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

To be fair, modern partisans don’t see themselves in this way, and realistically, parties do sometimes act for the common good. However, it is also true that they sometimes act against it. I think we can all agree on that, though, depending on our own partisan background, examples we could cite might differ considerably.

Madison correctly realized that we couldn’t prohibit parties–a perfect illustration of the old saying that the cure would be worse than the disease. But his belief that the size of the new nation would prevent any single party from gaining control, proved to be more wishful thinking than realistic analysis. “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States,” wrote Madison in Federalist 10. It took a very short time to prove him wrong.

The first factions, though neither would identify itself as such, were the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, differentiated by the former’s desire to ratify the Constitution and the latter’s to reject it. Their organizations were very loose, yet both were national in scope. When the Constitution was ratified, the name Federalist stuck to Washington’s party, while some of the old Anti-Federalists, joined over time by some former Federalists, formed the first opposition party, eventually called Republicans (not not the same as the current Republican party, which wasn’t born until 1854).

Ironically, Madison himself became the leader of this first opposition party, though he and his Federalist opponents continued to denounce parties and to claim that they organized only as a temporary expedient to counter the other side’s organization.

(This may seem like a long digression, but aside from illustrating how difficult handling totally new situations can be, this also serves as a little foreshadowing for my later discussion of how partisanship has distorted the study of history.)

Studying History Contributes to Moral Understanding

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This is where the two disciplines I have taught come together. High school students may not have encountered major moral dilemmas in their personal lives, and they certainly haven’t encountered all of them. But they can use literature as a safe place to explore morality. Great authors undoubtedly provide moral food for thought. Note that this does not mean that students have to agree with the all of the authors they study–or any of them. In order to understand what you believe, it is also important to clarify what you don’t believe. Students can learn just as much from authors they disagree with as from those they agree with. Either situation enables students to test their moral values in the context of specific situations.

History is much the same, though the facts of history in and of themselves don’t present a moral system. It is the way we interpret them that does that. As with literature, though, history provides not only examples of what to do but also examples of what not to do. We learn as much from past mistakes as we do from past triumphs. (That’s why, as we will discuss later, historical figures need to be presented, not as saints, but as the flawed human beings they actually were.)

Studying History Develops Important Academic Skills

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Among other skills, Stearns cites the ability to assess evidence and  the ability to assess conflicting interpretations.  Both of these are crucial for the development of critical thinking skills. Particularly in the internet era, when students are bombarded with sources, some high quality and some low quality, the ability to judge which sources fall in each group is essential for a rational understanding of the world. This ability is also the foundation of effective research. And since most important issues generate disagreements, the ability to assess the validity of conflicting arguments is also essential. These are fundamental tools students will need for college and career readiness, as well as for being effective citizens in a democratic society.

What is the Best Way To Approach History?

Now that we understand how important history is, we are ready to consider the question posed in the title of this blog post.

History Teaching Needs To Be Rooted in the Truth

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The fundamental question is not how you or I wish history had been but how it actually was. For instance, we may not all agree on how slavery impacted the modern world, but we all agree that it existed.

The issues may be somewhat different at the elementary school level, but at the high school level, there’s no question–students have a very limited bs tolerance. Unless they’ve had little life experience, they will recognize edited or distorted history when they see it. They will also be conscious of questions that teachers dodge rather than answer. Once they suspect the content is being manipulated, they will become less engaged, leading to less learning and skill development in the long run.

Teaching History Should Be about Helping Students Interpret Data, Not Forcing an Interpretation on Them

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I think the fear that some people have about teaching American history, warts and all, is that it will be used to promote a position with which they disagree. But, as I’ve indicated earlier, there is a distinction between the facts and the way in which they are interpreted. To the extent possible, the facts should be taught. Students should be encouraged to analyze those facts and reach their own conclusions. Teachers should help their students strengthen their arguments, articulate them effectively, and support them with the best evidence available. Teachers should not use the classroom as a forum to push their own viewpoint on controversial issues. (Nor should school boards or state legislatures.)

And yes, for the cynics out there, when I was a teacher,  I practiced what I am now preaching. High school students, who seem to have a boundless curiosity about their teachers’ personal lives, would sometimes ask whether I was a Democrat or a Republican. My stock answer was, “Statistically speaking, I’m probably one or the other.”

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Students couldn’t easily tell because I pushed back on arguments made by all students, regardless of their viewpoints, so that they would learn how to defend their own position. If class discussion got too lopsided, I would step in and play devil’s advocate, regardless of what my actual position was. In AP Language and Composition, whenever we studied rhetoric in modern sources, I always brought in samples representing different political views.

Needless to say, I had to handle religion in the same way when I was teaching the Bible as Literature unit in World Literature and Composition or Freshman Honors English. I never mentioned my own religious affiliation, and when asked an interpretive question point-blank, I gave a variety of different answers, as well as reminding students that they were always welcome to share their own perspective.

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Regardless of the subject I was teaching, students always knew that their essays would be graded on how well they presented and argued their position, not on what their position was.

When teaching a subject like English or history that raises controversial issues, I think that’s the only workable way to teach that is both effective and fair to the students.

To address the elephant in the room for a moment, would I teach critical race theory if I were teaching history today? I would teach about critical race theory–and other approaches to historical material as well. Excluding a particular interpretation introduces just as much bias as pushing a particular interpretation.

Historians have developed several different interpretive paradigms over the years. Some of them hold up better after a careful examination of the facts than others. If critical race theory is as flawed as its critics claim, the best way to combat it would be to expose it to as much scrutiny as possible, both inside the classroom and out. The absolute worst way to approach it in that scenario would be to hide it from public view.

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By the way, in case your experience with teenagers is limited, forbidding them to learn about something is the best way to get them to be curious about it. My parents use to love to tell the story of a class being forbidden by their English teacher to read a particular chapter in Ivanhoe. It was a chapter tame by today’s standards but considered too racy at the time. Not coincidentally, it was the only chapter that every single student read.

I don’t think the proponents of banning critical race theory from the classroom have thought about the ability of students to find information on their own. However, they may not feel as driven to look for perspectives they weren’t forbidden to learn about, creating exactly the opposite effect the banners were trying to achieve.

On the other hand, it’s critical race theory could stand up well to careful examination in the classroom and elsewhere, in which case trying to ban it is an even worse idea. Disliking the truth doesn’t make it any the less true. In general, trying to restrict the freedom to learn is bad in general. But trying specifically to restrict exposure to the truth is even worse.

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You may not agree with critical race theory’s belief that many of our major institutions are in the grip of systemic racism. I think it helps to keep in mind that many advocates of critical race theory also believe that institutions don’t have to be run by racists to be racist. In other words, certain structures and policies can have a racist effect even when the people responsible for them have no racist intent. In its best form, critical race theory is not about placing blame for the past but finding constructive solutions for the present. No reasonable person can deny that patterns, such as systems for financing schools that provide lower quality education for people in impoverished areas, create inequitable outcomes that we should not tolerate. 

That said, at times, critical race theory may err in isolating certain simple looking pieces from the much more complicated puzzle of which they are a part. And it does tend toward sweeping generalizations, such as blanket indictments of all police departments. and unworkable solutions, such as defunding the police. But the fact that advocates of critical race theory may sometimes err doesn’t deny  that they have identified real problems and that those problems need to be solved.

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The way to address differences of opinion in a free society is to keep a healthy dialog going. Efforts to suppress a particular viewpoint, in the classroom or  elsewhere, often results in pushing advocates of the suppressed viewpoint further toward an extreme position. In response, their opponents often also move toward a more extreme position. This kind of polarization leads to a communication breakdown that destroys effective education. And education is the foundation of any free society.

Instead of trying to suppress what is taught in the classroom, we should be encouraging the marketplaces of ideas concept originated by John Stuart Mill in 1859. The first major American reference to this concept is in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States in 1919. Holmes wrote, “…that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.” In other words, the best course of action is more likely to emerge from free and vigorous debate than it is from censorship.

I’ll close this section with an excerpt from the controversial issues policy from my former school district (Beverly Hills Unified).

“The Board also expects teachers to ensure that all sides of a controversial issue are impartially presented, with adequate and appropriate factual information. Without promoting any partisan point of view, the teacher should help students separate fact from opinion and warn them against drawing conclusions from insufficient data. The teacher shall not suppress any student’s view on the issue as long as its expression is not malicious or abusive toward others.”

The last part is especially important. Vigorous discussion of issues is essential for an effective classroom–or a functioning democracy. But the discussion shouldn’t be weaponized against particular individuals, especially not in the classroom.

History Should Be Taught in a Way that Acknowledges the Basic Realities of Humanity

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None of us are perfect. We all have triumphs, and we all have failures. We all do good, and we all do evil.

In historical terms, a few of our predecessors, though not perfect, might be classified as saints, a far larger number as egregious sinners, and the rest somewhere in between. A historical presentation of every one of our forebears as a saint might work for very young children but is a disaster waiting to happen for teenagers.  Even they have enough life experience to know such a portrayal has to be false, and it will tend to cause them to lose interest, thus impairing their learning in the same way that I’ve mentioned before.

Some may see teaching history as it was to be unpatriotic. I would argue that true patriotism requires an accurate presentation of a nation’s history.

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Can you love someone you don’t know? No. Love involves knowing a person–including his or her flaws. The same is true of patriotism. You cannot love your country if you do not truly know it. Like all of us, America has had its triumphs and its failures, its virtues and its sins. Clinging to an idealized image of America is not loving it. It is rejecting it in favor of a fantasy.

Clinging to the fantasy and rejecting the reality also often has the effect of trying to freeze the country in the past. We should want to preserve positive aspects of the past–but not everything was positive. And it’s important to remember that living things are changing constantly. Preferring a fossilized fantasy America to the real thing is like preferred a taxidermist-stuffed dead dog to your living, breathing pet. 

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As a final note on this issue, I’ll point out that history can be taught in a way that is too negative as well as too positive. I am sometimes concerned about the use of ex post facto morality (holding historical figures reprehensible based on acts that were not considered immoral in their own time period). If I were teaching history, I would certainly point out historical deviations from our current sense of morality, but I would not spend a lot of time condemning them for not meeting standards that developed decades or even centuries later.

The development of societies is clearly an evolutionary process, and history is partly a study of that evolutionary process. Like any process of change, political evolution isn’t always completely linear and consistent. There’s no denying that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, nor should we attempt to try. On the other hand, Jefferson was actually ahead of his time in being opposed to slavery. Yes, ironic–but true.

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We’d certainly respect him more if he had been an outright abolitionist, but few white people and almost no political leaders at that time advocated the immediate abolition of slavery, though some believed  it would die out naturally as a result of Revolutionary idealism. Sadly, they were wrong.

Jefferson could have gotten away with referring specifically to white men in the Declaration of Independence, but instead he wrote that, “All men are created equal.” In the original draft of the Declaration, he also condemned the slave trade and accused George III of being responsible for imposing it on the colonies. In 1784, Jefferson drafted a congressional committee’s report proposing that slavery be prohibited in the western territories. Other southern representatives got this provision deleted. However, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 did included such a prohibition, though it only affected a portion of the territories. In 1808, Jefferson, who was then president, signed a bill ending the slave trade when it became constitutionally permissible to do so. Many historians consider the end of the slave trade a key factor that might eventually have ended slavery by making prices prohibitive.

Was Jefferson a hypocrite who should have freed his own slaves, at the very least? Or was he a pragmatist who was only in the position to restrict slavery because he stayed on good terms with his slaveholding colleagues? Perhaps he was both. That’s the kind of interpretive question that could and should be discussed. By our standards, he was hardly a fighter for human freedom and not at all for racial equality. But he was more enlightened than many in his own time, and though he failed to become an abolitionist, he at least sowed the seeds that later abolitionists could reap.

History is full of figures like Jefferson who don’t measure up to our standards but nonetheless contributed to the evolution of the society we have today. We should neither worship such people nor damn them. Had we been born in their era, we might have shared their faults more than we would like to admit. 

What Is the Effect of Teaching History Well?

There are many benefits to the development of genuine historical knowledge. I’ll focus on one that comes to mind partly because of the debate over critical race theory.

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FiveThirtyEight published an article about the positive effects of teaching students about the role of racism in our history which you can read here. Several groups, including social scientists from the University of Chicago, the University of Georgia, the University of Vermont, and Northwestern University studied the effects of reading a more critical American history text instead of a more traditional one. Note that in this context, critical means including the negative impact of racism on American society. As far as I can tell, it didn’t make the accusations that so many critics of critical race theory seem to fear it makes–that all white people are racist, that black people are inherently superior, or any similar ideas.

All of these studies produced the same basic results. They found that white students exposed to the more critical text had more empathy for people of color, were more likely to appreciate their contributions to American society, and expressed more concern about the contemporary impact of racism. Students of color exposed to the more critical text were more likely to be willing to express their opinions and to participate actively in the political process. None of the studies found any evidence of increased tension among different groups of students as a result of studying a more critical history.

Given these findings, I have to ask a few questions. What is wrong with people having more empathy for each other? What is wrong with people becoming more involved in the political process? What is wrong with people wanting to work toward equity in our society?

In general, we value all of these things. So why would we want to exclude from the history classroom a curriculum than encourages them? 

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2 thoughts on “How Should American History Be Taught?”

  1. Brian Zemojtel

    I am beginning my 26th year teaching U.S. History, I always struggle with the amount of content we have and how little time we have to teach it. Some topics need to be cut out or just barely touched on. I often struggle with what is a priority. In the past, I believed political and economic history outweighed social and cultural history. However, in the current climate we are living in, I am finding that social and cultural history has become much more relevant.

    My question also is, where should I start? Origins of human civilization in the Americas or the founding of Jamestown?

    1. Much depends on how much freedom you have. If your state adheres to the Common Core Standards, they don’t constrain the actual content much, just what skills need to be addressed. But, depending on where you are, you may be much more constrained by state standards and various school district documents. You may also be constrained by your text, though the internet can be useful for finding supplemental resources (assuming your students have reasonable computer access).

      Assuming you have a relatively free hand, one of my colleagues used to say that we spend too much time “covering ground.” That is, we speed through things so that we will have covered a lot of material, but without much depth. “It’s not what we’ve covered that’s important. It’s what they’ve learned.” And as you know, students learn more if they have true understanding. It’s easy when one has to rush for history to seem like a a series of unconnected facts.

      For that very reason, I’d think in terms of overarching themes. What are the threads that tie American history together? That makes it easy to spend time on the recurring patterns, using some events as specific examples (without necessarily having to go into detail about every similar event).

      Social and cultural history are more important than they used to be, but it’s also important to keep in mind that those four strands intersect, help to shape each other. (I’ve found thinking in terms of connection helps with decisions of what to cover and what not to cover.)

      Long-term, you might want to think of ways to encourage your school system to adopt a somewhat more manageable pattern. I don’t know where you’re located, but in California, a lot of the early US history is covered in 8th grade, leaving the 11th grade course to focus on the 20th Century (and now a little on the 21st, as well). AP US is an exception, as it follows the AP curriculum. As you can imagine, it’s easier to feel as if you’re doing justice to the topic when you don’t have to squeeze all of American history into one year.

      Another way to offload some of the content is to coordinate with the English department. In California, US history and American literature are both taught in the 11th grade, which offers a lot of opportunities for synergy and even team teaching. That’s ideal because the English teacher in the team can help deal with some of the social and cultural history.

      (It’s not always easy to get English teachers to abandon a curriculum they have long taught and love. But if the department is large enough, there may be at least a few who also have a history background and would be willing to teach literature chronologically and pick pieces that hook easily into a historical framework. That kind of approach can also help struggling students. There is power in having two teachers working together with the same group of students.

      On you last question, origins is probably the best place to start, but if I were you, I’d focus on groups within what is now US territory. The Aztecs and Incas are fascinating subjects in and of themselves, but if the focus is US, I don’t think you need to cover them.

      My experience is different from yours in that I taught the English side of an AP US/AP Lang combo. Since AP Lang focuses on rhetoric, it was easy to use historically important non-fiction on the English side. But some of the pieces I used could easily be used as supplementary reading in a history class. For instance, if you want to weave more about indigenous populations into the history, Benjamin Franklin, whom you’d probably touched on, anyway, provides an interesting example of how to do that. Franklin’s work on the US Constitution was partially informed by his knowledge of the Iroquois Constitution (available online). It’s a little dry to have students read the whole thing, but selections can be good. Many scholars think that the idea of federalism was influenced by the way the nations in the Iroquois Confederacy were organized. Franklin’s essay, “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America.” is also useful. (Spoiler alert: the savages referred to in the titles turn out to be the Europeans, not the indigenous people.)

      Properly used, primary sources can be an interesting way of bringing history to life for the students. The summaries, even in well-written textbooks, don’t bring historical figures to life as much as their own words do. Historical figures who seem like real people are more likely to be remembered than those that don’t.

      I’m sorry if this is a little general. Since I don’t know the full context, it’s hard to be specific. If you have any follow-up questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

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