All Articles Education Using alternative narratives in the U.S. history survey

Using alternative narratives in the U.S. history survey

4 min read


Engaging students in the process of constructing understanding and meaning of the past is a central act of history education. To do so demands a paradigm shift for students who have been taught to consider the past as an established external truth that is to be memorized.

Moving from a history/memorize/noun to history/construct/verb model is facilitated by teaching the concept of “historical narrative.” In my experience, this is an incredibly exciting, relevant and rigorous way to teach about the past. Students should engage with narratives and analyze the power structures and purpose of dominant and marginalized histories. For example, contrasting the “official, master narrative” found in state standards and textbooks with “alternative narratives” introduces students to perspectives beyond nationalized history.

Teaching history through narratives focuses on knowledge construction, resource evaluation and active learning. These skills speak to the demands of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, global competency and 21st-century education. Furthermore, considering alternative historical narratives invites collaborative practice, research and technology integration.

Below are three typical units used in high-school U.S. history courses. The section after suggests ways to rethink the standard narrative found in textbooks.

Standard narratives

Consider these descriptions of extended lessons found in textbooks used at multiple levels (standard, honors, AP, IB, etc.) in our high schools. Quotes are taken directly from textbooks.

The Imperialist Vision

“During the late 1800s, the desire to find new markets, increase trade, and build a powerful navy caused the U.S. to become more involved in international affairs.”

American Interwar Isolationism: 1918-1940

“With the international system of the 1920s now beyond repair, the United States faced a choice between more active elements to stabilize the world and more energetic attempts to isolate itself from it. Most Americans unhesitatingly choose the latter.”

Cold War

“… an era of confrontation and competition between these two nations (the USA and USSR) that lasted from about 1946-1990 … became known as the Cold War.”

Alternative narratives

Historian Richard Overy reminds us that history “at its best is critical, exciting, thought-provoking, frustratingly ambiguous and uncertain … If history becomes just heritage studies, the collective intelligence will be all the poorer.” In turn, provocative questions and multiple perspectives are cornerstones of effective history instruction. Below are valid alternative narratives corresponding to the standard ones above.

Empire in U.S. History

When the United States became independent, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson talked about the United States becoming a powerful empire in the future. To achieve this goal, the United States expanded its borders, influence, and power around the globe. For example, the United States was victorious in a war with Mexico (1846-1848) and continuous wars with Native Americans. Both campaigns expanded the nation’s western border across the continent.

The Myth of U.S. Isolationism

U.S. interwar intervention existed in the Dominican Republic (1916-1924), Guatemala (1920), Honduras (1919, 1924, 1925), Panama (1921, 1925), and Haiti (1915-1934). Whether defined as militaristic, political, economic, or cultural, U.S. intervention was the norm, not the exception, in the 1920s and 1930s.

Beyond the Cold War Binary

The Cold War was the name given to the international world order that lasted from 1945-1991. From the destruction of World War II, two “super powers,” the USA and the Soviet Union, led two blocs of contending nations. A third group, the Non-Aligned Movement, did not formally have a desire to be involved in the Cold War. Main countries involved included Indonesia, India, Yugoslavia, Egypt, and Ghana. However, membership expanded to nearly 100 nations during the Cold War. During the Cold War, these three groups were called the First, Second, and Third World.

The ubiquity of standard narratives reinforces a history that is rarely, if ever, challenged. In fact, more nuanced, analytical responses on standardized tests that challenge these perspectives would be penalized or marked as wrong. These narratives are no longer needed as an assimilating identity tool. Contemporary education as well as globalization realities embrace the skills, content and thinking addressed by using alternative historical narratives.

Craig Perrier (@CraigPerrier) is the high-school social studies specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, Va. He is also an online history adjunct for Northeastern University and Southern New Hampshire University. Recently, Perrier, along with the National Council for History Education, received a Longview Foundation grant focusing on globalizing the U.S. history survey. Read more from Perrier on his blog, The Global, History Educator.