Many of the students I teach have never studied any American history before. It’s not something that comes up regularly on the school curriculum. Some have studied a little slavery or done one module at GCSE on the American West, or perhaps even discussed Civil Rights, but most have little idea of the trajectory of American history.
So, the preconceptions that they bring to class come from a variety of sources, usually rooted in popular culture, especially the movies.
One of the ways that I like to challenge my students is to get them thinking about myths and myth-making in history. Why is that there are so many half-truths in the stories that Americans tell about their past? Are they different from other countries in that regard?
Here are just a few interesting ones that I like to use to challenge my students’ assumptions:
1. Columbus realised he had discovered America: wrong! He went to his grave believing that he had reached ‘the Indies’, i.e. Asia.
2. The Puritans wanted to establish religious freedom: wrong! They were intolerant of others’ religious ideas.
3. Everyone in the South wanted to leave the Union during the Civil War. Wrong! There were many unionists in the South, especially in the upper south.
4. Franklin Roosevelt pulled the US out of depression with his New Deal initiatives whereas his predecessor Herbert Hoover had complacently done nothing. Wrong! There are many similarities between the approach of the two men, and depression was ended by World War Two anyway!
5. Older people in the US were for the Vietnam war, whereas younger ones were against it. Wrong! Younger people were more likely to be pro-war, probably because they didn’t have personal experience in World War Two or Korea.
These myths and others like them are a good place to start when debating different interpretations of history.
(Thanks to Erik Sass for these examples! See more of them here )