Paul Gagnon: A Tribute

Paul Gagnon, the passionate history educator and great scholar behind much of the AFT's work on education for democracy, passed away in April 2005. Serving in the Navy in WWII sparked Paul's fascination with history: He wanted to know, "What caused the war?" And he wanted everyone else to know, too, so that the same mistakes would not be repeated. Thanks to the GI Bill, he got his Ph.D. from Harvard in history and, by 1952, was teaching European history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Twelve years later he was founding dean of arts and sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. But his drive to bring history to all citizens was not sated.

Upon retiring from the University of Massachusetts, he embarked on a new career that few with his academic distinction have chosen: bringing more—and better—history education to America's K–12 students and teachers. As part of this work, he articulated the role of history as the anchor of reinvigorated civic education and brought together teachers of history, kindergarten through university, to learn and advocate together, as equals.

In his new career, the AFT was lucky. Paul worked closely with us on many projects, beginning with Education for Democracy: A Statement of Principles (1987), of which he was chief author. Signed by over 100 distinguished Americans, the Statement both signaled and helped bring about a new mood in American education, one that was more sympathetic to explicitly teaching the ideas, history, and values of democracy. Next, he devoted himself to the nitty-gritty: reviewing world history and American history textbooks, evaluating each for its contribution to education for democracy and offering up in each evaluation an understandable account of the ideas he believed should be taught. He went on to serve as principal investigator for the Bradley Commission's report, Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools, and helped found and sustain the National Council for History Education, which brought together in a single organization K–12 and university-level history teachers to advocate for history education and work as partners to improve it. He was deeply involved in the debates about history and civic standards and also in the shoulder-to-the-grindstone work of writing and analyzing them.

When he came on the history education scene in the mid-1980s, just 25 states required secondary students to take at least 2.5 credits in social studies. By 2000, 35 states had such a requirement. For all the kids who will study history as a result, and for all the teachers whose work, commitment, and knowledge he so admired: Thanks, Paul.

Below we share some favorite passages from his many beautiful essays. The next piece ("Finding Who and Where We Are"), as timely now as then, is his first article written for American Educator, 20 years ago.


When students, and school boards, ask, "Why history? What are we supposed to be getting out of this?" The best answer is still that one word: judgment. We demand it of all professionals: doctors, lawyers, chefs, and quarterbacks. And we need it most in the profession of citizen, which, like it or not, exercise it or not, we are all born into. Just as surely, candidates for public office need to know that a fair number of citizens possess judgment.... Judgment implies nothing less than wisdom—an even bigger word—about human nature and society.

–"Why Study History?" November 1988, Atlantic Monthly

Another reason for the difficulty of civic education, as Alexis de Tocqueville explained in Democracy in America, is that most of the important problems for democratic politics are not solvable in any neat or final way. To take his foremost example, democratic people cherish both liberty and equality, both personal freedom and social justice. There is no recipe for just the right blend in a given situation of liberty and equality. The two impulses inevitably collide, yet each is indispensable to the preservation of a bearable level of the other. Civic education teaches the young why this is so—not by some "concept" to be memorized, but by the memorable, sometimes deeply disturbing historical experiences that have convinced us of it....

There is no trick to virtuous behavior when things are going well. Most people will hold right attitudes without much formal instruction when they feel themselves free, secure, and justly treated.

The tough part of civic education is to prepare people for bad times. The question is not whether they will remember the right phrases, but whether they will put them into practice when they feel wrongly treated, in fear for their freedom and security. Or when authorities and the well-placed, public or private, appear to flout every value and priority taught in school. The chances for democratic principles to surmount crises depend upon the number of citizens who know how free societies, their own and others, have responded to crises of the past, how they acted to defend themselves, and how they survived. Why did some societies fall and others stand?

Democracy's Half-Told Story, 1989, AFT

As the years pass, we become an increasingly diverse people, drawn from many racial, national, linguistic, and religious origins. Our cultural heritage as Americans is as diverse as we are, with multiple sources of vitality and pride. But our political heritage is one—the vision of a common life in liberty, justice, and equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution two centuries ago....

Devotion to human dignity and freedom, to equal rights, to social and economic justice, to the rule of law, to civility and truth, to tolerance of diversity, to mutual assistance, to personal and civic responsibility, to self-restraint and self-respect—all these truths must be taught and learned and practiced. They cannot be taken for granted, or regarded as merely one set of options, against which any other may be accepted as equally worthy.

Education for Democracy: A Statement of Principles, 1987, the Education for Democracy Project, a joint effort of the AFT, Freedom House, and the Educational Excellence Network

Setting the right balance between Western and non-Western studies in the education of American citizens requires more than wearisome assaults on "rootless multiculturalism" or "elitist Eurocentrism." Advocates for "global studies," asking equal time for all world civilizations, forget that the story of democratic institutions—and of their most virulent enemies—until recently has been a largely Western story, and not always pretty or elitist. Advocates for the West alone forget that a great many non-Westerners have treasured and fought for human dignity, freedom, and justice since ancient times. Failing to tell the two stories misprepares Americans of all backgrounds....

To begin with, not much of any story can be told in states holding on to one-year surveys of the worlds' past. But even three years is not enough to teach everything. The case for relative stress on Western history is that America's democratic ideas and practices are rooted in the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Anglo-European past. The significance of Western civilization to Americans of any origin is not that it is "ours" and we "see ourselves" in it. In fact, the peasant ancestors of European-Americans were no closer to high Western thought, culture, or politics than their African, Asian, and pre-Columbian counterparts. Nor can Western civilization be honestly taught as treasure alone, a saga of progress, superior in all ways to the legacies of other civilizations. It has given birth to some of the very best and worst in politics, economics, culture, class, and race relations. It is the legacy we live with every day, genes of the mind inherited just as the body inherits immunity or vulnerability to certain diseases. The West has never had a single "canon," but rather a ceaseless warfare of ideas and ambitions across ethnic, religious, linguistic, social, and cultural divides and limitless economic and political appetites. We study it to know who we are and what to expect from each other, given such a conflicted heritage.

It is not all we need to know. Global educators rightly warn us to study other peoples. The globe is not yet a village, and soon half of us will have non-European roots. Good standards pay attention to each major civilization. The question for teachers is how much attention. What should Americans of any origin know of "others" abroad and arriving? What should Chinese-Americans, African-Americans, and Franco-Americans know, in common, beyond American society and each other's experiences of it? None needs the detail of ancient Chinese dynasties, or African kingdoms, or Merovingians and Carolingians. But they should know the main ideas and experiences of each other's ancestors. They should have an idea of the beauty each people created as well as the oppression they suffered or imposed on others, and their lasting traditions and memories—in short, what we should want other peoples to know of us.

Educating Democracy, 2003, the Albert Shanker Institute

The question of which history to teach would ... be less pressing, less divisive, if American schools were to require a substantial history course as the core of the social studies every year beyond the primary grades, in the European style.

Democracy's Untold Story, 1987, AFT

Most [vital civics topics] appear in detailed state standards, but are often buried in long, unprioritized lists of topics, subtopics, and skills. Documents show that writers fail to distinguish the important from the unimportant. If they try specifics, they seem unable to stem the flow of endless topics. If they avoid specifics, they turn to sweeping questions whose answers would need at least as many topics. In each case, they propose more than can be taught in the time teachers have. Writers forget a few simple numbers that limit teachers' work: fewer than 180 days a year for instruction; the three purposes of schooling; the eight or so subjects that the three purposes require (arts, civics, English language, math, literature, geography, history, and science—other nations add foreign language)....

If a civic core is to work, two things need doing: Mountains of fact and concept in social studies must somehow be cut to a teachable number of priorities widely agreed upon across states and districts; and state tests must allow choice, especially in essay questions.

Educating Democracy, 2003, the Albert Shanker Institute

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By Paul Gagnon

American Educator, Summer 2005