Patrick Heagerty was a Civil War buff, and every year he entertained his eighth graders (and himself) with stories of the Tom Thumb Brigade. On Tom Thumb day, Mr. Heagerty would bring in “artifacts” from the Brigade, which was, he said, completely composed of hundreds of little people. He would show the students the tiny canteens, the little rifles, and very small plates and cups from the “mess kits” the brigade carried with them during the Civil War.
The Brigade was a great addition to the Union Army. “Oh, they were stealthy!” Mr. Heagerty said. They were so little they could slip around enemy lines completely undetected. A grateful President Lincoln even invited General Tom Thumb and his little wife to a reception at the White House. Here Mr. Heagerty whipped out the famous picture of the little couple with the President.
The students were fascinated. History came alive! The only problem was, none of it was true. Oh, there was a Tom Thumb, P.T. Barnum’s greatest side show, and he and his wife did visit the President at the White House, but there was no brigade of little people. And the “artifacts” had been picked up as novelties at a Civil War conference. Mr. Heagerty never told his students it was all a joke, and if any student looked askance, another student would say, “Oh yeah? Well, what about the little rifle?”
What made me think of all this was the Texas School Board’s recently released history standards. Some suggest that maybe the way to reconcile the very conservative views of the Texas board with the work of real historians is to present both sides of a “controversial” issue (Education or Indoctrination?). Students might be mature enough to find their own truth.
There are a few problems with that idea. First of all, some of the issues are “controversial” only in the minds of the Texas school board. Secondly, complex issues have more than one “side.” And thirdly, kids tend to believe what their teachers tell them. After all, what about that little rifle?