Teaching Students Healthy Cynicism

Teaching history is tough.

You have to teach the students not only facts, but themes that repeat themselves throughout history. An effective way to do this is with Social Justice type education, but with Social Justice you produce a rather slanted point of view; you teach students to only question certain things and to accept others blindly.

As a history teacher, I never use a Social Justice model because I do not wish to depict the status quo as inherently better or worse than any other quo. As I develop my own personal pedagogical style, I find myself focusing on healthy cynicism.

I have found my text to be slanted to the left, which is not so much a surprise. Teachers tend to be left of center, and there is precious little space to fit in specific information, which renders it close to impossible to be even-handed.

Textbook writing is not easy, and at the end of the day it is up to the teacher on the ground to figure out how to reach the students. I have found teaching through healthy cynicism to be an effective way to reach the children, and I think if this format is further developed, it could be as popular pedagogically as the multicultural, social justice and anti-racist models.

A good example which describes healthy cynicism pedagogy is my recent New Deal unit. I taught the unit initially focusing on the positives of the New Deal, and there are many, which is why it was so effective politically.

After teaching the New Deal in that fashion, I provide information to the kids that is evidence of negative aspects of the New Deal, unemployment numbers, the cost and this historical piece for example:

Dear Madam: 

I am very much surprised that you have not responded to our previous letter requesting your contribution in the amount of $28.08 to Indiana County Democratic Campaign Committee, as I was sure that you appreciated your position to such an extent that you would make this contribution willingly and promptly. I must however, now advise you that unless your contribution in the above amount is received promptly it will be necessary to place your name on the list of those who will not be given consideration for any other appointment after the termination of the emergency relief work, which as you know will terminate in the near future.


Thomas E. Dewey, The Case Against the New Deal, (New York: Harper & Bros.,1940),91

historyProviding the information without giving the students a template gives students the chance to decide on their own the efficacy of the New Deal, and gives them a chance to use evidence and weigh positives to negatives, something that is unfortunately lacking in students’ skills in the U.S.

To simplify, this teaching style builds something, an idea, a world view, then gives the students the tools to tear it down.

Some students will tear it down, some students will not, but diversity of thought is something that is necessary to teach history at a high intellectual level, something that the Social Justice, multiculturalism and anti-racist models have failed to do.

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