Williams Homepage recently published this feature story on Leslie Brown’s course History Behind the Headlines:
“The Vietnam War shaped American foreign policy in the war’s immediate aftermath, it shapes decisions we make today, and it will shape foreign policy decisions that will be made 100 years from now.” So said assistant professor of history Jessica Chapman during a guest lecture in the course History Behind the Headlines.
After reviewing the causes and consequences of the Vietnam War, Chapman discussed a reading prepared by a group called “Vietnam Veterans to Correct the Myths.” The group (which vehemently opposed John Kerry’s presidential candidacy in 2004) argues that scholars are perpetuating a leftist interpretation of the war.
“They say we get the history all wrong, and present an alternative based largely on first-hand observation and often lacking in scholarly rigor,” Chapman said. “They’re infuriated that our interpretation is shaping America today. So where does that leave us?”
The question of historical bias—of which side of an issue is ”right” or “wrong”—is at the heart of the class, taught by associate professor Leslie Brown. The goal of the course is to provide students with the tools to think critically—and historically—about what they see in the media. Central to that ability is seeing bias in historical texts, newspaper articles, and digital media.
“The questions of objectivity and subjectivity are enormously important,” says Brown, explaining that the lens through which history is perceived shapes our understanding of the past. “This class creates the expectation that we dig past what we already know wherever we are exposed to history—in museums, memorials, and commemorations, but also in other presentations, like the media.”
Griffith Simon ’15 says these lessons apply to his entire liberal arts education. “As a political science major, I often read historical texts, but I have never fully considered the author’s biases or subjectivity,” he says. “Through this class, I am able to dive deeper and discover that the study of history is never completely objective.”
Over the course of the fall semester, other members of the history department will give guest lectures on topics such as immigration, the environment, race in America, and the histories of Africa and Asia.
“We’re challenging students to think historically about the present,” Brown says. “By encouraging them to become critical readers of the media, we can help them assess and critique how and when history is used—and abused—in the public sphere.”