Teaching History: Legends and Facts

There is a famous line at the end of the movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). The man who did not shoot him got the credit: James Stewart’s character. Toward the end of his political career, he finally tells the true story to a reporter, with this reaction.

Legends get printed. Legends get remembered. The truth gets buried when it is known. Sometimes it does not surface long enough to get buried — kind of like Flight 93 over Shanksville. That is the story of a burial, where there was no burial. Where were the bodies? Where was the debris?[amazon asin=B00AEFYL6K&template=*lrc ad (right)]


Over a career, modern history is the most difficult of all courses to teach. The problem with modern history is simple to describe: it keeps happening. Some things are relevant. If you ignore them, the students will not understand history. So, the most relevant events of what happened recently have to be included in the narrative. But that means that you have to drop something out of the old narrative. When you do this, you must not disrupt the narrative. So, what is regarded as a crucial fact in the narrative when a man starts his career, he will find he has to drop by the end of his career. There will be more than one dropped fact. So, why was it relevant in the first place?

The longer the time period, the less relevant is any single fact.

The problem is selecting issues, people, trends, inventions, wars, prices, and events that are relevant. “Relevance is as relevance does.” It depends on the narrative. Every historian has a different narrative, but there has to be enough coherence with the narratives of most of the other historians in order to make sense out of the new narrative. So, there is continuity with the old narratives, but there must be innovation.[amazon asin=6304711905&template=*lrc ad (right)]

Most students do not recall the narrative a year later. The younger they are, the more they will remember the legends.


If I were to go into a classroom of high school students in the week that they start their class in United States history, I would ask the following question: “How many of you have heard of the gunfight at the OK Corral?” I think it that least half the class would have heard about it. There have been movies about it. In 1993 and 1994, there were two movies about it: Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. Here they are, scrambled.

Almost nobody can tell you who was involved on the side of the bad guys, and almost nobody can tell you what it was all about. But they have heard of it. There are few events in American history less relevant and more widely known than the gunfight at the OK Corral. The reason why it had any relevance at all is this: it was virtually the only gun fight in the old West that anybody has heard of, and it was pretty much the last one in the era. It marks a representative high point in the story of the wild West. It took place in 1881.[amazon asin=B000E5N6LG&template=*lrc ad (right)]

[As an historian who first started reading about this shootout back in 1954, let me tell you that Wyatt Earp is more accurate. Tombstone is more fun.]

Almost every student in the class would have heard of Custer’s last stand. Why was it relevant? Because, for the first and last time, the Plains Indians got together in one location for one battle. It wasn’t just Custer’s last stand; it was the Plains’ Indians last stand. It took place in 1876. Wyatt Earp was part of what made it the Plains’ Indians last stand. In the early 1870’s, he was a buffalo hunter. Between 1872 and 1874, the buffalo herds were exterminated.

Beginning in June, my year’s course in American history for the Ron Paul Curriculum, will briefly cover Custer’s last stand and the gunfight at the OK Corral. Why? Because they are legends. They can serve as “hooks” for the narrative. I will teach that they were examples of events that have become part of the American story, because they were representative events. The problem is, the stories survive, but their relevance is not understood. I will use the hook of the legends to tell the story. I will assess their relevance in terms of a narrative.

I will have 140 opportunities to identify hooks on which students may secure their understanding of American history. Maybe these are not hooks. Maybe they are more like Velcro. I will tell the legends. Next, I will identify what is legend and what is fact. Then I will explain how and why these legends became the basis of the common narrative. I will offer a rival narrative.

There have been conspiracies in American history. They are behind some of the most popular legends. The challenge is to show how they made the events behind the legends possible, and then why and how they created the legends.

This is not how history is taught in the textbooks. Textbooks print the legends.

I will imitate Marvin Miller. I will tell the stories behind the stories.

Print the legend. Then print the facts. This way, for a few students, the facts will become the legends. Or at least some of the facts will become legends for some of the students.

Legends are Velcro. Facts can be stuck onto Velcro.