Multiple Perspectives: An essential concept in Social Studies

Today, we are fortunate to have a guest blog post.  Dr. Tim Fry from Washburn University has contributed an interesting post dealing with Multiple Perspectives.  Dr. Fry is currently an Associate Professor at Washburn University in their Department of Education and is also a board member of KCSS.   Enjoy!

“Seized!” or “Reunited!”—Multiple Perspectives: An essential concept in Social Studies    by Timothy S. Fry, PhD 

One Sunday morning, after filling my mandatory morning cup of coffee, I sat down at the dining room table at my parents’ house to read the Sunday paper.  I was visiting my parents in my hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas.  It had been a while since I had been home and was looking forward to reading my old hometown paper, the Hutchinson News.  However on Sundays, my folks also subscribed to the larger Wichita Eagle.  Both papers had been opened and I just happened to sit closest to the Wichita paper, so I grabbed it first.  The headline was huge, one word filled an entire line across the paper—“Seized!”  Below the headline was a large picture, which filled most of the rest of the top half of the paper.  It was a picture of a uniformed military man wearing a gas mask and he was carrying both a rifle and a small young boy.  The dateline was from Miami, Florida and most of the bottom half of the front page was text of the story except for a small picture at the bottom of the page of a smiling boy and a smiling young man.  I recognized the boy right away as the entire nation had been focused for weeks in the spring of the year 2000 on the story of young Elian Gonzales. 

Elian had only been in the United States for a short time and had recently lost his mother to drowning when their boat from Cuba broke apart as it washed up on a Florida beach.  Surviving, Elian had been sent to live with some of his relatives that were living in Miami. Meanwhile, Elian’s father who had remained in Cuba, asked the United States government for custody rights and for Elian to be allowed to return home to him in Cuba.  Being familiar with the story, I read only a little text in the Wichita paper then and looked across the table for the Hutchinson News. The contrasting perspectives struck me almost instantly as I saw an equally large headline that read, “Reunited!”  Below the headline was a large picture of a smiling Elian and his smiling father.  As in the other paper, the rest of the front page was devoted to text of the story except for a small picture at the bottom, but this time, the small picture was of the masked military man carrying both weapon and small boy. 

Elian’s story had raised much controversy.  On one side, were many people who had fled Cuba themselves and were of the opinion that it was wrong to send Elian back to a “communist” country ruled by the dictator Fidel Castro.  After all, his mother had given her life to try and get Elian out of Cuba and into the United States.  To those on this side, it was wrong for the US Justice Department, led by Attorney General Janet Reno, to “seize” Elian and send him back to his father.  On the other side, were many who felt that Elian’s father was without doubt his closest living relative and had obvious parental rights as well.  To many people, it was only right to “reunite” Elian with his father. 

Elian’s story is an example of a concept that is an overarching principle basic to understanding the discipline of the social studies and history —the concept of Multiple Perspectives.  This concept says that it is possible to view any idea, event, or era in more than one way.  Stories from history and important civic issues involving humans can almost always be viewed from more than one perspective, and often involves conflicting perspectives.  It is an essential lesson for students to learn that all history can be interpreted through different eyes and from different times and places.  Important civic issues are rarely black and white with easy solutions and almost always require compromise to reach resolution for the common good.

Another lesson from history that powerfully illustrates multiple perspectives was noted in an article entitled “Letter from a Young Boy Following the Panay Incident” (Plante, 2008).  Teaching students about war can be a touchy subject, especially if the fighting involves our own country.  Many assumptions, stereotypes and skewed perceptions tend to develop in years following wartime if the hostility is not viewed from multiple perspectives.  In the years leading up to WW II, the two countries of Japan and the United States were entrenched in hostilities that stretched across the Pacific Ocean.  In 1937, the Japanese military bombed the USS Panay.  After getting word the Japanese military had sunk the USS Panay and killed three while injuring 48, many Japanese civilians began to feel sympathetic for the American sailors.  They began sending what little money they had to the American Embassy in Tokyo, in an effort to help the grieving families and show their distaste for the war.  A letter written by a Japanese schoolboy, that was intended to go to the U. S. sailors, contained all of the boy’s money (2 yen) and a sincere apology to the families of the fallen sailors.  Donations like this began piling up and the Japanese government did not know what to do with the money (about 37,000 yen).  The government felt it would not be right to send aide money to the country they were at war with, but also did not want to offend their own countrymen.  The dilemma was settled with many Japanese civilians not getting what they wanted but many were also surprised with actions taken by their Japanese government.  The money was put together into a trust and used to care for the graves of American soldiers and sailors buried in Japan.  This story of the Panay incident could be a great tool for teaching multiple perspectives and shows that even though two nations may be at war with one another, it does not mean that everyone from the opposing nations feels ill will towards the other, or has lack of respect for the citizens of the other nation.  If students realize the many different perspectives there are in the world, they can begin to understand the importance of accepting and affirming difference.  Social studies teachers are in a real position to promote tolerance and more understanding among the world’s peoples. 

Multiple perspectives should also help young people to become informed media consumers.  Students need to be taught to carefully consider and not necessarily believe everything they hear and see in the media.  A wide spectrum of perspectives exists and is often evident when one compares “news” coverage of a story on the Fox News Network or how the same story is covered on National Public Radio.  A museum dedicated to the study of news called the “Newseum” has wonderful ideas for teaching about the news on its website.  One of my favorite features on the Newseum website is the ability to see the front page of newspapers across America and the world on a daily basis:

News stories on topics could be examined by looking at headlines from different newspapers in different parts of the country—is it noted as “Obamacare” or the Affordable Care Act.  The ability to discern different perspectives and even forms of propaganda in the news should enable students to see beyond the 30-second sound bite during our election cycles–ultimately strengthening our democracy.  Working to empower students and to bring about a positive change in society is, for me, one the goals we should be striving towards in the social studies.

Dr. Randy Anderson, one my favorite professors at Emporia State University in the 1970s, was a master in the use of multiple perspectives.  Dr. Anderson used to always begin his classes every semester by saying, “We are not going to have a textbook because if you read one, you might believe it.”  He would also say many times throughout the semester in every class I took from him, “Don’t believe anything I tell you, just think about it.”  So you don’t have to believe anything I wrote in this article but please think about it and continue to work with your students on the important concept of multiple perspectives!


Reference cited:

 Plante, Trevor K. (2008).  Letter from a Young Boy Following the Panay Incident. 

       Social Education, Vol. 72, pp. 62-68.

About bradburenheide

I'm an Associate Professor at Kansas State University's College of Education. Currently I am the program coordinator for secondary social studies education. My research interests include instructional gaming, history education, and creative pedagogy.

2 thoughts on “Multiple Perspectives: An essential concept in Social Studies

  1. Nice article. Thanks for the link to the Newseum website. I teach information literacy and I think that this idea of multiple perspectives is one that is very important to skilled and novice information seekers.

  2. Went to school with Professor Fry, in Hutchinson, Kansas. Very thoughtful, insightful article. I’m sure his students enjoy his teachings.

Leave a Reply