The Questions of Our Past

An inquiry-driven approach to teaching U.S. history.

June 28, 2022

Although the discipline of history lacks laws like those found in science—that predict a range of natural phenomena—history does indeed, I’d submit, have laws that are universally applicable. Here are eight:

Law 1: It happened earlier.

Events tend to have precursors, precedents and parallels. Almost always, the roots of a development began earlier in time. For example, many of the social phenomena linked to the pandemic actually predate COVID-19’s first cases.

Law 2: All heroes have feet of clay.

Look closely enough and even our most admired saints and heroes are flawed, containing a complex mixture. After all, they’re human, and as Kant put it, humanity is made out of crooked timber that can’t be made straight.

Law 3: Victories invariably result in new problems.

History doesn’t allow for closure. Ending one conflict only lays bare or instigates new challenges. The textbook example is the end of the Cold War, which unleashed a new set of conflicts.

A corollary: historical events have consequences that almost never can be anticipated.

Law 4: Reputations rise and fall.

As time passes, new perspectives on the past emerge. Columbus, celebrated as an intrepid explorer and the bearer of Christian civilization to a new world in 1492, would become widely viewed as a perpetrator of genocide, the founder of the Atlantic slave trade and despoiler of the natural environment in 1992. Our view of a particular individual varies depending on our own social position and historical era.

Law 5: Progress comes at a price.

Perhaps history bends toward justice, but generally human progress, whether technological, social or even moral, involves trade-offs. Following the abolition of New World slavery, antislavery frequently became an excuse for European imperialism in Africa and Asia.

Law 6: All historical events are overdetermined—yet no historical event is inevitable until it occurs.

Individuals (think Mikhail Gorbachev) can alter the course of history. So, too, can contingency and chance. Similarly, impersonal realities like geography, climate and disease play important roles in history. And yet, historical predictions rarely prove accurate. Historians are like the stock market, which, according to Paul Samuelson, predicted nine of the last five recessions.

Law 7: Good at times come from bad and bad at times comes from good.

Historical change is laced with ambiguities and unintended, unanticipated consequences. The Progressive era is often described as an age of reform that democratized American politics and regulated the excesses of the corporate economy. But that very era also saw the spread of eugenics, xenophobia and racial segregation.

Law 8: History is at once tragic and hopeful.

“History,” wrote Jacques Lezra, a noted professor of Spanish and comparative literature, “reveals itself as tragedy.” “Every history is stained with crimes, as everyday life is darkened by errors and mistakes.”

The triumphalist and celebratory narratives of the past have, quite rightly, been revised to account for the costs of historical change and to pay greater attention to the losers, the victims and those who suffered. History is indeed often tragic.

Yet history also offers hope. History recovers the memory of those who contributed, in George Eliot’s words, “to the growing good of the world … That things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

If there is a single lesson that all history teachers should convey, it is one that, I fear, most K-12 students and even most college undergraduates never become privy to: that history is not simply an account of past; it consists of questions.

Some questions are unlikely to ever be answered. Historians, for example, do not know for sure where Columbus was born, where he landed on Oct. 12, 1492, what he looked like or where he’s buried. The sad fact is that there is much we don’t know about the past.

Other questions consist of perplexing mysteries that however intriguing aren’t profoundly significant. Examples include what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke, whether Pocahontas actually rescued Captain John Smith from execution and why we can’t solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s or Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearances.

Basic questions of fact continue to spur debate. What, for example, was the Amerindian population before 1492? Or was inequality actually worsening at the time that Alexis de Tocqueville described “equality of condition” as a defining characteristic of antebellum America?

As I’ve taken part in the effort to revise Texas’s K-12 social studies standards, I’ve thought quite a bit about the questions posed by the United States’ past. The state standards are not supposed to prescribe a particular curriculum or approach to pedagogy. The TEKS, as these are known, are supposed to spell out essential knowledge and skills, or what you and I would call learning objectives.

If I were to have my way—and I can assure you, I won’t—I’d frame these as questions that students should investigate. Here’s my list, long but not endless, covering what I think are the essential topics in U.S. history.

The First Americans

  • How have popular myths and misconceptions distorted the history of the Indigenous peoples of the United States?
  • How did the ancestors of today’s Native Americans adapt to extraordinarily diverse geographical environments and climates?
  • How diverse were the New World’s first people pre-contact in terms of religion, languages, economic practices and social and political organization?
  • Describe major contributions that the earliest inhabitants of the Americas, including the crops that they discovered, domesticated and cultivated and their contributions to art, architecture, ecology and medicine.
  • Describe key themes in Native American history, including cultural persistence, resistance, resilience and adaptation in the face of extraordinary challenges and dislocations and the 20th- and 21st-century struggles to assert sovereignty, tribal self-government and Indian rights, recover lands illegally seized by white settlers, assume greater control over schools and economic affairs, and reaffirm rights secured under treaty agreements.

Columbus and the Columbian Exchange

  • How should we assess Christopher Columbus’s legacy, as an intrepid explorer, a ruthless conqueror, or in some other ways?
  • Describe the context in which Columbus’s voyages took place, including the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, from feudalism to capitalism, from small regional kingdoms to absolute monarchies, and from a worldview dominated by religion to a more secular worldview.
  • What was the impact of Columbus’s voyages upon the New World and the Old World?


  • Why did Europeans colonize the territories north of Mexico?
  • Why weren’t the New World Indians able to successfully resist European colonial expansion?
  • Were the motives of the European colonizers largely economic or noneconomic?
  • In what ways did the American colonies differ from one another?
  • Were these differences largely a product of geography and climate or of differences in values?
  • In what respects did the American colonies leave a lasting imprint on American values?

Slavery in Colonial America

  • Why did every American colony legalize slavery and exploit slave labor?
  • How did slavery in colonial America differ from its 19th-century counterpart?
  • Why wasn’t there any organized opposition to slavery before the 1760s?
  • In what sense did slavery provide the underpinnings for American ideals of liberty and equality?

The American Revolution

  • Were the patriots right in resisting British policies following the Seven Years’ War?
  • Why weren’t conflicts between the patriots and British peacefully resolved?
  • What motivated the American patriots to wage revolution against British rule?
  • Why did Black Americans fight on both sides of the Revolution?
  • Why did the patriots prevail?
  • Was the American Revolution a real revolution?

The Constitution and the Constitutional Convention

  • What factors led the framers to reject the Articles of Confederation and draft a new U.S. Constitution?
  • Were the concessions made at the Constitutional Convention to the Southern states necessary?
  • Why did the United States subsequently add 10 amendments to the Constitution?
  • Which rights do the Constitution and Bill of Rights guarantee—and what positive rights do those documents omit?
  • Why have hardly any other countries adopted constitutions similar to the United States’, instead adopting a parliamentary system?

New Nation

  • Why, after winning its independence, did the United States succeed in establishing a stable two-party political system, an independent judiciary and a growing economy, unlike most other newly independent nations?

War of 1812

  • Why did the U.S. decide to wage a second war against Britain: To avenge national honor, defend its rights as a sovereign nation or expand the nation’s borders and expand slavery?
  • What were the conflict’s consequences?

Indian Removal

  • President Andrew Jackson’s Indian policies are morally indefensible; why were they adopted anyway?


  • How did slavery in the American South differ from slavery elsewhere in the Americas?
  • How did enslaved Blacks resist slavery?
  • Was slavery a major contributor to American economic growth or did it impede South’s economic development?

Westward Expansion

  • What factors led the United States expand westward?
  • Was the nation’s westward expansion mainly the result of government policy or of decisions made by pioneers?

Texas Revolution

  • To what extent was the Texas Revolution motivated by slavery, constitutional issues or cultural divisions between Anglo-Americans and Tejanos?

Mexican War

  • Was the U.S. war with Mexico an unscrupulous land grab?

John Brown

  • Was Brown a terrorist or a freedom fighter?
  • Was his raid a misguided plan or was it ultimately successful in achieving his goals?

Civil War

  • Was the Civil War a war to abolish slavery or a war to preserve the union?
  • Why did the union prevail?
  • How and why did the Civil War contribute to the emergence of a new industrial and corporate order after the war?


  • Why, despite ratification of three Constitutional amendments and enactment of civil rights laws, did Reconstruction fail to radically improve the status of Black Americans?

Gilded Age

  • Is the Gilded Age best understood as an era of political corruption, economic exploitation, racism and brutal attacks on American Natives, or as an era of rapid modernization?

U.S. Becomes a World Power

  • Why did the U.S. begin to assert its power overseas during the 1890s?
  • To what extent was American foreign policy around the turn of the 20th century motivated by economic self-interest, realpolitik or humanitarianism and idealism?


  • In terms of immigration, is the United States best understood as a melting pot, a salad bowl, xenophobic or in some other way?

Progressive Era

  • On balance, did reformers of the Progressive era improve American society—for example, by establishing minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws, workmen’s compensation, antitrust regulation, and other hallmarks of the regulatory welfare state and enhancing democracy by extending the right to vote to women and giving voters the right to elect U.S. senators—or did they make U.S. society more unequal through their support for or acquiescence in eugenics, racial segregation, antimiscegenation laws, zoning and standardized testing?

World War I

  • Why did Europe go to war in 1914 after almost a century of relative peace on the continent?
  • Why did the United States enter the First World War?
  • Why was World War I significant?


  • Should we regard the effort to outlaw the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages as a well-intentioned, if failed, cause or an example of governmental overreach and a restriction on personal freedom?
  • Are restrictions on smoking or illicit drugs similar to or different from Prohibition?


  • Why did women win the vote in 1920?
  • What immediate impact did women’s suffrage have on American politics?
  • What changes took place in women’s lives during the 1920s?


  • Why did the U.S. restrict immigration during the 1920s?
  • What was the impact of immigration restriction on the U.S. economy during the late 1920s?

Scopes Trial

  • Should states have the right to determine what is taught in public schools?

Great Depression

  • Why did a decade-long economic depression begin in 1929?
  • Why did the Depression last longer, with greater unemployment, in the United States than elsewhere?
  • How and why did the U.S. response to the Depression differ from that of other countries?

New Deal

  • If the New Deal failed to end Depression-era joblessness, why did it achieve widespread popularity?
  • To what extent could it be said that the New Deal saved American capitalism, or that it undermined the constitutional separation of powers and checks and balances?
  • Did women and nonwhites benefit from the New Deal and, if so, how?
  • Why did the overwhelming majority of Black Americans abandon the Republican Party and become Democrats during the 1930s?
  • Which New Deal policies fundamentally reshaped the United States and which did not?

World War II

  • Could the Second World War have been averted?
  • Did U.S. foreign policy during the 1930s contribute to the outbreak of World War II?
  • Was war between the U.S. and Japan inevitable?
  • Would the United States have entered World War II had the Pearl Harbor attack not taken place?
  • Why did it take the allies five years to defeat the Axis powers?
  • How did the war alter the lives of women, Blacks, Hispanic Americans and Japanese Americans?


  • Why didn’t the Western powers publicize the Nazi genocide during the war and do more to stop the Holocaust?

Atomic Bomb

  • Why did the United States keep the Manhattan Project secret, including from its Soviet allies?
  • Was the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a barbaric act, motivated in part by the U.S. desire to impress the Soviet Union with American power, or was it the best way to end the Pacific war quickly, therefore saving lives?

Cold War

  • Could the Cold War conflict between the U.S. and Soviet Union have been averted?
  • Were U.S. Cold War policies an overreaction to exaggerated fears of Communist expansion?
  • Why did the U.S. ultimately prevail in the Cold War?
  • Did the Cold War’s end make the world a safer or less safe place?


  • What factors contributed to the rise of domestic anti-Communism following World War II?
  • To what extent is McCarthyism best understood as an assault not only on radicalism but liberalism?


  • Is this decade best understood as a decade of conservatism, conformism and Cold War paranoia, or as a decade of far-reaching if underrecognized social and cultural change?

Brown v. Board of Education

  • Did this Supreme Court decision actually improve educational opportunities for Black Americans?

Civil Rights Movement

  • To what extent did the civil rights movement succeed in achieving racial equality?
  • Which civil rights tactics were most effective: lawsuits, civil disobedience and nonviolent direct protest, or militance?
  • To what extent did the civil rights movement succeed in achieving a more equal society?

The 1960s

  • Why did the 1960s witness far-reaching changes in law, behavior, dress and appearance?
  • How can you explain the growing assertiveness for equal rights during the 1960s among diverse groups, including women, Blacks, environmentalists, gays and lesbians, Latino/as, Native Americans, youth, and other groups?
  • To what extent did each of these groups advance their goals?

Supreme Court and Constitutional Rights

  • Is it appropriate for the judicial system to define on its own the rights and civil liberties that Americans possess?

Great Society

  • Over the course of three years (1964–-1966), liberals substantially expanded the federal government’s role in lasting ways. What accounts for those legislative successes?
  • What accounts for the post–Great Society conservative backlash?

Vietnam War

  • Did the United States have any business intervening in Vietnam?
  • Why couldn’t the U.S. win despite its vast superiority in military technology and air power?

Watergate Affair

  • Was the bugging of the Democratic headquarters a genuine threat to American democracy or an overblown political scandal?

Post–Cold War Foreign Policy

  • Should human rights and morality or national self-interest and national security be the cornerstone of American foreign policy?
  • Should the U.S. be the world’s policeman?
  • To what extent are economic sanctions an effective instrument of foreign policy?
  • Are secrecy or covert operations or a president’s unilateral power to wage war without express congressional approval acceptable in a democracy?

The past consists of questions. Some of these questions are factual, some evidentiary, some involve contrasting viewpoints, perspectives and judgments, while others address implications and consequences.

To teach history as a series of questions is to transform history into inquiry and to make students into detectives, investigators and solvers of mysteries. This inquiry approach encourages students to do history: to question popular myths, weigh and interpret evidence, think critically, and articulate their findings clearly and compellingly.

Equally important, an inquiry-based, problem-solving approach reveals that the only way to recover the past is to reconstruct it out of its surviving shards. As Scully puts it in The X-Files, “The truth is out there.” It must be retrieved, reclaimed and recreated. And, I can assure you, just like in The X-Files, the truth is “stranger than you can possibly imagine.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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