People Need to Know

Confronting History in the Heartland

by Robert M. Lucas (Author)
©2016 Textbook VIII, 179 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 484


People Need to Know follows a group of students as they study the defining event in their community’s history – a 1930 lynching that was captured in one of the century’s most iconic and disturbing photographs. With ambitions of contributing to public understanding, the students set out to create a collection of online resources about the lynching. As they encounter troubling information and consider how best to present it to others, the students come to better understand the complex ethical ramifications of historical work and to more fully appreciate why their learning matters. Through the stories of these students, their teacher, and an author re-immersed in the town of his own childhood, the book develops an approach to curriculum in which students create products of value beyond the school walls. In a time of educational standardization, when assignments and assessments often fail to deliberately engage the ethically charged and locally particular contexts of students’ lives, Robert M. Lucas proposes that we see learning in their creation and appreciation of public value. The book will be of particular interest for courses in curriculum studies and in history and social studies education.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. “Life Is an Experiment”
  • Chapter 2. Learning-as-a-Service
  • Chapter 3. History in the Act
  • Chapter 4. “People Need to Know”
  • Chapter 5. Realizing the Public Values of Learning
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix: Research Design
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index
  • Series Index


My debts to Bill Munn are woven throughout the pages of this book, as, I hope, is my gratitude. As my teacher in the 1990s, Bill treated students with a level of intellectual respect that I had never before experienced, confronting us with complex issues, asking us to grapple with readings from real historians, and sparking in me a sense of intellectual excitement that continues to this day. By turning his abundant curiosity and initiative to focus on local issues, he modeled an admirably critical and yet constructive brand of civic engagement. Many times during the course of the research, I have reflected on the strength of my own complicated attachment to Marion, which owes a great deal to Bill’s teaching in high school and beyond. Without his work over the decades and his extensive cooperation in 2011, this book would have been inconceivable. Thanks are also due to many others in Marion. These include, of course, Munn’s students, whose conscientious work I continue to admire, and the members of the public who generously agreed to be interviewed. At the Marion Public Library, Rhonda Stoffer, Betty Reynolds, Joan Thomas, and Steve Collins supported our work, patiently answering questions and providing access to much-needed resources. Thanks also to John Beineke and Cynthia Carr for consultation in the very early stages of the research and to those other staff members at the Marion Public Library and Marion Community Schools who have supported the Community History Project over the years.

← vii | viii →At Stanford, I am deeply grateful to John Willinsky, my doctoral adviser and dissertation chair, who provided guidance at every stage of this research. Through the ups and downs of a long and complex project, John has been unfailingly supportive, generous with his time, and flexible in helping me craft an argument that is true to my interests and values. Thanks also to my committee members Sam Wineburg, Shelley Goldman, and Ray McDermott for their support and feedback throughout the research process. Besides teaching me a great deal about history education, it was Sam who initially encouraged me to expand a term paper on the lynching and its memory into a larger research effort. Shelley provided wise counsel on issues of educational technology and qualitative research. Ray stoked my interest in pragmatism and shared a few well-placed, trenchant insights that caused me to rethink important issues. My university chair, Paula Findlen, also made helpful comments on the finished dissertation. Of course, any shortcomings in the work are mine alone.

This research was supported by Stanford’s Dissertation Support Grant, which I thank for covering the costs of materials, travel, and other expenses associated with the research. A New Faculty Start-Up Grant from East Carolina University has supported follow-up research as well as some costs associated with the transition from dissertation to book. The Community History Project received early support from the Kellogg Foundation, without which none of the work described here would have been possible. Thanks to Shirley Steinberg, Chris Myers, and Bernadette Shade at Peter Lang for seeing this book through to publication.

I have been blessed by a wonderful group of friends and colleagues who have always been ready to provide support and advice. While conducting this research, the line between the personal and intellectual has always been highly permeable, and many of the same people have both commented on proposals and drafts and provided personal support and advice. Among many others, I would particularly like to thank Melissa Towne, Ethan Hutt, Julie Cohen, Matt Kloser, Tenelle Porter, Lara Buchak, Rachel Baker, Kenji Hakuta, and members of the Stanford History Education Group. Finally, thanks to my family—to my sisters, Sarah and Joanna, and to my parents, Robert and Patricia, who worked hard to instill and demonstrate the values reflected in this work: the love of learning, the importance of history, and the call of service. Their examples have surely shaped me in the most enduring ways possible.

← viii | 1 →INTRODUCTION

What ever happened to the passion we all had to improve ourselves, live up to our potential, leave a mark on the world? Our hottest arguments were always about how we could contribute.


Late one morning in May 2011, I walked through the doorway of a newly opened, locally owned coffeehouse in Marion, Indiana, my hometown. The owner and I had never met—I left Marion for college in 1999 and lived in California—but she immediately recognized me as my father’s son. At the counter, chatting with the owner and another middle-aged woman standing behind the register, I explained why I had returned that spring.

I was visiting from Stanford University, where I was studying education as a doctoral student, and I had come back to conduct research at Marion High School, my alma mater, in the classroom of my own former U.S. history teacher, Bill Munn. Since the mid-1990s, when I was a student, Mr. Munn and his classes had undertaken a series of experiments in local public history, conducting research on their—our—community’s past. The students’ projects, in addition to being graded and returned to them, were put to various uses: shown to younger students, archived at the local public library, sometimes even included in a printed book or published on the Internet. As Munn pithily remarked to me one day between periods in 2011, over the din of students moving from one class to the next, “people are so wedded to the disposable project.... This, to me, is bizarre.” He explained, “If a kid goes to all the trouble—I don’t want to see that end up in a wastebasket.... I mean, ← 1 | 2 →a kid might save it, but the utility of the project is completely gone. Who’s the audience?” This is, in fragment, the idea I had returned to investigate. I hoped to find out what would happen if, to borrow a word from the novelist and historian Wallace Stegner, we let students learn while doing work that contributes to the world outside the school—and while arguing about how best to do so. What are the implications of this kind of project for students’ motivation, for their understanding of history and the world they had inherited, and for the larger public at which their work was aimed?

I attempted to explain this to the two women, but at the mention of Mr. Munn’s name, I recorded in my notes, the cashier’s “face... brighten[ed] into a smile.” Her son had been Munn’s student and had completed a local history project, and she admired Munn’s work. He was, she said, “an activist for very good causes.” We spoke for a few more minutes—filling in the details for the owner, discussing her renovations to the shop—and then I took a seat to flesh out a set of field notes I had taken during a class earlier that morning.

I made a habit of returning to the shop between classes—there or the public library—to finish the morning’s work and to ready myself for a second class in the afternoon. This coffeehouse, called the Spencer House, was a house in the literal sense: a 1920s Craftsman, painted apple green. From my usual seat at the front window, I looked out on the intersection of Spencer Avenue and the four-lane road known to area residents simply as “the bypass.” Today, the bypass—officially, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Way—is the city’s main thoroughfare, a faceless strip of fast-food restaurants and neon signs, anchored at one end by a 1970s-era shopping mall, well past its prime, and at the other by a flourishing Walmart. Spencer Avenue, by contrast, is the location of some of Marion’s most prestigious historic homes, and it leads off to the east, toward the stately Grant County Courthouse and its surrounding public square. Under different circumstances, Marion’s square might be lively or even quaint, but here, today, as in many midwestern downtowns, most of the storefronts are empty, and businesses have long since migrated to the road once built to divert traffic around it. Unlike most other town squares, Marion’s downtown also holds a more somber significance, the product of a gruesome episode of racial violence, decades old. This stain on the city’s public life, and the efforts of a group of students to make sense of and address it, are at the center of this book, as I will shortly explain.


VIII, 179
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
social studies education ethical ramifications curriculum studies
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VIII, 179 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Robert M. Lucas (Author)

Robert M. Lucas is Assistant Professor in the Department of Elementary and Middle Grades Education at East Carolina University. He holds a PhD in education from Stanford University as well as a B.A. and an M.A. from Harvard University.


Title: People Need to Know
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190 pages