Public education system must uphold comprehensive American history curriculum

Sharon Pan/Staff

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When was it that we began to realize that Christopher Columbus was not a hero to everyone? Recently, my professor told us that her son, who goes to a public elementary school in Berkeley, learned in history class that Christopher Columbus actually hadn’t “discovered” America and that he had introduced many foreign diseases to the Native Americans.

As I exited class that day, I was shocked. When I was 10 years old, Thanksgiving was painted in my head as the drawing I saw in my textbook: Native Americans and pilgrims enjoying a feast around a long table, toasting to the bountiful harvest they had created together.

Contrary to my professor’s son, I didn’t even discover the negative aspects of Columbus’ conquests until starting college. His American history education and my American history education are vastly different, and so it will be for children throughout the United States. A child from South Carolina may very well have a different understanding of historical events than a child from California.

What is the American history being taught in the public education system? When I was in high school in California, I took U.S. History in an online summer course. It sure didn’t seem like American history was an important course because everyone else was doing the same, too. Is American history even a relevant course today?

Short answer: Yes. American history is about our identity, how this country came to be, and who we continue to be. American history has everything to do with what’s happening today. History is not stagnant. If we teach students about the history of minority communities in America, the struggles that minorities have faced and continue to face today, we can teach empathy. We can encourage students to begin to dismantle our current divided political environment of identity politics.

My American history education was memorizing the pages in a textbook, which covered the history of indigenous people in a paragraph and the Civil War and its sacrifices in a couple of pages. But it is so much more than that. In an attempt to equip students for “college readiness,” the public school system has abandoned its efforts to teach students that behind those sentences on their history textbooks are narratives and struggles of our ancestors.

Recall the bill former state representative Dan Fisher introduced in 2015 objecting to the revised Advanced Placement U.S. history guidelines, claiming that the coursework emphasized “What is bad about America” and omitted the concept of “American exceptionalism.” Although Fisher backtracked on his proposal, this incident highlights the way in which history is used as a political tool. Some politicians find it necessary to omit certain occurrences, such as the government-supported genocide of Native Americans, to present American history in a favorable light. But such pick-and-choose creations of the curriculum have long-lasting implications on how our children grow up.

According to a 2014 NAEP report on achievement levels in U.S. History, only 18 percent of eighth graders performed at or above the “proficient” level. And according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Survey, in the 2011-12 school year, only 26 percent of history teachers with a principal assignment in the subject had teaching credentials and a postsecondary degree in the subject, while 34 percent lacked both credentials.

What are being taught in history classes are historical narratives that have been warped to avoid controversy and to stay safe. When children only learn about one perspective of history by unqualified teachers, they become reliant on their developed heuristics to make judgments about those who are “not us.”

When these children become adults without an understanding of why learning history is important, we begin to implement policies that could hurt communities who have been continually oppressed. There will be many who do not understand why policies like the War on Drugs allows for institutionalized racism to persevere. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” With our current American history curriculum, we breed ground for such forms of racism to continue planting its roots in our society.

So, then, how do we dig up these roots?

One example would be the implementation of Act 31 in Wisconsin. This act requires all public school districts in Wisconsin to teach about the history and culture of Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized American Indian nations and tribal communities.

In 2016, the California Department of Education rewrote its History-Social Science Framework to include struggles of LGBTQ+ Americans, increased detail of Latinx history, more focus on California Indians, and more.

Slowly but surely, we are taking steps to revise our curriculum, to reflect the voices of diverse communities, and to ensure that American history is not just a tool for advancing nationalist ideologies. History is not just a series of events. It is a reflection of the voices of the past, the impacts on the present, and the implications for the future.

As we approach Thanksgiving, we reflect on the initial question: Is American history relevant today? When we sit around the dinner table for Thanksgiving dinner with our families, ask the children about their experiences in their U.S. history classes. As we advocate for changes and progress in the American history curriculum, pose this question to them. The responses, hopefully, will be an affirmative.

Christine Yoshida is a UC Berkeley student.

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  • lc337

    I don’t doubt your theory that history taught in public schools and colleges is sorely lacking in accuracy and objectivity, and there should be much more open discussion demanding changes. But changes to what? You reference statistics from NAEP and NCES, both functionaries of the Department of Education, a political tool used by every administration to attempt to indoctrinate students into the political ideology ‘de jour’. And its good to reference scholars who have defensible scholarly research to support your position, but Ta-Nehisi Coates ain’t one of them. But I applaud your efforts to bring the shameful attack on public education by all presidential administrations, and in California even the state administration, to your reader’s attention. If the Trump crowd has their way, their won’t be any ‘public administration’ to be concerned about. So continue to write and advocate for education. There aren’t enough people doing anything to stop the destruction.

  • Jorge Carolinos

    I find it puzzling that the extremes think that with the proper education everyone would agree with them. If we all had the proper progressive education we would all have the correct views, also we would all be unemployable studies grads.

    Also it’s interesting that all this correct education falls onto the state to dispense, having the state correctly educate people has worked well in the past.

  • Oakley

    You lost me at “Ta-Nehisi Coates”

    Just kidding. You actually lost me way before that

  • Man with Axe

    It is certainly important that American history be taught to young people warts and all. But it’s not good enough just to teach the warts. This is a great country for a lot of reasons. If you don’t believe me, believe the millions who risk their lives to come here, legally or illegally.

  • lspanker

    In 2016, the California Department of Education rewrote its History-Social Science Framework to include struggles of LGBTQ+ Americans

    How do you think the same black American you view as the perpetual victims of “racism”, like the idea of so-called “LGBT Rights” being equated as morally and historically equivalent to the Civil Rights struggle for blacks?

  • cadcam

    I note she is overly concerned about the negative, and surely there is some, but she can’t find a single good thing about American history, oh like the various technologies that changed the world brought to the world by Americans, from electricity, aircraft, mass manufacturing, auto, digital technology and on and on; and how about America’s decisive role in defeating the bad guys in WW1 and WW2. The U.S. has played a major role in feeding the world. We went from a relatively low income ag economy to a broad based middle class economy, BUT, nooooooo, no mention of that, and so on and so on.

    • zzz

      I took a stab at reading Howard Zinn once, everything good that the USA did was really bad. We would all be better off living down by the river living in mud huts eating grub worms.

  • Rollie

    History is not stagnant.

    I think you’re well intentioned, but you’re perfectly wrong. History IS stagnant, and immutable. Set in stone. It has no right or wrong “sides”, nor alternate “truths”. It is objective, not subjective. It is dead on arrival.

    Only the influence of history is dynamic, and perhaps that’s what you meant. Here is where society and its educators must select the range and facets of history to be taught, and in practice we imperfect humans do so both to students’ benefit and to their detriment. The line is usually crossed when factually reliable information gives way to opinion-as-fact, and educators start indoctrinating rather than opening minds. In that light, are you certain which side of the line your “not us” hypothesis and your Coates quotes reside? Would you have them taught as fact to schoolchildren?

    • McBain

      To assume history is objective is to assume the people writing history were writing the truth, the history we learn is a national mythology, it is called history because it is the imposed history.

      What society is seeing now is a change in what that mythology means, was Hercules a hero or was he a flawed character who did much bad? History will never change, but the national mythology behind that history will.

      This girl is an unwitting, but intelligent young victim. She is excited and high on the “we can change everything for the better” train, not having become jaded and learned that those imposing the ideology aren’t imposing it out of the goodness of their hearts.

      • Rollie

        To assume history is objective is to assume the people writing history were writing the truth, the history we learn is a national mythology, it is called history because it is the imposed history.

        I think you miss my point, McBain, but perhaps we are merely at a semantic disconnect. The facts of the past—history itself–are immutable, and therefore objective. Only history’s interpretation by humans is subjective, as your excellent description of mythology illustrates. In other words, history itself has no sides, no flexibility, no shades of truth, and certainly no myth—it is dead. Hercules’ heroism (or lack thereof), and all other possible questions exist only in post-historical human minds, where of course lessons are either learned or missed.

        I agree that the author is indeed intelligent, and if a little taken by youthful zeal, then admirable for her optimism all the same.

  • Floridiano

    “When these children become adults without an understanding of why learning history is important, we begin to implement policies that could hurt communities who have been continually oppressed.”

    Exactly! Such as when you highlight this example which is the best little gem shown in this article:

    “…Columbus actually hadn’t “discovered” America and that he had introduced many foreign diseases to the Native Americans.”

    What kind of stupidity and ignorance is that? What do you think “America” was called back in the XV century, and what did you think it consisted of? See, you are an idiot when you let others with personal agendas twist history to their taste and then promote this that is what today’s children are learning in school:
    because of that interpretation of the history, today’s students reason that the Caribbean (which is still part of America if you ask anyone outside the United States) is not “America” (where Columbus landed), so no need to pay attention to it nor anyone that comes from there. This is the same way their parents think like today; like after two major hurricanes that hit the Caribbean and assistance is still needed, it’s where Columbus landed and that is not part of “America” according to our history teacher.

    And he brought many foreign diseases- oh yes, he brought a cornucopia of them, according to that history! Funny, though, that it does not even attempt to mention that the pilgrims themselves in their ships brought plenty of foreign diseases for all the Indians that lived in the actual United States as they colonized Plymoth and the rest of Massachusetts. But who cares, please pass the gravy and celebrate!

    This is what you are planting on the minds of those children today that you are so smug to promote with your article- that some of us are really bad, bad people based on our ancestry. And that is how your professor’s son has been educated so far. Awesome.

    As for Thanksgiving- what is it that am I supposed to reflect upon? That you act as morally pretentious in knocking down Columbus Day with a false narrative and yet you sit happily with your family to eat Turkey and ignore that the Thanksgiving holiday commemorates a worse worship of the people that actually committed that “genocide of the Indians” you complain so much about in these here United States?

    I obviously know history is important; and I already know mine and my family’s. But does anyone else out there understand that? Not how I’ve seem them behave like today, separating people and insulting others because of this skewed history. Best that is contemplated at your Thanksgiving dinner, because we’re not thankful for such for during any dinner we can even get.

  • DonHonda

    Apparently, “native americans” were not the first “indigenous” people here in North America. Evidence is mounting that they pushed out a previous population of European-centric origin:

    The Smithsonian Magazine:
    The Very First Americans May Have Had European Roots
    Some early Americans came not from Asia, it seems, but by way of Europe

    The Washington Post:
    Radical theory of first Americans places Stone Age Europeans in Delmarva 20,000 years ago

    The National Geographic:
    Controversy erupted after skeletal remains were found in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996. This skeleton, estimated to be 9,000 years old, had a long cranium and narrow face—features typical of people from Europe, the Near East or India—rather than the wide cheekbones and rounder skull of an American Indian.
    Ancient DNA reveals that the ancestors of modern-day Native Americans had European roots. The discovery sheds new light on European prehistory and also solves old mysteries concerning the colonisation of America.

    • Mark Talmont

      It’s informative to know that the response of the Clinton administration to the Kennewick discovery was to cover the site with hundreds of tons of rocks and dirt and then attempt to hand the bones over to a local tribe (this got complicated as 5 different tribes tried to claim the body). Some anthropologists sued and finally won the right to examine them. Final results claim conventional “native” origins

      however…look at this one from Siberia…it appears that there was Euro-Asian mixing before anyone even got to America (though “first Americans” still in dispute based on fire pits still being excavated in South America and I think Florida too–may go back to 34K BC)

      history is always evolving…my US history book in 5th grade didn’t include Viking crossings of the North Atlantic hundreds of years before Columbus even though the National Geographic had stories about the sites (oral legend is the Vikings packed up and left after violence broke out with the local tribes!). Even PBS has had documentaries exploring the case for Chinese Pacific crossings and there is recent excavation in Peru that may support this…of course then there is the strange mystery of Olmec originations, whose artifacts do certainly look African)

  • California Defender

    One of the most backwards articles I’ve read on the Daily Cal. But I can understand why Ms. Yoshida is confused as her background/family is likely non-American so this topic is understandably foreign to her.

    Despite all of its growing pains and flaws from its treatment of Indians to the use of slavery to attacking itself to its militaristic foreign entanglements, America remains exceptional.

    There is no place like it on Earth. And by your continued presence, Ms. Yoshida, I can only assume you think so too… even if you won’t admit it.