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.