The point of teaching history in schools – despite insistence from students that there is none – is often cited to be something along the lines of “the past informing the present” or, somewhat more poetically, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. But what happens when students don’t get the chance to learn from history, because they are being sheltered from the true horrors of the American past?
Historian Ed Ayers, on the history podcast BackStory, cited his mother, when he told her he’d decided to go to graduate school for history, as saying “What for, honey? We already know what happened”. To historians, this is somewhat laughable of course, as they’re discovering new things about the past every day. But there are also things that we do know which are still not being passed on to the next generation.
Historical revisionism tends to follow a certain pattern. It tends to happen in majority conservative states – Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina – and it tends to erase the US’s history of systematically oppressing minorities. Most notably, crimes against Native Americans and African-Americans have been erased or had its impact severely reduced in history books, but the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and contemporary suspicion towards Japanese-Americans have also seen similar treatment.
This is obviously not an isolated problem in American schools. Latin American history is, for instance, often presented with a curious lack of mention of the significant role the CIA and other US government policies have played in the political development in many of those countries. What’s different about these specific cases here, though, is that there have been recent developments away from full disclosure. History books are actually moving backwards in terms of accuracy in many places.
When new Advanced Placement US History (college level course offered in some high schools) guidelines were released after a revision in 2014, protests erupted over the new curriculum. The course was accused of “not being patriotic enough”. Conservatives wanted a greater focus on American exceptionalism and felt that the course was too negative in its depiction of American history. In particular, they took issue with the description of the 19th century term “Manifest Destiny” as “based on a belief in white racial superiority”.
These protests appeared to work. Due to the backlash, College Board – responsible for the AP curriculum – released new guidelines in 2015. These were altered after accepting feedback from the public. College Board themselves stated that the new guidelines had a renewed focus on, among other things, American contributions in World War II and the Cold War, as well as the “productive role of free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and innovation in shaping U.S. history”.
Examples of downplaying the horrific human rights history of the US can be found in regular history books as well. In examining academic standards for elementary and secondary schools, Professor of Education Sarah Shear found them lacking. Washington was the only state that used the word genocide in reference to the settlers’ treatment of Native Americans. Similarly, only four states even mentioned Indian boarding schools, where Native children were forcibly removed from their families in order to be integrated into a “Euro-American way of life”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, similar themes emerge when examining history books’ treatment of African American history. The Texas school board has been especially proficient at drawing this kind of criticism. The revised 2015 social studies curriculum for the state was widely accused of whitewashing the brutality of slavery. The textbooks that came out of this curriculum have been criticized for downplaying the horrors of both slavery, Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. One notable instance saw a high school geography book referring to the Atlantic slave trade as bringing “workers” to the Americas, rather than slaves.
Overall, these trends form a picture of an America that has yet to fully grapple with its very foundations. There is even disagreement over basic facts. In a 2011 poll, 48% of the respondents claimed that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, while 38% were of the opinion that the main impetus for the war lay with a conflict over slavery (which is, most historians agree, the more accurate view).
This lack of a shared sense of American history becomes especially evident in attitudes towards the consequences of slavery. In a poll from 2015, 52% of African Americans favored reparations for slavery to the black community, while that number among whites was only 8%. A similar discrepancy between blacks and whites exists on opinions on race relations. Public opinion among Native Americans, however, is harder to measure, due to the group’s diversity and small size. What can be said is that there is widespread misinformation among the non-Native public about issues in the Native community, poverty chief among them.
The solution to American racial division probably does not lie within the purview of any one school board or even the authors of an AP curriculum. But perhaps it is worth a shot to take a look at that old cliché again, and read it as a warning this time around – “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.