By Mimi Petric
Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
Yet America’s history classes have seen to it that students should forget the country’s messy past before they even get a chance to truly learn about it. With the rise in AAPI hate, a polarized state due to the Black Lives Matter Protests, and the rise in LGBTQ+ hate crimes, it’s become undeniable that America’s history has heavily contributed to its current problems - and all the while, history curriculums have continued to paint the country in a positive light. And we’ve done more than jus repeat history - real history is glossed over and romanticized to the point where groups are marginalized, events are oversimplified, and people are dehumanized, meaning that it’s time for history classes to be taught in a different approach.
Although inconspicuous, classroom resources are a major root to this problem. In 2015, the McGraw-Hill textbook company found itself at the forefront of rather embarrassing press after releasing a page from one of its world-geography textbooks, which featured a map with a patch of purple grids extending throughout the country’s Southeast corridor. It’s one-sentence caption read: “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The mistake of referring to African slaves as “workers” was quickly lambasted throughout social media. And although this blunder seems trivial, it’s the small nuance between words that leads to erasure - starting with events, such as, in this case, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, being painted in a more positive light.
And this issue goes beyond just events from centuries past - it permeates into our modern culture and representation. Take the recent violence against Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, for example. The spa shootings in the Atlanta area represent one of many events in a year in which anti-Asian violence has increased across the United States. But as various educators and historians tell TIME, anti-Asian racism is directly linked to history, and how members of the AAPI community are portrayed in historical lessons - often, as security threats and dangerous foreigners. And after former President Trump’s racist statements, Asian hate has further spiraled and developed an increasingly dire call to action. Jean Wu, Tufts University Asian American Studies lecturer, puts it best: “K-12 American history texts reinforce the narrative that Asian immigrants and refugees are fortunate to have been ‘helped’ and ‘saved’ by the U.S. The story does not begin with U.S. imperialist wars that were waged to take Asian wealth and resources and the resulting violence, rupture and displacement in relation to Asian lives.” By glossing over, or just entirely incorrectly depicting the reality of AAPI history, misinformation grows rampant, and daily language, even that of a president, becomes injected with bias.
And the effects of this teaching method are omnipresent. Reducing students’ exposure to an adequate and accurate social studies and historical curriculum leads to, as experts put it, a “civic achievement gap” of sorts. Closely related to the general achievement gap between affluent, mostly white students and low-income minority students, the civic achievement gap has made it increasingly difficult for those who grow up in low-income households to participate in civic affairs. According to Professor Meira Levinson of Harvard University, people living in families with incomes under $15,000 voted at just over half the rate of those living in families with incomes over $75,000. However, experts do collapse on the idea that a stronger curriculum in social and historical studies may help close this gap between families. As found by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, students who receive effective education in social studies are more likely to vote, four times more likely to volunteer and work on community issues, and are generally more confident in their ability to communicate ideas with their elected representatives.
It’s clear that the positives of adequate historical education clearly outweigh the negative: but how should educators begin approaching this issue? Although originally employed as an instructional tool, textbooks have now become the backbone of history and social studies classes throughout America. The use of primary and secondary sources and narratives, as opposed to rote memorization through singular mass-produced textbooks, is found to be a significantly more effective mechanism towards teaching students on analyzing and recognizing the ways in which inherent biases shape conventional instructional materials. Chicago-based writer Michael Conway argues in an essay in the Atlantic that history classes should focus on teaching children “historiography”—the methodologies employed by historians and the exploration of history itself. This method allows students to take on the role of an “apprentice historian,” not that of a student learning solely through overused worksheets and standardized texts.
We belong to history, it does not belong to us. That’s why it’s imperative that history be taught accurately, so that our youth has the capacity to create change based on valid knowledge. The only way to ignite change is to teach the truth in an unfiltered way, which we have the power to do by treating history as a language: one that should be spoken accurately, equitably, and objectively.