Reckoning with US History

February/March 2021

For some time now, our society has embraced the idea that educating the next generation is imperative. Despite impressive change in recent years, education is not always given its due, and frequently, the impacts it has on the decisions children will make later in life are not recognized. Our country has used the rewriting of history to continue to oppress and limit the power of minorities. Changing history not only dishonors those who endured our country’s wrath, but it misleads the children who are attempting to enter into society and find their footing as involved adults.

I have often agreed with the sentiment that teachers need to avoid speaking their minds in class, lest they offend or sway the minds of their students. It seems practical that these influential members of society should not press their opinions on their pliable students. Teachers have told me that they want to avoid this pitfall through work sticking to the curriculum and focusing on the facts. But what happens when the curriculum is created by the same people who want to manipulate the facts? The answer can be seen throughout the US.

A common textbook used to teach AP American History, The American Pageant, harkens back to antebellum
South, generating an idyllic image of what our country looked like at the time. Comments about the glorious Southern Elite, creating a civilized society, overshadow the truth of life for much of society. It presents history from the eyes of the conquerors, the same people who continue to run our country. Discussions about slavery center around enslavers and their ‘property’, failing to look at enslaved people as their own entities, living lives separate from their capturers. The history of Indigenous people and their claim to the land we live on today is circumnavigated and avoided at all costs.

In recent months, there has been an increased emphasis on the need to change the language that is used to discuss history. One of the major changes is moving away from “slaves” and instead to “enslaved people.” Often the way that slavery is discussed, diminishes millions of people to mere objects. A US History teacher at Sleepy, Ms. Golan, said, “It’s important to remember the historical context around which these terms developed. I do feel it’s important to recognize how these names evolved and it’s important to take into consideration the history behind the name.” Like many teachers, Ms. Golan is trying to create a safe environment in her classroom where her students can express themselves. A part of changing the narrative that is American History is changing the terms we use.

Changing the way we speak about history and the textbooks we use is a small step in the right direction. This is not the only textbook with bizarre comments or the only phrases used to teach history and they are by far not the worst. Our country is littered with these inaccurate portrayals of history and it suffers the consequences when the misguided youth become members of society. More than ever, we face the challenge of determining what is
fact and what is false; but for so much of our childhood, we have been taught one version of history that excludes vital information and portrays an inaccurate account of what happened. How are we to determine what is fact and what is fiction if everything we are taught is tainted by the brush of the oppressor?

When we step back and examine the painting of history created by a million small strokes meant to go unnoticed, we can see just how dire the situation is. Many who disagree with the way history is taught in school fail to realize the extent of its problems. Adults remember the skewed way it was taught when they were students and feel sympathy for us, but what they don’t seem to comprehend is that the story of history has not been improving.

The biggest challenge I myself have faced is determining my own internalized biases. Throughout years of being educated in the American public school system, I have picked up my own prejudices, ones I wish I didn’t
have. In the past few months, I have had to come to terms with the disappointing fact that my own initial reactions are tainted by the world I have been raised in. I have had to examine the way I speak about our country and its history, finding the places where the things I say reflect not the reality I want, but the situation I have grown up in. The most difficult part of changing the way we interact with history is acknowledging our own shortcomings. I would much rather believe that I am an idealized version of myself than face the knowledge that I have a ways to go. We all do.