Much has been made of recent efforts to ban AP History class and its standard curriculum in American public high schools. There’s an idea students only need to know history that instills pride in America. Unsavory aspects of American history should wait, some say, until the college level or beyond. Others say this sort of historical editing is as dangerous as it is dishonest.
Did you know in Germany, almost no emphasis is placed on teaching about the Holocaust until after what we would call 10th grade? Until the late 1990’s, German students were given only the most perfunctory information about concentration camps, Hitler, and their nation’s then-popular plan to commit genocide. Seems a glaring omission, no? Many Americans are probably thinking we would never whitewash history class with this sort of editing. Others would argue we do—a lot.
In the United States, history lessons in public schools often leave out some of America’s key failures, like Japanese internment camps, Jim Crow, or the 3/5 compromise (that literally declared slaves were worth 3/5 of a white person for the purposes of determining congressional representation—even though slaves had no right to vote). For the last 70 years or so, American history focused on events and people that inspired pride in our nation. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with discussing all the things America did right. But focusing on the good in history class while omitting the negatives paints a false picture of who we are as a people, and as a nation.
We were taught colonists came to this land to escape what was seen as an oppressive monarchy and for the express purpose of religious freedom. That’s great. But manifest destiny? Not so much. The idea the God of Abraham wanted the colonists to expand their rule to the entire continent may seem bold and brave—until you remember there were already people living here. History classes glossing over tragedies caused by our ancestors (if indeed, you’re an American of Anglo or European descent) is a deeply flawed way to go about instilling pride.
From the Baby Boomers through Generations X and Y, students were taught in history class Christopher Columbus was a brave explorer who “discovered America.” No word on how one can “discover” a place already inhabited by people…not unlike “discovering” your neighbor’s house.
Columbus’s own diaries revealed he was a slaver, a murderer, a greedy opportunist who made his fortune using other people’s money to kidnap and enslave people who were kind and helpful to him. So why the hero status? Many would credit the Knights of Columbus, who petitioned for Christopher Columbus to have his own holiday. The point was to give Italians and Catholics a hero they could be proud of. Some would no doubt call that a noble goal. But is it right to inspire pride on the basis of lies or half-truths? Even if it is, is history class the right place for that to happen?
In the 1995 James W. Loewen book Lies My Teacher Told Me, the author makes the case “feel-good” history that omits our darker moments is not required to instill pride in America. Surely there’s something to be said for revealing while slavery, genocide, and segregation happened—there were others who fought these injustices. Giving students accurate information can lead to lessons about formidable heroes like John Brown, Martin Luther King Jr., or women like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.