The USA Today presented an article today by Erin Richards lamenting the telling of US History. She correctly states that US History taught in classrooms across the United States is insufficient. She cites some great statistics: “85% of students scored below proficient in U.S. History in 2018… and only 8% of high school seniors correctly identified slavery as the central cause of the Civil War”. That is truly astounding. That is until you talk to people from different parts of the country who have interpreted the Civil War in different ways. Some parts of the South still believe that slavery played no part in southern succession. The Civil War is but one historical event that is left open to interpretation by biased historians to teach and indoctrinate our students. The article moves on to say that the problem with history is that teachers may feel uncomfortable teaching one side or another about historical events. There are no “sides” to political events. There are “events” in history that have “sides”. Slavery happened. It was not a good practice for people of color. Period. There are no “sides” to this issue. There may indeed have been a whole U.S. trade system that grew out of the practice. It may have helped make the U.S. an economic power. It was still wrong. Period. You cannot teach this in 10 or even 20 days. The period of the civil war April, 1861 – April, 1865 is one of the most consequential periods in American history. To really understand this period, a year-long course would be necessary. The problem is not only what we teach but also how we teach it.
U.S. History has added another 50 years since I started school. To understand the difference in our country, let’s digress for a second. When I was 7, in 1971, we were still one year away from the first video gaming system loaded with pong and two-dimensional basketball. A mobile phone was a phone that had a really long cord that allowed you to walk around the kitchen. The T.V. guide was necessary to know when your favorite shows would be on, and we were still 21 years away from cable tv being considered mainstream. What’s the point of this? The time to teach U.S. History has not gotten any longer. Teachers are now forced to add 50 more years into their classrooms. In my lifetime that means talking about: The Great Society, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Viet Nam, Watergate, The fall of the Berlin Wall, Korea, Reaganomics, and so much more. You could have a master class on America in 2016-2020. We give short shrift to the most consequential moments in our history.
Next, our youngest children do not need to be taught that any event is “right” or “wrong”. Some of those are self-explanatory. They do need to be given the facts, though. They need to be given all of the facts. Even the ones that those crying out for transparency want to hide. Christopher Columbus did not “sail across the ocean blue” and play nice with native Americans. They did not share turkey and have a great time together. Columbus hit Haiti first. He reduced the population of 300,000 Taino people there to almost none by killing and enslaving them. He committed an ecological disaster as well: 98% of the trees that populated the island were decimated. He left destruction in his wake and that island has never recovered. In fact, Christopher Columbus never got to North America. That is certainly not a story that I ever heard in school.
History does not change. Our lens of historical events does. The way our society operates changes from year to year let alone decade to decade. The article concludes that “Bitter political divides around the response to the coronavirus pandemic haven’t helped. We need better civic education than we’ve ever had before, in a more difficult environment than we’ve ever had before.” While this is true, it misses the real learning here. The history that I learn is necessarily different from the history my parents learned. First, there are 30 more years of history to learn. Next, there is a different perspective on what the events mean. I posit that George Floyd changed the meaning of many events for many Americans. His daughter put it properly, “My daddy changed history”. Let’s change the way we teach history. Teach by period. Let students take historical periods that interest them. Let teachers become subject experts in different periods of American history. Freeing up the time to introduce great historians like William F. Buckley, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and others. Understanding the real motivation behind Lincoln’s motivation to free the slaves or Reagan’s true conservatism. Let kids be true students and decide for themselves what historical events mean. They happened. Let them know they did. Let people of all backgrounds know their history. Tell it all: unvarnished. Then, and only then, will we really be teaching history, "the study of past events, particularly in human affairs“.