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History class in public schools: a safe zone for white supremacy

You’ve no doubt seen the story circulating about the Texas administrator who told teachers who present on the horrors of the Holocaust that they need an “opposing view.” You might stop and think, “That’s an outlier. History classes, as a rule, are fair and neutral.” They absolutely are not.

It’s important to delineate the study of history from the actual passage of time. The study of history makes the following presumptions: A. It is important to study history, and B. There are historical events worth studying. Like all subjects, studying something means it needs to be standardized into different categories that make breaking up information easier. Here is the million-dollar question: Who decides what the categories are and who decides what events we focus on in history education?

Most public-school history curricula focuses on the history of the West. Even in so-called “World History,” historical events are often framed by their proximity and importance to Europe. In my high school World History class, I learned that the Dark Ages were a time of complete misery and intellectual disdain for the “entire world.” The truth of the matter is that while much of Western Europe was struggling due to the ramifications of the Black Plague, the Islamic world was thriving and carving up Africa and even Spain. I’m not saying that Islamic conquest on indigenous peoples was morally right, I’m just saying it took my own research to find out about it.

By framing history in terms of the way certain people view the world, we unknowingly create a bias in students. In going back to the idea of “opposing views,” it can be a tempting idea. We stop and think, “Well, yeah. We should present both sides of an argument.” However, when applied to historical events in which one group of people were severely disadvantaged, this doesn’t pass the sniff test.

For example, there isn’t an opposing view to the Holocaust, or rather the opposing view to the Holocaust is either Nazism, fascism, or plain denial that the Holocaust happened. The Holocaust is an admittedly black-and-white example, but let’s look at an example that gets a little more playtime.

The institution of slavery and its consequences in the United States are a hot topic for American history classes; it’s the way that these topics are explored that often goes awry. The way most history classes are organized is designed to distance students from the conversation of white supremacy in America’s founding. By and large, when learning about the Revolutionary War, slavery is but a footnote. There is no conversation about the fact that the founding fathers knew slavery was morally wrong. There were conversations held in the day about starting off the United States, a “land of the free” as a truly free country. Obviously, they neglected to start off on a good foot. Why are history classes not having the uncomfortable and important conversation around the pro-slavery mindset of founding fathers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc?

History educators have an obligation to control the content of their classes. That means presenting morally reprehensible views as just that, reprehensible, i.e. no positive light to the mindset of slave traders in the 1600s, no positive light to racists yelling at Ruby Bridges (who is still alive by the way), and no positive light for people who think there’s a debate to be held about the validity of LGBTQ+ people. A truthful representation of history is the way we make a more just world.

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