Social Studies Opinion

When History Class Feels Like Propaganda: A Student’s Perspective

Black history is too often cordoned off from American history in schools
By Lauryn Donovan — January 29, 2021 3 min read
Portrait of Abraham Lincoln looking at Abraham Lincoln
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

If there is anything that I’ve learned during my time as a student, it’s that diverse representation within the student body, teaching staff, and curriculum is very important. Since elementary school, I’ve never really seen myself represented in the curriculum unless my ancestors were represented as the helpless and oppressed.

From a young age, I realized that Black history was treated as though it were a completely separate concept from American and world history. In my high school, there is a Black studies course because of the lack of emphasis on Black history in mandatory history classes.
I’ve noticed that even if we do learn about Black history, it’s told from a white perspective, setting the scene for the whitewashing of history. This includes downplaying the severity of traumatic events that happened in communities of color, leaving out other cultures from the curriculum, and ignoring how historical events continue to influence systems of oppression today.

When we are taught the whitewashed version of American history from a young age, we learn to minimize the modern-day effects of legislation, events, and oppression for nonwhite groups. My history lessons have often focused on white abolitionist activists and politicians while ignoring how members of the Black community pushed for ending slavery as well. This removes the burden of guilt from the white community when they only see all the white people who contributed to the abolition of slavery.
For example, we’ve been taught to praise Abraham Lincoln as “the Great Emancipator’’ for his supposed belief in equality, but he didn’t believe that Black people were equal to whites; he just thought that slavery was wrong and went against his Christian morals.

Now, as a senior, I have had to educate the rest of my class on Black history that our curriculum glossed over.

When we learned about Reconstruction, my freshman U.S. history class only briefly touched on the lives of Black people during the era. The curriculum omitted important facts, including the severity of Black codes, the expansion of the mass incarceration system, the loophole in the 13th Amendment that permits forced labor as a criminal punishment, and restrictions on the accumulation of Black wealth. I only came to understand the importance of this time period through independent research.

Now, as a senior, I have had to educate the rest of my class on Black history that our curriculum glossed over. This year in my Advanced Placement American history class, we’ve finally started to touch on Black history. As one of the only Black students in my classes, I usually find myself giving the Black perspective or having to advocate for people of color. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to explain my personal experience or call out flaws in our history curriculum when I’m faced with someone who’s playing the devil’s advocate.

I have also noticed that the American educational system is feeding us pro-American propaganda. When we are only taught about the positive aspects of our country instead of balancing the good and the bad, it becomes taboo to criticize our nation. That sort of nationalism is dangerous. Instead of being taught that it is an act of patriotism to ask questions, expose the ugly truth, and practice dissent no matter what, being critical is seen as “anti-American.”

See Also

Image of Carter G. Woodson
AP Photo and Getty

This is especially true of criticisms that oppose traditional American values, such as refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, calling out systemic issues, or speaking up against our nation’s leaders. After taking AP classes, talking to teachers and professors, and doing my own independent research, I’ve noticed how our history curriculum always seems to depict the United States as the great savior of the world and hide our faults as a nation.

When we send young U.S. soldiers abroad, how many of them know why they’re fighting beyond a nebulous threat of terrorism? But we should be asking ourselves why the United States is concerned with occupying those foreign countries. Though these are complex subjects, they can be taught in depth through social studies courses so we can independently formulate our own opinions and see all sides.

I have consistently called for a more comprehensive history curriculum at my school but have seen little change. In my sophomore world-studies class, we were taught that we learn history to prevent the past from repeating itself and to appreciate those who came before us. My fight has convinced me that the history curriculum is not going to do either of those things. Until the curriculum changes to truthfully educate students, I don’t have much faith in the rest of the education system, either.

A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as When History Class Feels Like Propaganda


Student Well-Being Webinar After-School Learning Top Priority: Academics or Fun?
Join our expert panel to discuss how after-school programs and schools can work together to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss.
Budget & Finance Webinar Leverage New Funding Sources with Data-Informed Practices
Address the whole child using data-informed practices, gain valuable insights, and learn strategies that can benefit your district.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
ChatGPT & Education: 8 Ways AI Improves Student Outcomes
Revolutionize student success! Don't miss our expert-led webinar demonstrating practical ways AI tools will elevate learning experiences.
Content provided by Inzata

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies Florida Is Latest State to Require Teaching Asian American and Pacific Islander History
Advocacy groups and individuals question how AAPI history will be taught in Florida schools given the state's current political environment.
5 min read
Image of the word history behind torn paper.
Social Studies Florida Rejects Social Studies Textbooks, Requests Edits for Others. What You Need to Know
Florida's education department rejected more than 30 books for social studies instruction, highlighting a new challenge for publishers.
9 min read
Image of a textbook and a magnifying glass.
<a href="https://www.gettyimages.com/search/photographer?photographer=Bet_Noire">Bet_Noire</a>/iStock/Getty
Social Studies Florida Wanted Changes to Social Studies Books. Here's a Sample of the Revisions
Textbook publishers found themselves with new, confusing specifications to follow in Florida.
1 min read
Photo of stacked school textbooks with no symbol over them.
iStock / Getty Images Plus
Social Studies Latino History Is U.S. History. High School Textbooks Neglect It
Including Latino history is an issue of representation, but also about "filling a gap of foundational knowledge,” a report concludes.
8 min read
Image of a stack of books.