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How Should Teachers Handle the Movement to 'Rewrite' High School History? Embrace It

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Here are some curricular red flags to look for

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How should educators respond to an unprecedented popular effort to remake American history?

First, they need to understand that such a movement exists, what it wants, and how it operates. The history-reform movement calls for moving U.S. history beyond a focus on elite white males, exposing and analyzing systemic racism, and telling inclusive, complex stories across time. A broad spectrum of street-level protestors, teachers in grassroots networks, civil rights groups, academics, journalists, and social-media influencers are all working to remake the usable past—what we collectively remember, commemorate, learn in school, omit, forget.

The recent successes of this movement are impressive. Advocates of reform have produced bold revisionist curricula (for instance, The New York Times “1619 Project”), put pressure on the U.S. military to rename bases honoring Confederate leaders, persuaded authorities to remove statues of Confederates, encouraged NASCAR to excise the Confederate flag from sport-sanctioned iconography, and spawned hundreds of courses devoted to racism and civil rights.

Educators should expect reformers to make similar demands of them. Parents, activists, and students are already insisting on curricular reforms. They will expect diversity hiring and training. They are challenging statuary, researching the histories of persons for whom public buildings are named, objecting to questionable mascots, and publicizing racism in schools. In our home state, Connecticut, over the last few weeks Black graduates of several elite private high schools have created Instagram accounts titled @blackat[school name] to document their experiences of racism. Students at other schools across the country have been similarly exposing past racist incidents on social media.

School leaders should welcome these actions, and their history curricula is one place to take initiative on racial justice. Studies of history education in the United States make for dismal reading. James Loewen’s classic, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, lays out how textbooks provide a highly distorted image of the American past. The history taught in high schools, long dominated by “great white men,” emphasizes relentless progress for all and avoids nuanced discussions of race, class, or gender. Almost every year, new studies (some themselves controversial) expose Americans’ poor history awareness.

The traditional approach to history has failed.

There are certain curricular red flags. Historians Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton observe that schoolbook history is anchored by three “good wars for freedom”: The Revolutionary War birthing Americans’ commitment to liberty; the Civil War extending freedom to enslaved people; World War II exporting American freedom worldwide—so goes the sanitized classroom (and Hollywood) story.

Wars not fitting the freedom theme—including Vietnam, Korea, Spanish-American, and hundreds of nameless conflicts against Indigenous peoples—get relegated to the margins or glossed over. The expansionism and imperialism that have driven many American wars deserve a far more complex treatment, argue Anderson and Cayton. The cautionary lesson is to avoid oversimplifying the past into hyper-patriotic narratives. If your curriculum trends that way, it needs rewriting.

"The traditional approach to history has failed."

Yet, some cultural forces conspire to shape history into hyper-patriotic narratives. As Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn discuss in their 1999 book on the creation of national standards for American history, roiling conflicts exist between historians who dislike the politicization of their subject and conservative politicians and pundits who prefer a narrative of American exceptionalism. Exceptionalists embrace the idea that America is inherently superior to other nations and so normal rules of history do not apply here. They depict America as a “land of opportunity” for all, praise capitalism, downplay imperialism, and characterize protest as misguided, dangerous, or deranged.

Scholars have challenged, and largely destroyed, this upbeat schoolbook tradition. Prize-winning studies of race, gender, foreign policy, war, capitalism, unions, immigration, cities, and politics paint a more inclusive, conflict-oriented picture of the past. But academic history rarely reaches high school history classrooms.

Primary and secondary educators contemplating curricular reform would do well to partner with academic historians to bridge that gap. Curricular design must also acknowledge that history has a methodology. Too often, history gets taught and tested as facts. Standards might pay lip service to “historical thinking,” but teachers themselves often lack fluency in such skills.

Challenging statues, activists have exposed troubling legacies. When students campaigned for Oxford University to remove a statue of British colonialist and apartheid architect Cecil Rhodes in 2015, some high-profile historians derided their efforts. Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard called the campaign “a dangerous attempt to erase the past,” urging Black students to view the statue “with a cheery and self-confident sense of un-batterability.”

That same year, Beard’s university accepted only 38 Black students—just over 1 percent of Cambridge’s student body—and had not a single Black professor in a senior position. Accomplished white historians like Beard suspended their own critical faculties about that statue while ignoring the effects of Rhodes’ violent legacy—and the fact that he garnered moral condemnation and mass protest in his own lifetime.

Americans can learn from these historians’ myopia. America today is a product of the past and not immune from its racist legacy. Combating racism, now, requires suspending overly optimistic narratives of its demise.

This moment is an opportunity for white educators (as are the authors) to do critical work with our students, institutions, and ourselves. White readers are reaching for Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist. Young protesters are demonstrating their vividly present understandings of the words of Malcolm X and Angela Davis and the complicated history of the raised fists of Black Power and labor unionists.

These impulses exemplify a mass desire to act. White educators must now go beyond reading and private discussions to embody organizer Leslie Mac’s insistence that “being anti-racist is a verb.” Students are getting an extraordinary, vital insight into the doing of history, one absent from American history textbooks: a scholarship of activism. We have an obligation to meet them where they are, teach, listen, and learn from them.

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