Systemic erasures of historical evils
Fifteen-year-old Colby Burren was sitting in his high school geography class, flipping through his textbook. On Page 126, a photo caption on a map depicting United States immigration caught his eye. In referencing Africans brought to America from the 1500s to the 1800s, the caption referred to these Africans as “workers,” not slaves.
“That completely downplays the fact that these people were forced into a completely unjust system,” said Monita Bell, associate editor and writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project. “Telling one perspective absolutely silences other perspectives that should rightly be presented.”
Teaching Tolerance, which was founded in 1991 by SPLC, is dedicated to providing unbiased educational material for teachers across the country. The goal of Teaching Tolerance, Bell said, is to combat the issue of textbooks providing a more sanitized, whitewashed version of U.S. history, one that seeks to downplay the country’s pitfalls and overly emphasize its successes in a fit of American exceptionalism.
“It really is this idea of broadening, you know, what students are exposed to and complicating it so we don’t get these really simple, uncomplicated stories that are often depicted in books,” she said.
Bell said the emphasis on telling a cleaner version of U.S. history results in an imbalance between telling both the good and the bad of America’s history. In the story of Columbus, Bell said focus is often placed on the Eurocentric perspective of pioneering the Americas than on the side that tells of how Native Americans were stripped of their culture and pushed off their land.
“That bias necessarily lends itself to making one side out to be heroic, and in a lot of cases the other side is then made to be villainous if it’s not altogether ignored,” Bell said.
The issue of whitewashing U.S. history has moved to the forefront of education, and has been exacerbated by conservative Republican mediation in the standards for social studies textbooks.
In 2010, conservative Republicans on the Texas State Board of Education (TSBOE), a 15-member body made up of seven conservatives, called for a revision of the state’s social studies standards to provide balance to a subject that they perceived as having a liberal bias. The primary historical event in contention was the retelling of the Civil War. According to the guidelines, students are to learn that the Civil War was caused by “sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery.” The goal of this standard is to teach students that slavery was not the main cause of the war, but only a secondary issue at hand.
Dan Quinn is the communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, a grassroots organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom and civil liberties in Texas. Within the realm of education, the organization works to counter advances made by conservative politicians to whitewash and censor U.S. history.
Quinn said students in the South have consistently been taught that the Confederacy fought the Civil War over state’s rights and not slavery, as the Texas State Board of Education believes. This conditioning makes it difficult to have honest discussions about issues results in continued debates, such as those over the Confederate flag and the existence of statues honoring Confederate war heroes on college campuses. Quinn said.
“This has been promoted generation after generation, and we now have a state board that’s controlled by a conservative ideologues who want to continue to perpetuate that myth,” he said. “And that’s a problem for a lot of reasons, the primary reason being lying to young people today about what the Civil War was really about makes it harder for us to have honest discussions about issues that still are a problem in our society.”
According to the Texas state standards, students are required to read Jefferson Davis’ first inaugural address as the president of the Confederate States of America, in which the issue of slavery is not mentioned. However, the speech given by vice president Alexander Stephens, in which he explains that the new government was built to preserve the slave system, is left out of required reading curriculum.
However, Jim Loewen, author of the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, said having standards such as these that minimize the role slavery played in the Civil War only serves up a sanitized version of U.S. history, one that does not necessarily tell the entire story. In his book, Loewen provides a critique of twelve leading high school U.S. history textbooks based on a survey analyzing eighteen texts.
In addition to analyzing the texts, Loewen also discusses the pieces of history missing from these textbooks. Loewen said the attempts to sanitize the curriculum of U.S. history leads to textbooks that provide murky and unclear information.
“There’s no excuse in the year 2015 for textbooks to whitewash why the Southern states seceded for example,” he said. “They should simply quote South Carolina’s declaration of secession, that’s clear it was about slavery. The textbooks are not clear. It’s kind of about slavery, it’s kind of about state’s rights.”
In another politically-charged move to soften the language of U.S. history, conservative critics in 2014 from Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma threatened to pull the College Board’s Advanced Placement U.S. History course, also known as APUSH, from their schools in response to the publisher’s 2014 course framework, which these critics denounced as being “anti-American.”
The Republican National Committee even passed a resolution in response, stating that the new APUSH framework “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”
As a result of this criticism, the College Board released a new, revised set of U.S. history standards on July 30. Among the revisions includes a softer tone given to issues of slavery, racism and Native American relations. For instance, a previous version of the standards read, “Many Europeans developed a belief in white superiority to justify their subjugation of Africans and American Indians, using several different rationales.” However, in the new 2015 standards, the term “white superiority” has been removed.
A statement released by the College Board said the new framework reflects a clearer and more precise course. The statement also said all the statements in the 2015 edition have been carefully examined based on historical records and the feedback received.
“The result is a clearer and more balanced approach to the teaching of American history that remains faithful to the requirements that colleges and universities set for academic credit,” the College Board said in the statement.
These demands to reword or rewrite U.S. history to provide a version that is too “negative,” may stem from a concern that students only learn about the bad and not enough of the good, Bell said.
“People tend to be very concerned about nurturing a generation of people who are disenchanted with their country, with their country’s history,” Bell said.
Bell said the act of whitewashing history only eliminates the impulse to question and criticize, and points to a contradiction with some of the country’s primal beliefs.
“People tend to be doing it for quote unquote ‘patriotic’ reasons, but this country was founded on the principle of being able to question and criticize in the interest of improving,” she said. “This desire to kind of quell the criticism or the questioning, to me that just seems counter to these ideals that these folks want to promote.”
Loewen also echoed similar sentiments, but said the Republican push to whitewash and sanitize U.S. history displays a sense of nationalism in that it remains uncritical and turns a blind eye to mistakes made in the country’s past.
“Nationalism is not patriotic,” he said. “Nationalism makes us, as a people, stupid about the past. And we need to be intelligent.”
One of the inherent, glaring problems with U.S. history overall is the absence of a nationwide set of U.S. history standards, an issue explored in a study conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education policy think tank. This study, called “The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011” analyzed each state’s U.S. history standards and gave the state a letter grade based on how rigorously and completely the state addressed U.S. history.
One of the conclusions drawn from the study is that most state’s standards range from “mediocre-to-overall,” resulting in an average grade of a D across all states. For the study, researchers created a common grading metric that would yield a two-part score based on the categories “Clarity and Specificity,” where states can earn a maximum of three points, and “Content and Rigor,” where the maximum yield is seven points. From this point system, states were given a letter grade depending on their total score. A “D” grading equates to an overall numerical score of two to three.
Dara Zeehandelaar, the national research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, prescribed the low grades based on the bias already-present in the creation of history curriculum, and the fact that states have the power to adopt their own standards. For instance, on the curriculum surrounding the Civil War era, California students are to learn about the abolition of slavery in early state Constitutions. Texas state standards, however, do not mention anything about these early attempts to abolish slavery. According to the study, the average number of hours spent on social studies between 2003 and 2004 amounted to only 2.4, in comparison to an average of 11.6 and 5.4 hours dedicated to English and math, respectively. With so little time devoted to teaching history, the study read, this raises the stakes for students to effectively learn about U.S. history.
Zeehandelaar said another issue with the state standards is the lack of information provided in how the subject should be taught, leading to a gap between the curriculum and how teachers talk about it in the classroom.
“I think there’s a lot of steps between a student’s classroom experience to this list of stuff that they have to know,” she said.
An additional concern is the way in which the monopoly of the textbook publishing industry directly impacts how state social studies standards are implemented in the classroom.
In Texas especially, the population of 4.7 million students results in a large textbook market. Because of the sheer size of the state’s textbook market, Quinn said publishers who provide textbooks on a national scale are more likely to adhere to Texas state standards. Subsequently, costs for these books will decrease in other school districts, influencing them to purchase the same materials.
As a means of providing economic stability to their company, Quinn said textbook publishers tend to adhere to state standards to minimize the amount of textbooks they produce and the frequency of changes that must be made to those textbooks. He said conservative politicians on the TSBOE are well aware of the influence Texas holds over what students learn on a national scale, and use this knowledge to further their political agenda.
“Texas is a major battleground over textbook censorship because Texas is so influential around the rest of the country,” Quinn said. “And social conservatives are determined to use their authority in Texas to impose their political beliefs on what students learn in classrooms.”
In November, conservative members of the TSBOE rejected a proposal that would allow state university professors to fact-check student textbooks. Despite the outcome, Quinn said the Texas Freedom Network will continue to support the proposal and will also try to get the state legislature to pass a similar law. Quinn said while he was appalled by the results, he said it reflects the agenda to whitewash and censor textbooks.
“It’s certainly another black eye and it makes Texas look like education backwater,” he said. “But it’s certainly not surprising, politicians on the state board don’t want experts weighing in to say what is factually accurate, because politicians on the state board want the ability to force their personal opinions into the textbooks, whether they’re factually accurate or not.”
Despite attempts spearheaded by some Republicans to provide a more pro-American version of U.S. history, students and teachers alike have fought back against these efforts in states like Colorado.
In late September 2014, 50 teachers from the Denver, Colorado school district held a “sickout” protest that resulted in the closure of two school districts. Their protest stemmed from outrage toward the suggested right-wing’s modification of AP U.S. History and the adoption of a new pay-grade system that ties teacher’s salaries to their performance review A week later, at least 700 Jefferson County high school students staged a walkout and left their classes in response to the proposed changes to their history curriculum.
On the grassroots level, Quinn said the Texas Freedom Network also works to push back against conservative efforts to politicize and censor certain aspects of U.S. history. He said some of these methods include revealing textbook that are up for adoption, monitoring right wing pressure who try to censor textbooks and pinpointing state board members when they try to censor these textbooks.
“We’ve done public testimonies, we’ve sponsored rallies, we have lobbied on individual board members,” Quinn said. “We’ve also worked with the state legislature to reign in the authority of the state board to control textbook content because more members have more often abused that power to censor textbook content.”
Bell said one of the most detrimental product of providing a whitewashed version of U.S. history is how it leads to the a lack of information provided to students who end up receiving an incomplete and biased version. Within this miseducation, Bell said there is a downplaying of many unjust and immoral actions that occurred on U.S. soil.
“In the silencing of those other voices from the past, then you know student identities are gonna be silenced too—not just people who are descended from those voices that are silenced,” Bell said. “But it’s doing everybody a disservice not to know the truth, not to get more well rounded ideas about what happened in the past.”
Bell said another issue facing students is how whitewashed versions of U.S. history leave out the voices of marginalized groups, such as Native Americans. In one excerpt of Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen points out the disparity between the amount of time devoted to discussing Christopher Columbus in comparison to talking about Native Americans in the 2005 edition of the textbook, A History of the United States — two thousand words compared to five. This telling of only one side of the story, Bell said, perpetuates the lie that Native Americans only lived in the past.
“So we not only don’t get to hear their experiences from what happened in the past, but we also, I think, by extension and as a result, don’t get to hear about their experiences today and how the people who are descended from those people who were pushed out of their land and had their cultures, you know, erased in a lot of cases,” she said. “It’s as if they’re extinct and their voices and their experiences aren’t important enough to add to the story.”
Shannon Speed, the director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Texas, wrote an article for The Huffington Post titled, “‘Pro-American’ History Textbooks Hurt Native Americans,” where she criticized the push for a more sanitized telling of U.S. history only has a negative impact on students, an effect she sees manifested even through her college students.
“My students are usually quite surprised to find that they have been provided a whitewashed version of history,” she writes. “They are often outraged. They feel lied to. Omission of the truth is, in fact, a form of lying,” Speed said in the article.
With attempts from national organizations like Teaching Tolerance to combat the Eurocentricity of U.S. history textbooks, th issue of whitewashing the past lends itself to the old saying, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Bell said the continued battle for voting rights, the lack of safety felt by people of color and the continued ignorance toward minority cultures further exemplifies the wrong in attempting to airbrush a version of U.S. history that does not tell the entire story.
“These things [that] are supposedly in the past are still very much present,” she said. “And I think that a society that is called quote unquote ‘post-racial,’ to continue to tell these stories that don’t address the conflicts and the struggles and the obstacles that various peoples in these stories don’t get told, the various perspectives in these stories don’t get told, I think perpetuates the ignorance.”
Above all, Quinn said the attempts to produce a more sanitized version of U.S. history is dishonest and negatively impacts students in the sense that they continue to be misinformed.
“We’re not arming them with the information they need to be productive citizens of a democratic society and make informed decisions when they go to the polls,” he said. “And that’s why we’re still arguing 150 years after the end of the Civil War over whether the Confederate flag should by flying over state capitals and whether we should be honoring Confederate war heroes in public spaces. We’re still arguing about this because generations of students haven’t been told the truth.”
Celisa Calacal is a sophomore journalism major with a concentration in rhetorically painting people into corners. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.