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A Letter to America: Why We Need a New History Education

Historians/History
tags: racism, African American history, teaching history, Protest



Linda C. Morse, M.A. is Editor of the New England Journal of History and Co-Chair of the New England History Teachers Association.

 

 

 

 

You are now seeing why.  Whether Americans are aware of it or not, history education informs the values and beliefs we hold today.  As a history educator, co-chair of the New England History Teachers Association, and the editor of The New England Journal of History, I am deeply invested in history education. The information that you studied in history class as children or teenagers shaped your understanding of human dynamics and your ability to imagine the situations of other human beings.  Your ability to empathize today reflects both your history education and what your parents taught you at home.  If your parents’ history education was like yours, they share values like those you hold today about poverty, race, slavery, human migration, imperialism, protest, rebellion—everything—learned during their history classes.  What histories have Americans internalized about people of color and/or women in relation to American exceptionalism and patriarchal systems? Why do any of us believe what we do today?  How have history textbooks and history teachers shaped any American’s understanding of the world?

 

For example, did you study Henry Clay and the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color?  In an AP US or US History I class, students learn about the American Colonization Society’s belief that free people of color in the United States would be better served by returning to Africa than staying in the United States.  Even in a recent AP US textbook I use in my classroom, written by conscientiously inclusive authors, one finds the transportation of free African Americans to the west coast of Africa described in this manner: “Some fifteen thousand freed blacks were transported there over the next four decades” (watch out for passive voice since it hides agency!). 

 

If one investigates transportation to Africa further, Imanuel Geiss in The Pan-African Movement and Nell Irvin Painter in Creating Black Americans reveal that starting in 1830 the Negro Convention movement worked actively to convince the American Colonization Society that abolishing slavery was a better idea than sending African Americans to Africa.  In addition, these 15,000 free blacks were not “transported,” but rather white Americans forced many African Americans to emigrate to Liberia. The disparate class and education levels of those free African Americans also enters the equation as educated African Americans fought more successfully against moving to Liberia. In addition, there is no mention in the history text about the highly educated African Americans Samuel Mills and Ebenezer Burgess who traveled to visit the African Institute in England and then (Mills died along the way) journeyed to the Liberian coast to address the practical concerns of moving African Americans to the west coast of Africa. Carter Woodson, the great African American historian, and creator of the first Black History Week tells us about Mills and Burgess, yet he is virtually unknown in contemporary history classrooms. How is relegating a historian of the importance of Dr. Woodson to semi-invisibility any different than the Nazi act of claiming that those who were Jewish created science that was useless?

 

From this one examination of a historical event, students of history no longer see African Americans solely as victims.  The story of the Colonization movement shows us the impact of class and education levels in the determination of who gets sent to the west coast of Africa.  Students also learn that there were educated and activist African Americans in the early 1800s working to create an organization such as the Negro Convention movement, and that they travelled outside of America to consider the practicalities of moving to Africa. How does not learning about these facts cause students to shape their understandings of the abilities and agencies of both whites and nonwhites?    

 

Presenting history that creates a picture of the superiority of white culture and abilities, while leaving out the flow of ideas, philosophies and activism of nonwhite cultures, leaves students with a false belief that only white, western culture is capable of achieving greatness. How can history teachers and textbook authors structure history education to significantly decrease the biases, racism, and violence we see today? Americans must demand and invest in changing the method of American history education so that students internalize that all humans are capable of great achievements and that there are no perpetual or inferior victims. 

 

How can teachers and textbook authors stop creating a false sense of white or male superiority, stop shaping implicit biases that support white superiority, and stop developing the minds of our population to believe that people of color are somehow less valuable? Educators can achieve this in our classrooms.  Please take this summer to expand your knowledge about the contributions of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, LGBTQIA+, and women of American or world history.  Rather than focusing on distorted and biased perspectives such as “women were given the right to vote in 1920,” focus instead on the reality that “women fought for and won” the right to vote in 1920.  When educators present people such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt, do we include the importance of class—having the time to read, think, learn, write—clarifying that by controlling money and the labor of others to accomplish the daily necessary chores of life, these men were able to accomplish so much?  Let us rethink how we teach history.  How can educators at all levels move from teaching about history from a victim perspective to one of agency? Let us get busy: history teachers must change the world!

 

Why is history important?  Because it has given birth to the lives we have today.


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