The Selective History of American Education

Jul 13, 2019 | Education, Politics


A common diagnosis of America’s ideological polarization is that each political party is consuming starkly differing information within their respective echo chambers. The rise of social media has allowed not just for the freedom of information, but the danger to choose only the information we want. But before the country plunged into online trench warfare, this disconnect was prevalent on a more rudimentary stage: the histories taught, or not taught, in K-12 education. 

For a start, the overall quality of American history education is shoddy at best, with most Americans scoring the worst on national history in comparison to any other subject. In 2014, only eighteen percent of eighth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level in U.S. history, translating into alarming knowledge gaps. A similar study in 2010 indicated a majority of fourth-graders could not answer why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure. When asked about what social problem Brown v. Board of Education was supposed to solve, only two percent of high school seniors correctly answered, “racial segregation in schools.” 

Furthermore, the content that is taught is heavily swayed by the power of state school boards to give curriculum and textbooks a certain historical bend. The divided Texas State Board of Education is a notorious example, coming under frequent accusations of historical revisionism and religious bias. Some of their most questionable changes have included listing Moses as a key influence on the Founding Fathers in civic education, the removal of any references to global climate change in science curricula, and describing the millions of slaves brought to the Americas during the Transatlantic Slave Trade simply as “a movement of workers” in history classes.

Despite its name, these blunders are not confined to the Lone Star State. As the second-largest buyer of textbooks, the preferential edits of Texas schools and school boards have traditionally pushed major publishers such as McGraw Hill and Pearson to tailor their content to suit their market. Not wanting to bear the cost of printing different textbooks, these companies had previously decided to use the Texas edition as their default standard. While this influence has significantly diminished with the rise of digital media, the impact it has had on generations of learners is heard in today’s discussions of race and equality. 

The effect of these discrepancies is evident when measuring attitudes regarding the influence of historical injustices on minority groups. A March 2019 Pew Center Survey highlighted the deep disagreements on issues of race and the way the country’s legacy of slavery impacts African Americans today.  Mainly divided along partisan lines, 59 percent of white Republicans responded that the legacy of slavery does not affect the position of black people in American society; 77 percent stated the bigger problem for racial discrimination is seeing bias where it does not exist. 

Although these opinions are shaped by a variety of factors, including the current political climate, it’s notable that many Americans received inadequate history education and did not have the historical context to fully understand the depth of the damage caused by slavery and decades of oppression. A significant portion of the country still disagrees on whether slavery was the leading cause of the Civil War. In a 2014 review of Civil Rights Education, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that fewer than half of states mentioned Jim Crow laws in significant educational material, and only 11 included the Ku Klux Klan. 

Similar effects can be seen in the dismissed concerns surrounding Native Americans impacted by the Dakota Access Pipeline and voter suppression. The construction of the former, once enjoying broad bipartisan support, was seen as a potential economic boost and a boon to oil access. Until the emergence of highly publicized protests, there was little mention of how the pipeline would bulldoze through the ancestral burial grounds of Standing Rock Indian Reservation or the violent suppression of subsequent protests. Too often missing from history books is mention of the United States government and Western settlers using similarly cruel tactics in the 19th century to gain access to gold in Georgia and California. Or how attempts to vote against the pipeline in North Dakota were stymied through voter suppression, a stark parallel with historical efforts to reduce Native American representation by forcibly absorbing tribes into predominantly white-settled Oklahoma. 

Although many were appalled at the anemic response to the destruction of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, this too is indicative of how little is taught about the United States territories. Much of these areas were acquired during the Spanish-American War, a period known as the “worst chapter in almost any [history] book” (Immerwahr, How To Hide An Empire). While many textbooks include the conflict and acquisition of the territories, few mention the horrendous decisions followed. These include key decisions such as the Insular Cases, a series of rulings by the Supreme Court that turned the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, the North Mariana Islands, and American Samoa into pseudo-colonies. Without the Insular Cases’ context, these areas seem much more foreign than they legally are. Their foreign nature is further compounded by the frequent use of the “logo map,” a version of American geography that excludes the territories and most other non-continental U.S. holdings. 

It is impossible to control fully for bias, even in the most rigorous of academic curricula. But as the U.S. continues to debate issues with deep historical roots, correctly analyzing the past is imperative to the future.

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