Neustadter: History is not partisan

Corinne Neustadter

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

As my colleague Alexandra MacDonald reiterated earlier this week, “History is written by the victors.” In an era of fake news and hyper partisanship, the often-quoted saying still remains relevant.

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Although historical records are often presented as relatively accurate and composite accounts of the past, the truth is much more complicated.

Nowhere is the complex nature of history more apparent than in America’s public school systems, which have reckoned for decades with how to best teach students United States history. The boundaries of teaching history in America’s public schools have often been established by what legislators deemed as unnecessary for students to learn.

As the Washington Post puts it, “Public educational standards seem to be set … by demarcating and preserving blind spots rather than promoting enlightenment.”

The most infamous censoring of history curricula is probably Tennessee’s ban on teaching evolution in 1925. Its legality was challenged by biology teacher John Scopes, who taught evolution to his students using a state-approved textbook. The resulting Scopes Monkey Trial was extensively covered by the news media, and it represented the symbolic clashing of intellectual and social values in a rapidly changing America.

While evolution is regularly taught in high school biology classrooms, history continues to be revised for expressly political and ideological purposes. Recent actions undertaken by the Texas State Board of Education, for instance, show that educators continue to try to rewrite United States history curricula, undermining the content students learn.

As Texas is one of the biggest markets for textbook publishing, it has been allowed more reign over the history taught in public schools, and it has periodically altered the content of textbooks during the 20th century. The Board of Education removed references to Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton, which removed two incredibly visible female public figures.

After backlash, the board voted two months later to reinsert Keller and Clinton back into history textbooks. In the same meeting, however, they also voted to keep the biblical Moses as a figure in U.S. history.

Moreover, they voted to downplay the role of slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Schools are now free to list sectionalism and states’ rights as other causes, significantly altering the basic understanding students have about the war. In a state that has roughly 5 million students in public schools, this is frightening.

Implementing more composite history curricula encourages students to critically engage and reflect on the complexity of U.S. history rather than simply taking it for granted.”

The entire process of curricula writing in Texas has become politicized, and their teaching of history has been altered because of it.

Determining the history that students learn should not be under the control of politically motivated individuals. While in many cases legislators may be well-versed in the educational matters of their state, their positions as predominant politicians will impact how they vote and view the subject.

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The Texas Board of Education argued that their alterations were to “streamline” the curricula in a state where teaching history primarily centers around the surface-level examination of key figures and facts.

In truth, there is no way to teach every facet of American history in the public school system. Schools can only teach so much material in the span of a year, so students’ knowledge may be lacking in one context or another.

However, the “alterations” voted into existence overwhelmingly misinform students and ignore historically accurate information. Instead of picking and choosing which information remains politically relevant for students to learn, the entire system of teaching history in Texas, and other states, should be reviewed by independent historians not tied to political parties or alliances.

While it may sound hard to implement, recent measures passed in Nebraska show that the hegemonic nature of history curricula can be disrupted. The new state standards aim to teach a more composite history by incorporating historically underrepresented perspectives and cultures. They also underwent a separate screening for potential biases, conducted not by legislators but by community members and educators.

The new guidelines incorporate events and people including the Stonewall Riots, the Tuskegee Airmen and the United Farm Workers, among others, emphasizing that students should be able to analyze different historical perspectives and critically reflect on their historical significance.

While Nebraska’s new state standards may not be perfect, they represent a step in the right direction toward incorporating diverse perspectives into their state curriculum with significantly less partisan bias.

Implementing more composite history curricula encourages students to critically engage and reflect on the complexity of U.S. history rather than simply taking it for granted. The sentiment that “history is written by the victors” warns of the danger that lies ahead in pursuing partisan historical narratives.

In ascribing to one historical viewpoint, we run the risk of alienating ourselves even further from one another, leading down a path not of mutual understanding but of greater division.

Corinne Neustadter can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @corinnen14.