History is arbitrary. Or so it seems to be in today’s world, where the narrative is spun by the victors and we corral history into neat little periods and eras. But beginnings and endings are all a construct, defined by the human desire to close one chapter before opening another. So, now we deal with the consequences of historical periods being defined by hegemonic rule. Take “postcolonial” for example: “post” implies that colonization in its entirety, including its aftermath, is well and over with, but really, it just depends on who you ask. Political, economic, cultural and social remains of imperialism and colonial rule exist in each nation touched by colonialism, yet the rather inadequate name of the era suggests otherwise.
These characterizations are just one of the ways that history itself is frequently altered or obscured to fit a narrative, and although many nations are guilty of this revision, the most relevant one to me is the one I live in: the United States. The tale of American exceptionalism is not a new one; from economic prosperity to human rights advocacy, the United States never fails to boast of its domestic and international endeavors, but these examples are largely based on hypocrisy and myth.
While the United States condemns colonization and references its own past as a British colony, it remains one of the most expansionist nations in modern history, swiftly moving from 13 colonies to 50 states and 16 territories in its short history, displacing thousands of Indigenous tribes and creating bloodshed in the expansionist movement’s wake. While preaching human rights in its international policy, the United States refuses to sign most human rights treaties, has openly backed dictators throughout history and is not a party to the International Criminal Court. In fact, the U.S. does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC and will use military force to liberate any American citizens tried by the court. In spite of all this, a survey by Pew Research finds that 52% of Americans believe that the U.S. is “one of the greatest countries in the world, along with some others,” and 23% believe that the U.S. “stands above all other countries in the world.”
So how are these myths kept alive? American education is somehow both the perpetuation of mythological ideals and the beginnings of revolution. This is only possible in a country as large as the United States, and one where each state, each district, has jurisdiction over its curriculum and teaching methods. I sat down with LSA senior Thea Bilich, an Ann Arbor native, and LSA sophomore You Na Lee, who was born in Korea but began her American education in eighth grade in a conservative suburb in Illinois. Both took U.S. history in middle and high school.
Bilich reports that, while her school took a formulaic, uniform approach to history that rushed teachers through sensitive topics and focused on dates and people, “(her) school took a more delicate approach than perhaps others did. … Eighth grade focused largely on the colonization of this land and slavery whereas 11th grade focused more on civil rights movements. However, both were discussed largely in the past tense … because people think kids shouldn’t have to know about the reality of Thanksgiving or how racism and white supremacy still functions in today’s society.”
When asked about her experience with U.S. history education, Lee said, “We briefly discussed Native Americans but that history was nearly entirely glossed over and racism and white supremacy were never even a topic. We were more focused on the development of America and what each president did to advance the U.S. during their time in office.” Lee recounts a particular memory in 11th grade, when she had moved to a slightly more liberal suburb in Illinois. She stated that, “we were learning about Pearl Harbor and World War II and the teacher was definitely trying to educate about both sides of the war, but to wrap up the section we read an article about how the atomic bomb wasn’t as harmful as it was expected to be and even justified the placement of the bomb. This was clearly meant to tip the scales in favor of the U.S. and paint America in a good light.”
When I later asked each student whether they thought conservative and liberal states teach American history differently, both responded with a conclusive yes. Bilich recalls a discussion in her Museum Studies course at the University of Michigan where she first realized how differently history is taught across the country, stating that “teachers are given leeway on how to teach each required topic, but maybe you shouldn’t be having children act as Native Americans or slaves and slaveholders in school plays. There’s a general insensitivity surrounding these topics just to get students moving.” Many education systems across the country have an unfortunate tendency to require students to — without context — reenact some of history’s greatest atrocities for only marginally more immersive education.
Lee compares her two experiences in the suburbs: “My white-dominated, Christian private school… teachers had a lot more freedom on what to teach because it was a really small private school so the material we’re learning depends entirely on the teacher, and when history teachers are teaching they should try to remain neutral but they were extremely biased. And once I moved to a more liberal public school near Chicago, the teaching became more about dates and memorizing.”
The dismissive and, quite frankly, incorrect version of American history Lee was taught displays the immense power of teachers and individual schools to entirely alter the American narrative. The erasure of America’s dark history breeds misplaced trust and patriotism while robbing students of the chance to right prior wrongs. While Bilich recounts a more transparent version of American history in her liberal schooling, she still points to several gaps in her education that were only filled in college.
By speaking of white supremacy, institutional racism, sexism and more in the past tense, American schooling covers up the persistence of these omnipresent issues and tells us even less about how to deal with inequality in modern society.
The question boils down to why history is taught in schools to begin with. As of right now, schools teach history as though it is only good for memorizing dates and people, but the real learning should come with a consideration of historical mistakes and how not to make them again. But we cannot achieve this objective while American history is twisted to encourage a narrative of American exceptionalism and white supremacy through erasure of peoples and alteration of events.
Reva Lalwani is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.