Like every good citizen, I took U.S. history in high school. And in middle school. And in elementary school. I could recite presidents and tell you about our Founding Fathers. If hard pressed I could probably even compose a five-paragraph essay on the causes of World War II. And later, taking University history courses and reading on my own, I quickly discovered that most of what I learned in high school was a load of crap.

Kate Green

A new report put out by the Albert Shanker Institute, a non-partisan think-tank, seemed to confirm this, finding that high school history has an unfair bias. Sure, I thought, my high school history was practically wrapped in the flag and full of gung-ho patriotism and a white male/western culture focus that taught us to trust government and believe in American exceptionalism and ignore other societies’ positive traits.

But reading the report further, it came to the opposite conclusion. Signed by over 100 notables, including former President Bill Clinton, the essay “Democracy: Teach It” argues that high school history portrays the United States in too negative a light, highlighting our faults, while at the same time looking uncritically at other countries and cultures, focusing on their positive achievements.

The study would have us believe that U.S. history education has become a multicultural mishmash, that centers on women, blacks and oppressed people and ignores the roles of our white male forefathers and the great and unparalleled achievements of our nation. Curriculums are too critical of the United States and teach students to consider the United States as not much better than a dictatorship and that our system is fundamentally flawed and racist. It argues that as a result, students do not properly revere our nation.

This non-partisan institute draws heavily from research done by the American Textbook Council, another supposedly non-partisan review board that examines the content of textbooks. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the ATC came out with a harsh examination of the way Islam was taught to students. It said Islam as a subject received a free ride, absent criticism. It’s finding concluded that, “Concern about the ability and willingness of many domestic Muslims to assimilate – that is, to put American constitutional values in front of their religion – is not unfounded” and that textbooks need to be rewritten so that students can learn “Jihad’s goal is to bring the whole world under Islamic control.” Students should be asked questions like, “Why do Muslim (countries) so often have difficulty living with their neighbors,” and “Why have they provoked fear in adjacent civilizations since the seventh century,” and “Why did Islam spread? (Was it) religious zeal or desire for booty and captives?”

Reading though the reports by these two think tanks, their agenda becomes clear – instill a love of our nation by focusing on our strengths and ability to overcome challenges while simultaneously learning that all other countries are full of faults and are no match for the United States. Breed trust and love of us and distrust and dislike of them.

Furthermore, they want to eliminate the women and minorities of history, arguing that we need to get rid of a curriculum that the ATC says “advances a civic agenda that highlights and ennobles people of color, peace advocates, anti-colonialists, environmentalists and wronged women.” They argue that U.S. history and culture is distinctly European and Western and “politically correct” attempts to say that other cultures played a vital role are a distortion of the truth.

This agenda runs counter to what this country stands for and counter to the aims of history.

The goal of teaching history should not be to create patriots. The goal of history is to inform people of our past, so that we can make intelligent decisions today. We must critically examine our faults both in the past and the present, and also look to other cultures too see what has worked elsewhere.

A good society has nothing to fear from the truth. If our past is ugly or contains evidence that we have acted wrongly, better to study it and show students our failings so they can be corrected. Better to have a skeptical society – one that doesn’t believe in our perfection – so that we do not settle into complacency. Women, minorities and others not fitting into the white male stereotype of history makers need to be taught and examined. History is not a bunch of white guys, despite what high school history and the Shanker Institute and the ATC would have us believe.

Piskor can be reached at jpiskor@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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