How Should Teachers Handle the Movement to 'Rewrite' High School History? Embrace ItRoundup
tags: racism, memorials, public history, teaching history
Jack Doyle is an activist and adjunct professor of history at the University of Oxford in England. His father, Chris Doyle, teaches at Avon Old Farms School, a Connecticut boarding school for high school boys. Both authors hold doctorates in history.
How should educators respond to an unprecedented popular effort to remake American history?
First, they need to understand that such a movement exists, what it wants, and how it operates. The history-reform movement calls for moving U.S. history beyond a focus on elite white males, exposing and analyzing systemic racism, and telling inclusive, complex stories across time. A broad spectrum of street-level protestors, teachers in grassroots networks, civil rights groups, academics, journalists, and social-media influencers are all working to remake the usable past—what we collectively remember, commemorate, learn in school, omit, forget.
The recent successes of this movement are impressive. Advocates of reform have produced bold revisionist curricula (for instance, The New York Times “1619 Project”), put pressure on the U.S. military to rename bases honoring Confederate leaders, persuaded authorities to remove statues of Confederates, encouraged NASCAR to excise the Confederate flag from sport-sanctioned iconography, and spawned hundreds of courses devoted to racism and civil rights.
Educators should expect reformers to make similar demands of them. Parents, activists, and students are already insisting on curricular reforms. They will expect diversity hiring and training. They are challenging statuary, researching the histories of persons for whom public buildings are named, objecting to questionable mascots, and publicizing racism in schools. In our home state, Connecticut, over the last few weeks Black graduates of several elite private high schools have created Instagram accounts titled @blackat[school name] to document their experiences of racism. Students at other schools across the country have been similarly exposing past racist incidents on social media.
School leaders should welcome these actions, and their history curricula is one place to take initiative on racial justice. Studies of history education in the United States make for dismal reading. James Loewen’s classic, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, lays out how textbooks provide a highly distorted image of the American past. The history taught in high schools, long dominated by “great white men,” emphasizes relentless progress for all and avoids nuanced discussions of race, class, or gender. Almost every year, new studies (some themselves controversial) expose Americans’ poor history awareness.
The traditional approach to history has failed.
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