The future of history is changing—at least in the way it will be taught.
Controversy has emerged around this question: should the current method of teaching United States history be changed? On Feb. 16, Oklahoma legislators passed a bill on an 11-4 vote that would ban the teaching of Adanced Placement U.S. History in their state. They argued that the course focuses too much on negative aspects of our nation’s history and thus is not patriotic enough.
“I’m disturbed by what’s happening in Oklahoma and I think they have the wrong approach to understanding history which is the idea that we shouldn’t look at the seamy side of things,” said history instructor Henry Kamerling. “It is like putting blinders on and to me feels like propaganda. Only looking at positive things is deeply disingenuous.”
The United States has had a rich history in its brief 239 years of existence. From the Revolution to slavery to segregation, internment camps and the fight for civil rights, this is a nation that has experienced a number of tragic hardships. But there are accomplishments, too.
“We are a nation of many different kinds of people that each bring something unique and wonderful to the table even if they were once excluded from the table,” Kamerling said. “Their inclusion is often celebrated, and how do you do that without acknowledging that they were once excluded? Their inclusion is all the more powerful because we know the full story.”
The concern in Oklahoma is that the teaching of negative parts of our nation’s history will lead to students disliking America and becoming unpatriotic.
“What concerns me is that they want to remove all appropriate criticisms of the United States,” said associate professor of history Fr. Thomas Murphy, S.J. “I think one of the chief accomplishments of the U.S. in terms of history is that they have a gift for transformative self-criticism.”
Other states such as Colorado, South Carolina and North Carolina have also expressed to the College Board their grievances with the AP U.S. history test, asking that they remove any information that may lead to dissent. But opponents said that it is the negative parts of history that make the positive moments and the progress more meaningful.
“I feel like it gives us a greater appreciation for where we are now,” said sophomore humanities for teaching major Olivia Hiles. “It is important to know the history of the world because we can’t just go through life being ignorant of things.”
The problem of bias in history is not only evident in high schools, however. The teaching of history is also being changed at the university level.
Just last year Seattle University began its new core curriculum which no longer has a history requirement for students.
“I think it is a mistake and I hope it can be rectified,” Murphy said. “I think it shows that we have erred too far in terms of the mentality of preparing people for the workforce.”
Generally speaking, education in the U.S. is trending toward an emphasis on math and science, while the humanities are taking the back burner.
“It doesn’t really make sense; I think the core curriculum is supposed to give you that base of being a holistic individual that our mission states,” said sophomore humanities for teaching major Natalie Lucey. “Removing history does not allow us to look back on our past and see the progress and mistakes that we have made and to learn from them. We need to learn about history in order to move forward and be those people for a just and humane world that we always talk about in our mission statement.”
In recent history, the schools in the United States have undervalued history and the liberal arts. The governor of Wisconsin even moved to have the University of Wisconsin alter their mission statement to omit phrases about being reflective and holistic and instead add phrases that emphasize the preparation of students for entering the workforce. Other government proposals have looked to put more money into STEM education for schools. The humanities and history have taken a back seat.
“I think about where we are going to learn about history,” said senior history major Erin Grant. “[Museums are] skewed history of what [museums] want to present….Where are we going to learn [history] if we can’t learn it in schools—where it is an unbiased environment?”
History still has its place in education but the debate on which parts of our nation’s history should be taught continues. Multiple states have expressed the same opinion as Oklahoma—that teaching the negative parts of U.S. history is biased. However, the view that only the positive aspects of history should be taught is also biased.
“If you introduce America in a holistic approach without being biased on one side or another, I think students will appreciate that,” Lucey said. “They will feel as if their education was holistic and truthful and helped them become better informed citizens.”