One of the least favorite things about school for me, and I’m sure, for many others, were the table-top sized history textbooks and the oppressive weight it added to my already aching, adolescent back. Filled with arbitrary activities doing nothing more than keeping your head to the desk and illustrations of American “heroes” conquering this and crossing that, the textbook filled a space in the classroom while adding nothing to it.
So, why defend the history textbook after complaining about it’s uselessness? The potential that textbooks have to change the way we as individuals think about history, and our country as a whole, is astounding. They’ve already proven how effective they are at performing the opposite, and suppressing America’s true history in favor of an unexciting, Eurocentric record of events.
Our current textbooks are severely out of date, reflecting an attitude that leaves many ashamed of their culture’s history, just because it doesn’t sparkle in the pages like stories of Lincoln and Roosevelt, Edison and Woodrow. Just how many truths have our school’s history textbooks virtually erased from the record? Columbus’s brutality and greed in “discovering” the Americas, the fact that many of our presidents owned slaves, the rightful land ownership of Native Americans, all hidden in the shadows of illustrated little blurbs and vocabulary questions. Textbooks frequently smooth over the more “unsavory” details regarding our great heroes, instead opting to focus on the dandy details, and in some cases, lies. Like the first Thanksgiving, and the neat and tidy story of the pilgrims cooking a glorious meal for the ignorant Native Americans that, somehow, had never seen such a feast, even though they introduced most of the foods at the table to the pilgrims.
Textbooks eliminate the good and bad ideologies found throughout American history, in favor of a neutrality that doesn’t explicitly label ideas of the Confederacy, segregation , Jim Crow, and more as inherently harmful, or even racist. They don’t encourage students to ask questions about our past administration’s role in oppression, both domestic and international, opting for a consistently lukewarm or rosy picture of our leaders. While that might not seem important on paper, the cost of discouraging students from criticizing those in power leaves us with a complicit, blindly loyal community that won’t push our country to do better than it has in the past, because there is no past that students can accurately reference.
While many presidents, vice presidents, generals, and other governmental figures receive at least some recognition in history textbooks, just as many inspiring historical figures are cast to the wayside. Columbus receives extensive coverage for “discovering” America, yet the potential African explorers who did the same years before him don’t get a single word. While there are many theories as to those who reached America before the Europeans, many don’t receive the necessary coverage. The same goes for other titans of history among LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and lower income communities. While these instances in history, like the African explorers, might appear “inconsequential” in the scheme of our country’s history, the same cannot be said about their significance in our current society. When the accomplishments of queer, female, Black, Latinx, Asian-American, lower income citizens are ignored on a daily basis, the inclusion of these historical, non-white figures in textbooks are key to letting students know that they matter, that their communities matter. Leaving them out makes not only their accomplishments seem of little consequence, but also their backgrounds, their cultures, who they are. And as a result, this sentiment is applied to those living today. Even students who identify with the groups left out of textbooks might feel like they don’t matter as much as their classmates who can.
My point in bringing up these oddly specific, and maybe a tad bitter, examples is to examine how much sway those seemingly harmless, boring, ordinary textbooks have on our collective memory as a country. How many times have public figures used the image of our great, monolithic founders, presidents, visionaries, and everyone in between to resist change in favor of labeling it as “un-American”. The seed of these pearly white lies was planted in the hardbound covers of our history textbooks. As the students absorbing these selective details grow into patriotic adults, who might author a textbook or two, that would rather defend these finely constructed paragraphs than be exposed to real history, the cycle continues.
If we were to reconstruct these books to more accurately reflect the dynamic, grisly, real history of this country, then maybe we can make room for the change that we wish to see. How can our peers be expected to do the impossible if they aren’t shown historical examples of others doing the same. Maybe Americans would be more apt to support the movement for Black, indigenous, Latinx, Asian-American lives if they knew that many in Confederate states joined the North to fight against slavery, or that during Reconstruction they moved to southern states to help educate the children of freed slaves. Maybe, if the ugly American history, the abuses this country subjected BIPOC, LGBTQ+, lower income communities, and so many more are known collectively as fact, we will be more apt to make systemic changes that uphold these same atrocities into our current age.
It all begins, and could end, with the textbook.
Featured image via Vox