The Zinn Education Project’s “If We Knew Our History” series features articles by teachers, journalists, and scholars that highlight inadequacies in the history textbooks published by giant corporations and that too often find their way into our classrooms. Articles in this series puncture myths and stereotypes. But they also discuss why it is so important that our students have access to a richer “people’s history” that questions inequality and highlights efforts to create a more just society. Our premise is that if we knew our history, the world would be a better place.
What school textbooks and the media miss
by Alison Kysia
When I teach history related to Islam or Muslims in the United States, I begin by asking students what names they associate with these terms. The list is consistent year after year: Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and Muhammad Ali.
All of these individuals have affected U.S. history in significant ways. If we take a step back and look at the messages these figures communicate about Muslims in U.S. history, we see a story dominated by men and by the Nation of Islam. Although important, focusing solely on these stories leaves us with a skewed view of Muslims in U.S. history. Even these examples are a stretch. Most of my students reference 9/11 as the first time they heard of Muslims.Read more »
By Clarence Lusane
Schools across the country are adorned with posters of the 44 U.S. presidents and the years they served in office. U.S. history textbooks describe the accomplishments and challenges of the major presidential administrations—George Washington had the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt the Spanish-American War, and so on. Children’s books put students on a first-name basis with the presidents, engaging readers with stories of their dogs in the Rose Garden or childhood escapades. Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution welcomes visitors to an exhibit of the first ladies’ gowns and White House furnishings.
Nowhere in all this information is there any mention of the fact that more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery.Read more »
By Richard Rothstein
In the last week, we’ve paid great attention to Nelson Mandela’s call for forgiveness and reconciliation between South Africa’s former white rulers and its exploited black majority. But we’ve paid less attention to the condition that Mandela insisted must underlie reconciliation—truth. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Mandela established, and that Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired, was designed to contribute to cleansing wounds of the country’s racist history by exposing it to a disinfecting bright light. As for those Afrikaners who committed even the worst acts of violence against blacks, they could be forgiven and move on only if they acknowledged the full details of their crimes.
In the current issue of the School Administrator, I write that we do a much worse job of facing up to our racial history in the United States, leading us to make less progress than necessary in remedying racial inequality.Read more »
By Bill Bigelow
Anti-bullying curricula are the rage these days. But as teachers endeavor to build a culture of civility among young people in school, the official history curriculum they are provided often celebrates, or at least excuses, bullying among nations. Well, at least when the United States is the bully.
A good example is the U.S. invasion of Grenada—Operation Urgent Fury, as it was called by the Reagan administration—launched exactly 30 years ago this week, on Oct. 25, 1983. Grenada made an unlikely target of U.S. military might. Its main product was not oil but nutmeg. Its naval fleet consisted of about 10 fishing trawlers. Grenada’s population of 110,000 was smaller than Peoria, Illinois. At the time of the invasion, there was not a single stoplight in the entire country. So what put Grenada in the crosshairs of the Reagan administration?Read more »
By Bill Fletcher Jr.
August 28 will mark the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Publicly associated with Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, this march brought more than 250,000 people to the nation’s capital. The day went down in history as a powerful show of force against Jim Crow segregation. Over time this great event has risen to levels of near mythology. The powerful speech by Dr. King, replayed, in part, for us every January on Martin Luther King Day, has eclipsed all else—so much so that too many people believe that the March on Washington was entirely the work of Dr. King. It is also barely remembered that the March on Washington was for freedom and jobs.Read more »
By Bill Bigelow
In the Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds, Daniel Ellsberg, who secretly copied and then released the Pentagon Papers, offers a catalog of presidential lying about the U.S. role in Vietnam: Truman lied. Eisenhower lied. Kennedy lied. Johnson “lied and lied and lied.” Nixon lied.
Ellsberg concludes: “The American public was lied to month by month by each of these five administrations. As I say, it’s a tribute to the American public that their leaders perceived that they had to be lied to; it’s no tribute to us that it was so easy to fool the public.”
In June of 1971, Ellsberg surrendered to federal authorities at Post Office Square in Boston. Forty-two years later, few of the historical secrets that Ellsberg revealed—especially those that focus on the immediate post-World War II origins of U.S. involvement in Vietnam—appear in the school curriculum.Read more »
By Linda Christensen
None of my mostly African American 11th graders in Portland had ever heard of the so-called Tulsa Race Riot, even though it stands as one of the most violent episodes of dispossession in U.S. history.
The term “race riot” does not adequately describe the events of May 31—June 1, 1921 in Greenwood, a black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In fact, the term itself implies that both blacks and whites might be equally to blame for the lawlessness and violence. The historical record documents a sustained and murderous assault on black lives and property. This assault was met by a brave but unsuccessful armed defense of their community by some black World War I veterans and others.Read more »
By Bill Bigelow
On this Earth Day, those of us fighting for climate justice and an end to the world’s fossil fuel domination should take heart from the struggle against slavery.
Imagine for a moment that it is 1858 and you are an abolitionist. Talk about discouragement: The previous year, in its Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no black person—whether enslaved or free—was entitled to become a U.S. citizen. A few years before, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which vastly expanded the U.S. government’s authority to seize and return to slavery individuals who had fled to freedom—or even those blacks born free in the North. Many Northern blacks crossed into Canada rather than live in constant fear.
And abolitionists were waging not just a moral struggle against the enslavement of human beings. Slavery was the largest industry in the United States, worth more than all the factories, banks, and railroads combined. In effect, the abolition movement aimed to expropriate without compensation the wealth of the most powerful social class in the country.Read more »
By Bill Bigelow
In 2006, with U.S. troops occupying Iraq, the great historian and humanitarian Howard Zinn expressed his desire for the end of the war: “My hope is that the memory of death and disgrace will be so intense that the people of the United States will be able to listen to a message that the rest of the world, sobered by wars without end, can also understand: that war itself is the enemy of the human race.”
At least in a formal sense, our country’s memories of war are to be found in school history textbooks. Exactly a decade after the U.S. invasion, those texts are indeed sending “messages” to young people about the meaning of the U.S. war in Iraq. But they are not the messages of peace that Howard Zinn proposed. Not even close.Read more »
In “Stripmining Black History Month,” Jeff Biggers writes that “the neglect and degradation of a region and its history have always mirrored the neglect and abuse of the land.” And there is no more abused land in the United States than Appalachia, where coal companies continue to scrape away mountains to get at the thin coal seams buried within. The coal companies call everything that is not coal, “overburden”—streams, trees, animals, plants. Surely history itself is also a burden for the coal companies, because if we knew our history, we would know the rich legacy of activism that has characterized Appalachia—activism that does not conform to the whitewashed ignorant “hillbilly” stereotypes that the rich and powerful have found so convenient to promote.Read more »
The original idea for the Zinn Education Project’s “If We Knew Our History” column grew out of our reading “American History Lessons,” by Melissa Harris-Perry in The Nation magazine. Harris-Perry’s article, reproduced here, is a meditation about the role of Black History Month.
She argues that we suffer from a “national deficit of historical knowledge” and that this deficit has contemporary political consequences. If we knew our history, she suggests, people would be less likely to follow the bigots who patch together historical symbols and soundbites to justify their right wing nostrums. And if we knew our history, we’d be more likely to appreciate and defend the accomplishments of social movements.Read more »
By Bill Bigelow
The most dangerous substance in the world is barely mentioned in the school curriculum. Coal.
According to the International Energy Agency, burning coal creates more greenhouse gases than any other source—including oil. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and arguably the world’s foremost climatologist, has called coal “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on the planet.”
And, as 350.org founder Bill McKibben pointed out recently in a remarkable article in Rolling Stone magazine, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” from a mathematical standpoint, it is demonstrably impossible to prevent the climate from spinning out of control with unimaginably horrible consequences, if we burn the fossil fuels that energy corporations are in the process of exploiting and selling.Read more »
By Bill Bigelow
Here’s a history quiz to use with people you run into today: Ask them who ended slavery.
I taught high school U.S. history for almost 30 years, and as we began our study, students knew the obvious answer: Abraham Lincoln. But by the time our study ended, several weeks later, their “Who ended slavery?” essays were more diverse, more complex—and more accurate. In coming months and years, teachers’ jobs will be made harder by Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, in which Daniel Day-Lewis gives a brilliant performance as, well, Lincoln-the-abolitionist. The only problem is that Lincoln was not an abolitionist.Read more »
By Tim Swinehart
In the wake of superstorm Sandy and a presidential election in which both candidates essentially ignored climate change, it’s time that our schools began to play their part in creating climate literate citizens.
Hurricane Sandy, and the superstorms that will follow, are not just acts of nature—they are products of a massive theft of the atmospheric commons shared by all life on the planet. Every dollar of profit made by fossil fuel companies relies on polluting our shared atmosphere with harmful greenhouse gases, stealing what belongs to us all. But if we don’t teach students the history of the commons, they’ll have a hard time recognizing what—and who—is responsible for today’s climate crisis.Read more »
By Bill Bigelow
This past January, almost exactly 20 years after its publication, Tucson schools banned the book I co-edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus. It was one of a number of books adopted by Tucson’s celebrated Mexican American Studies program—a program long targeted by conservative Arizona politicians.
The school district sought to crush the Mexican American Studies program; our book itself was not the target, it just got caught in the crushing. Nonetheless, Tucson’s—and Arizona’s—attack on Mexican American Studies and Rethinking Columbus shares a common root: the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.Read more »
By Bill Bigelow
Pearson-Prentice Hall’s high school textbook, United States History, opens its chapter on the Constitution with this Daniel Webster quote: “We may be tossed upon an ocean where we can see no land—not, perhaps, the sun and stars. But there is a chart and a compass for us to study, to consult, and to obey. The chart is the Constitution.” United States History tells students approvingly that Ronald Reagan and others have recited this Webster quote at celebrations of the Constitution.
This is the kind of on-bended-knee Constitution worship that has long been a staple of our country’s social studies curricula.
Sure, these days, most U.S. history textbooks acknowledge that the Constitution was not without controversy. Holt McDougal’s The Americans offers a perfunctory couple of pages on the debate between elite groups of Federalists and Anti-Federalists. But corporate textbooks present the Constitution as a wise inevitability, awaiting only the Bill of Rights as the icing on a delicious cake of compromise.Read more »
By Bill Bigelow
This week—August 24—would have been the 90th birthday of the great historian and activist Howard Zinn, who died in 2010. Zinn did not merely record history, he made it: as a professor at Spelman College in the 1950s and early 1960s, where he was ultimately fired for his outspoken support of students in the Civil Rights Movement, and specifically the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); as a critic of the U.S. war in Vietnam, and author of the first book calling for an immediate U.S. withdrawal; and as author of arguably the most influential U.S. history textbook in print, A People’s History of the United States. “That book will knock you on your ass,” as Matt Damon’s character says in the film Good Will Hunting.
By Dave Zirin
It has been almost 44 years since Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the medal stand following the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and created what must be considered the most enduring, riveting image in the history of either sports or protest. But while the image has stood the test of time, the struggle that led to that moment has been cast aside.
When mentioned at all in U.S. history textbooks, the famous photo appears with almost no context. For example, Pearson/Prentice Hall’s United States History places the photo opposite a short three-paragraph section, “Young Leaders Call for Black Power.” The photo’s caption says simply that “…U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in protest against discrimination.”Read more »
By Bill Bigelow
Apart from the noise pollution, air pollution, and flying debris pollution, there is something profoundly inappropriate about blowing off fireworks at a time when the United States is waging war with real fireworks around the world. To cite just one example, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London found recently that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone have killed more than 200 people, including at least 60 children. And, of course, the U.S. war in Afghanistan drags on and on. The pretend war of celebratory fireworks thus becomes part of a propaganda campaign that inures us—especially the children among us—to the real wars half a world away.
By Ruth Shagoury
In these times of vast economic disparities and ecological crisis, children need examples of people throughout history who committed their lives to justice—to bringing more equality and fairness to the world. Helen Keller, whose birthday we celebrate this month—June 27th—could be one of those role models. Instead, textbooks and children’s literature distort her life’s work, and miss key opportunities to inspire young people to make a difference in the world.
Helen Keller worked throughout her long life to achieve social justice; she was an integral part of many social movements in the 20th century. Yet today, she is remembered chiefly as a child who overcame the obstacles of being deaf and blind largely through the efforts of her teacher, Annie Sullivan. While she may be hailed as a “hero” in lesson plans for today’s children, the books recount only a fraction of what makes Helen Keller heroic.Read more »
By Moé Yonamine
“They’re Latinos…I think they’re some kind of farm workers.”
“No, they’re Asians with name tags.”
And then a student in a quiet voice walked by me slowly and muttered, “I think something really bad is happening to them.”
My students at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon—one of the state’s most racially diverse schools—studied each black and white photo posted around the room, inspecting the background and the facial expressions; confused, anxious, frustrated. They began a journey to uncover the hidden story of the Japanese Latin American removal, internment, and deportation during World War II.Read more »
By Sudie Hofmann
I recently came across a flier in an old backpack of my daughter’s: Wanted: Committee Chairs for this Spring’s Cinco de Mayo All School Celebration. The flier was replete with cultural props including a sombrero, cactus tree, donkey, taco, maracas, and chili peppers. Seeing this again brought back the moment when, years earlier, my daughter had handed the flier to me, and I’d thought, “Oh, no.” The local K-6 elementary school’s Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) was sponsoring a stereotypical Mexican American event. There were no Chicana/o students, parents, or staff members who I was aware of in the school community and I was concerned about the event’s authenticity. I presumed the PTSA meant well, and was attempting to provide a multicultural experience for students and families, but it seemed they were likely to get it wrong.
By Bill McKibben and Bill Bigelow
Maybe you’ve heard. We are facing a climate crisis that threatens life on our planet. Climate scientists are unequivocal: we are changing the world in deep, measurable, dangerous ways—and the pace of this change will accelerate dramatically in the decades to come.
Then again, if you’ve been a middle school or high school student recently, you may not know this.
That’s because the gap between our climate emergency and the attention paid to climate change in the school curriculum is immense. Individual teachers around the country are doing outstanding work, but the educational establishment is not.Read more »
By Bill Bigelow
“Wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or get pinched.” That pretty much sums up the Irish-American “curriculum” that I learned when I was in school. Yes, I recall a nod to the so-called Potato Famine, but it was mentioned only in passing.
Sadly, today’s high school textbooks continue to largely ignore the famine, despite the fact that it was responsible for unimaginable suffering and the deaths of more than a million Irish peasants, and that it triggered the greatest wave of Irish immigration in U.S. history. Nor do textbooks make any attempt to help students link famines past and present.Read more »
By Norm Diamond
Today’s Occupy movement is a reminder that throughout U.S. history a major engine of change has been grassroots organizing and solidarity. As an old Industrial Workers of the World song goes:
An injury to one, we say’s an injury to all,
United we’re unbeatable, divided we must fall.
—“Dublin Dan” Liston, The Portland Revolution
Major history textbooks, however, downplay the role of ordinary people in shaping events, especially those who formed labor unions and used the strike to assert their rights. One of the most significant strikes in U.S. history occurred exactly 100 years ago, in the Lawrence, Mass. textile mills, and yet it merits barely a mention in the most widely used U.S. history textbooks.Read more »