American Education At Its Finest



Five months months ago, students in South Dakota began a school year where early American History would no longer be taught. Important historical contexts such as colonialism, slavery, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War, along with many other important points in the U.S. timeline were dropped into the void. To some, this may not seem like such a big deal, yet, in the wake of a controversial election, clearly divided by gender, race, and education level, an increased lack of education appears to harbor very real consequences for present and future South Dakota students, for present and future Americans.

Chiitaanibah Johnson at CSU Sacramento

Chiitaanibah Johnson at CSU Sacramento

These consequences can manifest in a variety of ways, such as: the CSU Sacramento debacle, where 19 year old Native American student, Chiitaanibah Johnson was dis-enrolled from her history class by her professor for disagreeing with his diluted teaching on Native American history. Her statement from ICTMN is as follows: “He said the word ‘genocide.’ He paused and said: ‘I don’t like to use that word because I think it’s too strong for what happened and genocide implies that it was on purpose, and most Native people were wiped out by European diseases.”

It is true that disease— sometimes intentionally inflicted, sometimes not—wiped out around 90% of the native population at the time. However, as a professor, to intentionally gloss over the numerous land dispossessions, the various massacres that further decimated the native population, the Native American boarding schools that sought to “kill the Indian and save the man", past and present over-representation in both prison and police brutality cases, the extreme lack of media representation that has helped to relegate the native community to near invisibility, and instead to paint a picture of European innocence to your students, is not just lazy, but is both disingenuous and hazardous to the students understanding of our past, and how it inextricably relates to our present.

Nevertheless, the disconnect between Chiitaanibah and her professor on this issue is surely indicative of a larger, deeper issue within the United States: K-12 education is a reflection of what we deem valuable. However, the problem with this, is that what we seem to value is usually limited to European history, and/or a European version of events. A version that is lacking at best. After all, the United States does not like to teach about the seedier parts of its history, nor does it like to spend much time on the history of those that aren't white males.

Yet, what we all learn, and do not learn, becomes a foundation for our perception of the world, and our place in it. According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, “Education should be a means to empower children and adults alike to become active participants in the transformation of their societies. Learning should also focus on the values, attitudes and behaviors which enable individuals to learn to live together in a world characterized by diversity and pluralism.

Therefore, if education is supposed to help empower and inspire a population to transform or direct their respective society in a positive direction, then why is it that instead, American education consistently focuses on withholding important information from all of its students in regards to this country, and how it was built and shaped on the backs of more than just our white population? We choose to provide our countrymen, from the time they are babies to young adulthood, with blatant ignorance in regards to people of other colors and cultures that have helped shape this nation, and then feign surprise when sizable numbers of people get pissed off at a Superbowl commercial that contains Americans singing the national anthem in different languages.

The diverse faces of a multicultural country.

The diverse faces of a multicultural country.

This isn't Japan or South Korea, where the population of the country is vastly homogeneous. The U.S. is made up of a variety of ethnicities, religions, cultures, and languages. Therefore, it behooves us to recognize that diversity and educate our children accordingly. Yet, we have continuously refused to do that, and instead have chosen to incubate ignorance and allow it to grow and spread like wildfire. That’s why continuous surprise at the division within America is both lazy and ignorant, considering we feed our divisions every day in a variety of ways, education only being one of many.

Many shades contributed to the creation of this country and to its overall success, yet, in school we are openly taught something very different. As a little kid at a vastly, white private school, my own knowledge and understanding of black history was stagnated at Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, MLK, slavery, and the Civil War for many years, and thus the understanding of myself was as well.

For me, American history, as it pertained to black people, was to be a slave, and other than that, it was to be a person in constant opposition to extreme racial injustice, but always to do so in a peaceful manner, because anything more, would have this country labeling you a terrorist. Learning about The Buffalo Soldiers, The Harlem Hellfighters, Benjamin Banneker, the origin of Jazz, Blues, and Rock n Roll, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Carter G. Woodson, W.EB. Dubois, Malcolm X, or anyone/anything else of note in K-12th wasn’t even a dream, because until college I had never so much as heard any of those topics or people discussed in class.

However, it wasn’t just me, millions of Americans know too little about U.S. History, due to shortcomings in education, to accurately understand the effects it has had, and continues to have upon not only black or Native American communities, but on our country as a whole. Even worse, South Dakota isn’t the only state that is erasing crucial elements of history from it’s curriculums, Texas is as well.

According to Washington Post, two years ago, five million public school students began to use textbooks that barely address racial segregation. In addition, slavery is presented as a minor, secondary issue that wasn’t as big a factor to the Civil War as states rights were. However, as stupid as that may sound to some, try to remember that only two years ago, millions of Americans were protesting that the Confederate Flag, the infamous symbol of southern slavery, animalistic brutality, and oppression, was really about "heritage, not hate". So, it's not very surprising.

Without the proper context behind the teaching of U.S. History, what kind of effect will this have on a large segment of Americans? Perhaps we get a small glimpse with Politcal Ticker's CNN Research Corporation Poll, which asked the simple question: what was the reason behind the Civil War, slavery or states rights? The results were pretty pathetic, but not surprising: 52 percent of Americans said that the war was fought over slavery, whereas 42 percent said that slavery was not the reason the war was fought, and instead pointed to states rights as the main issue.

To have so many Americans outright believe that slavery, namely the power that slavery was granting the south, was not the main reason for the Civil War is nothing short of ludicrous, but it isn’t shocking. It’s merely an expected result of decades of historical miseducation. Still, the historical facts remain, even if they weren't taught in school. In his piece “Slavery Made America”, Ta-Nehisi Coates included a quote from Yale Professor, David W. Blight which stated: 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined. So, of course, the war was rooted in these two expanding and competing economies—but competing over what? What eventually tore asunder America’s political culture was slavery’s expansion into the Western territories. (Blight)

After being confronted with a less than comfortable historical truth, such as this one, it is likely that the 42 percent that reported the Civil War was not fought due to slavery, would completely write off Mr. Blight. The sad thing is that many of them would not, however, question what they had been taught, and re-evaluate their thoughts on the intersection of history, race, and education.

Instead, many of them would likely choose to remain ignorant, and pass that ignorance to their children and children’s children. Therefore, the question remains: what does this say about the role that education plays in the lives of the American people, and how they see the world around them?

Whether it is through the omission of uncomfortable historical timelines from textbooks such as in Texas or South Dakota, or the deliberate distortion of factual information by teachers and professors, like with Chiitanibah and her professor, our nation, our children, are being shaped by these decisions.

By eliminating the teaching of early American history, South Dakota has spit in the face of centuries of injustices that minorities have had to suffer, and how this suffering has vastly contributed to present conditions, not only for minorities, but for our country as a whole. They have effectively declared that learning these aspects of our country’s history is of no importance to the children's development as American citizens, but in the wake of escalating racial tensions, education is a necessity to ward off ignorant prejudices and actions.

Nevertheless, without a proper understanding of history, how will the upcoming students understand the recurring racial tensions, and the socioeconomic inequalities that plague the nation? Will their parents speak to them? Probably not. And even if their parents do talk to them, will they even have the knowledge available to properly explain present day conditions and how they got to this point? Doubtful. Perhaps most important, how will the kids understand their own position, and how it relates to others that are different from them? This past November, we all witnessed the repercussions of extreme ignorance, and with the eradication of invaluable historical information from the curriculum of schools, there will likely be more repercussions to come.