Who Should Decide How Students Learn About America’s Past?

By : Jacoba Urist   on March 4, 2015

My 5-year-old son won’t learn the same history in high school that I did when I was a teenager. Certain events that I was tested on will probably be entirely omitted from his history curriculum. New details, observations, and commentary—sometimes subtle, often not—will be added to his textbooks with the benefit of more time, scholarship, and perspective. To borrow the words of History in the Making author Kyle Ward, social movements that were once relegated to a brief paragraph or two, like that of LGBT rights, may “explode into pages of new information.”

History is written by the winners, the saying goes. Credited to a “cynic,” the axiom first appeared in The Boston Herald in 1929, according to Fred Shapiro, author of the Yale Book of Quotations. Indeed, it’s disheartening to think that champions get to write the official story—especially when that story involves a national biography, in which patriotism can collide with flawed historical realities. In a 2002 article for the Smithsonian magazine, the American historian Stephen Ambrose once asked, “To what degree do the attitudes of Washington and Jefferson toward slavery diminish their achievements?” It’s a question I don’t remember addressing in high school. Much of the research about the founding fathers and slavery, including Ambrose’s article, had yet to be published. The scientific journal didn’t report on the DNA results linking Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings until four years after I graduated.

Conflicts about how to teach children American history began almost as early as the subject itself. This school year, the fury is over the new U.S. History Advanced Placement course—in particular, whether its perspective is overly cynical about the country’s past. The controversy raises significant questions about the role of revisionism in education: How should students learn about oppression and exploitation alongside the great achievements of their country? And who decides which events become part of the national narrative as more information comes to light?

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