Well, that’s not exactly correct…
When I was looking through my Facebook newsfeed the other day, I came across a post one of my friends shared about an excerpt from a children’s history textbook. It was from the introduction to a chapter on American westward expansion, discussing the contact between the Native Americans and the European settlers. It stated, “When the European settlers arrived, they need land to live on. The First Nations peoples agreed to move to different areas to make room for the new settlements.” This quote just confuses me. By “The First Nations peoples agreed to move to different areas,” do they mean that they were brutally murdered and forced off their land in an act of near genocide? Does it also say that Hitler politely asked the Jews to leave Europe and they happily agreed, flocking off hand in hand to a better life?
It’s no secret that the U.S. school system is deeply flawed for many reasons. For this article, however, I would like to focus on this chronic flaw in the way we teach students complete and utter misinformation for no good reason. It boggles my mind how an academic institution can so blatantly teach inaccurate and deceptive information about our nation’s past. The U.S.’s history is at times complicated, dark and horrifying. To misconstrue children into thinking that our past is as simple and happy-go-lucky as it seems in that excerpt is a complete disservice to their intellect, as well as society as a whole. Purposefully trying to misconstrue facts for the sake of simplicity is detrimental to the entire concept of history and undermines the entire intent of teaching it in any educational context.
The justification I see for this is that our education system doesn’t believe that children can comprehend intricacies and complications beyond just face value. Knowing that past generations of Americans moved out west to expand the size of the country is easy, but understanding the immense cost that expansion had on Native American lives is something we’ve deemed too hard for children to understand. The result of this is a misunderstanding of historical phenomena in that actions don’t have tangible consequences.
Altering the facts of history to make them more palatable and understandable for children installs in them a warped view of the world, affecting their opinions later on in life. The westward expansion example and “Manifest Destiny,” as well as the proliferation of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America without accounting for his brutal treatment of the indigenous peoples, serves to whitewash history and install a sense of American entitlement into children. If they grow up believing these misleading interpretations of history, their perception of American history is entwined with a deeply idealized American identity that ignores the horrors of the past. This can lead to deeply nationalistic and racially antagonistic tendencies. Many vocal advocates for protecting the legacies of controversial figures such as Columbus and Andrew Jackson have come from the far right, President Donald Trump and many of his supporters as a prime example.
If we continue to instill a false perception of American history in children, we as a society will never be able to fully grapple with our past and commit to repairing the ramifications that still exist today. The first step toward actually dealing with these issues and progressing as a society is to understand history from the same perspective with all facts and information considered. Picking apart history to make it more appropriate for children undermines progress from the get-go. Why do many in the South still identify strongly with the Confederacy while those in the North scratch their head in disbelief? It’s because each side is looking at history from one side or the other, not both.