Can We Teach the REAL American History?

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

“Sherman, my boy, I’m afraid this may be a problem even we can’t solve!”

“History”…to me, it was probably the moldiest word in the English language.  “Social Studies” would rank a close second, if not for the fact that it is actually two words.  Anytime someone started talking about anything “historical”, my mind pictured Mr. Peabody and Sherman—a brilliant dog and his adopted pet boy, respectively—setting the date on Peabody’s “WABAC Machine” and setting off to correct fractured versions of past events, often using similarly and anachronistically fractured means (Ward, 1959).  As funny as those cartoons were, it seems they were prophetically congruent to the history we’ve been taught in elementary and middle school; it too was mostly fractured, if not completely incorrect.  I’d like to step into the WABAC Machine myself and look at how history has been shown to us; how it differed from what I learned outside of the school setting; and how my experiences have affected (and will affect) how I teach in the future.

Being as I had spent very little time in elementary school (attending parts of the fourth and sixth grades), my experiences with history at those levels were in short bursts.  My main sources of education came from old books, movies, television, or stories from my grandparents.  Even so, something about the lessons I learned at the time did not seem to fit in with the reality of the world of the early 1970s.

Cristobal Colon

@ChrisColon: “Google Maps? Hah! I know EXACTLY where I’m going!” smh! #wrongwaystupid

In school, we were told that “we” always won…”we” meaning America as a whole.  Even when we fought ourselves, “we” won.  Places were “discovered” or “won”, and their peoples “conquered” or “freed” (after being enslaved by the very same “conquerors”, of course).  History was, to use one of my mom’s favorite terms, “color-struck”—it always seemed to favor White European (and later White American) males over all others.  We were taught famous people, places, events and dates to memorize and parrot back; many even had their own little mnemonic devices (HOMES for the Great Lakes, for example).  The sad part about the whole affair was that there was no “me” there.  Sure, there was a lot of American history, but it happened either before I was born or in places I only heard about in class or on TV or in movies.  Considering the “current events” of the day, one would think there would be all kinds of questions raised by the students, or even brought into the classrooms by the teachers.  As Cowhey (2006) rightly points out, however, there was no room for controversy in the curriculum (p. 12). When you brought in your own information, it was censored and re-edited to fit the mold, never to deviate from it.

I wanted to deviate.  I wanted to know why I could have friends who were Hispanic and Jewish (both Orthodox and Hassidic), and many different kinds of “Black”, while the news showed everyone else fighting and hating each other.  I wondered why real people lived in crowded, run-down buildings while everyone outside of New York lived like “The Brady Bunch”, in nice houses with two-car garages.  I wanted to know why going to the moon was so important if no one could live there.  I wanted to know if people like me who didn’t believe in God could still pledge allegiance to the flag.  We never talked about food stamps, though most of us had them; or teenagers, who were our older siblings or cousins or “aunties”, having babies; or why our fathers or uncles came back “wrong” after being in “the ‘Nam”.  The word “holocaust” was something we heard from the “crazy cat lady”, because no one else wanted to talk about it.  I wanted to know so many things, but was told what I was told, and told to repeat what I was told, and told to write it ten times in my composition book so I wouldn’t forget it.  I was told that we were “one nation, under God, indivisible”; yet, we always seemed to be divided about something, including God.  I wanted to know why, but I wasn’t told.

As with hooks (2010), we seemed destined to remain placed within our socioeconomic status, both by the educational system and by our own local society.  We were expected to succeed at the passing level; anything more than the teachers met with surprise and enthusiasm.  However, getting high marks also brought scorn and taunts (if not beatings) from other students.  Girls were especially fearful of standing out, lest they lose their popularity with their friends and the positive attention of boys.  The idea of going to college was never brought up in class, even during middle school.  We were simply primed to get through high school (or get our GEDs) and get whatever jobs we could…or remain on welfare.  Our parents weren’t rich or famous or in political power, so unless we were very lucky, there seemed no point to look past the next grade.

If there were students who had a physical disability or psychological illness, we didn’t see them at our school, though they definitely existed in our community.  I myself am visually impaired, but not totally blind—I was a curiosity to my fellow students, but I managed to avoid the “special classes” label by fitting in and doing my work.

Stepping back into 2014, I was surprised to find out how much had changed in terms of what is being taught in schools—and what still is not—since the days of disco.  Unfortunately, there is so much yet to be taught; things that fall outside the “teacher-proof” textbooks of our curriculum (Cowhey, 2006; p. 12).  How are we supposed to teach our children about freedom, fairness, justice, equality, ableism and the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” when what is taught to us—and what we see in the real world—tends to contradict all of these “American” ideals?  We all deserve to learn the true way of things, but at what price?  At what age is it okay to expose a child to the song “Strange Fruit”, with its poetic yet grisly depiction of a Black man hanging from a tree?  How do we get children to relate to child armies in Somalia or school shootings here at home?  Can we get a child whose family lives on EBT to understand how people survived the Dust Bowl or the Potato Famine?  Or that the chances of getting a good job after obtaining a college degree are far better than signing a multi-million-dollar sports contract or being the next big entertainment star?

We could do the radical thing—ask the children.  Regardless of the era, children have always been curious about the world around them.  They also have their own history—their own “social studies”—that they can share from, learn about, and compare to those of their classmates (Jones, Pang & Rodriguez, 2001; Levstik & Barton, 2011).  In this age of instant-access information, students need to be able to understand the events that shape their lives.  My goal as a teacher is to do for them what my teachers had not done for me—help them to find answers in ways they can comprehend.  I want to help them find ways to connect those facts to the present, or vice-versa; that they matter in the grand scheme of things, and that they won’t need to step into the WABAC Machine to see history as relevant, interesting, and fun.

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