The Dangers of Teaching Whitewashed American History
The announcements last fall that several colleges and universities had begun to cancel diversity, equity, and inclusion programs represented a dangerous capitulation to efforts to further embed “whitewashed” American history into our public school curricula. These cancellations were in response to President Trump’s executive order against teaching “divisive concepts” in federally funded programs and the creation of a 1776 Commission to teach “patriotic education.”
A more encouraging and courageous response to the executive order came from the president and provost of the University of Michigan, who issued a statement asserting that the “educational efforts this [executive] order seeks to prohibit are critical to much-needed action to create equitable economic and social opportunities for all members of society, to confront our blind spots, and to encourage us all to be better teachers, scholars and citizens.”
The launch of the Biden-Harris Administration, with its commitment to racial healing, offers an opportunity for higher education to embrace the views of the University of Michigan leadership. If colleges and universities are to advance to the “more perfect Union” envisioned in the Preamble to the US Constitution, a truly patriotic education must include all aspects of our history—the parts that make us proud to be Americans, and the parts that may be difficult to acknowledge. As famed poet Maya Angelou has told us, “History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again.”
A few years ago, Jim Loewen, author of the best-selling book Lies My Teacher Told Me, suggested that educators do away with the voluminous and often “whitewashed” American history textbooks, which are often “dumbed down” to appeal to the broadest possible market, and replace them with texts that help students learn mostly from primary source documents available online. Here are a few truths students might learn if we adopted Loewen’s idea:
- George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, despite their accomplishments, were not perfect men and made their fortunes primarily on the backs of enslaved people.
- The Civil War was fought precisely over slavery and not “states’ rights” or anything else.
- Abraham Lincoln did not believe that Black people were equal to White people and wanted to send them back to Africa.
- In the century following the Civil War, the thousands of lynchings of African American men and women were often occasions for picnics by White people, some even received body parts as souvenirs.
- White people were responsible for genocide against Indigenous people, and our leaders established boarding schools to try to “civilize” Indigenous children by destroying their culture.
- Several of the progressive New Deal programs (e.g., Social Security and the GI Bill) intentionally discriminated against African Americans.
Instead, many of us have been taught outrageous myths: White people treated Native Americans well; slave owners were kind and enslaved people were better off under the control of the people who “owned” them; and all of our great inventions, accomplishments, and literature were the products of White people.
At the same time, most of us were not taught that enslaved people built our nation’s Capitol and the White House; that Black people invented the traffic light, the gas mask, and the mobile refrigeration used on long-haul trucks, among other items that are integral parts of our daily lives; that Black people developed our system of blood banks and designed the layout of Washington, DC; that the concept of mandatory public education emerged from the policies of Black-led governments in the South during Reconstruction.
Most of us were taught little, if anything, about freedom fighters of color like Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Sitting Bull, and A. Philip Randolph. Rather, emphasis is often placed on the philosophy of Black educator Booker T. Washington, who was willing to accept the concept of White social superiority as the price of Black economic survival. At some institutions, English literature students have pushed back against reading lists that included mostly White male authors, which seemed to implicitly convey the erroneous belief that there are few, if any, writers of color worth reading.
We have tried to correct for these omissions by creating a Black History Month. But this implies that somehow the history of Black people and other people of color in the United States is divorced from and inferior to the “real history” of our country—the history of White people that is taught twelve months a year. And it furthers the myth of white supremacy.
Similarly, since the 1960s, we have seen a rise in African American studies in colleges and universities across the country. Unfortunately, many White students perceive no need to take such classes, and school administrators often perceive no need to incorporate African American studies and the study of other people of color as integral parts of all students’ education. This lack of knowledge embeds within many White Americans the negative racial stereotypes and the often-unacknowledged sense of white superiority that drive much of the behavior of White people toward people of color.
By teaching a “whitewashed” version of American history, we ignore the oppressions that are an integral part of our past and that have left a legacy that haunts us today. And we rob our college students and future leaders of the ability to understand, contextualize, and think critically about all aspects of our history. Without a full understanding of our past, how can we expect to solve the problems this past has created?
Michael R. Wenger is an AAC&U Senior Fellow. This blog is adapted from his forthcoming book, Racist? Not Me! Creating the America We Really, Really Want.