History class rebellion

Breaking a cycle of textbook oppression

I often walk into classrooms to face a sea of stank faces — that’s my general description of an inconvenienced and/or bored teenager. You know the look: chin to the chest, head tilted to the right, arms folded tightly, eyes stuck in what appears to be a suspended state of eye-roll, and an upper lip that’s slightly curled in disgust. Super stank.

I’m a guest lecturer, invited to talk to a history class that begins somewhere around 2:25 p.m. on a Wednesday. I get why they’re not overjoyed to see me. And I no longer take it personally. These young people in classrooms are tired of the routine. Sit. Listen. Learn what this stranger thinks you should know about the past.

I could be a descendant of Frederick Douglass, standing directly in front of them with my own large, graying afro and a life-size wooden sculpture that Mr. Douglass hand-carved himself. Plenty of students would still look at me blankly and wonder, “What’s this got to do with me? (Note: I am not a descendant of Mr. Douglass, and I don’t believe he carved sculptures from wood.)

In many ways their skepticism is justified. Western history education doesn’t cater to everyone. And it was never intended to benefit the students who sit before me. Tarnished by bias and Eurocentric revision, history textbooks in the U.S., Europe, and so many countries that still live in the aftermath of colonialism continue to tell only one side of the “winner’s” story, leaving countless students to feel marginalized, overlooked and disengaged.

The colonizing government realized that they gain strength not necessarily through physical control but through mental control. This mental control is implemented through a central intellectual location — the school system. ~ O. Nwanosike & L. Onyije

That’s right, the shortcomings of contemporary history education are a long-perpetuated consequence of colonialism, slavery and other forms of social and economic oppression. And it’s these terrible histories themselves that lead many of us to distrust the biased and oftentimes dishonest memories of their perpetrators.

Power and education have always been closely intertwined. Since forever ago, to maintain their positions of power, oppressors have denied education to the oppressed. Because otherwise, if the oppressed had sufficient knowledge, they would be stronger and far more likely to resist control. This formula [no education = no resistance] took shape in all parts of the world. By the 16th century, in the U.S., South America and the Caribbean, enslaved Africans were denied education altogether, including basic knowledge about themselves, their families, their languages, and their heritage. And for centuries, throughout most of Sub-Saharan Africa, colonizers subjected Africans to the same.

In their research about colonial education in Africa, Nwanosike and Onyije explained that Europeans constructed a system of education that was intentionally inaccurate: “The system of education was designed to impose upon Africans, the white man’s mythical, racial superiority and African inferiority. Whatever Africans were taught about themselves was designed to enable them to internalize their inferiority and to recognize the white man as their savior. Colonial schooling was education for subordination, exploitation, the creation of mental confusion and the development of underdevelopment.”

Over in the U.S., slavery meant the most egregious laws could thrive. With the exception of learning to count, which obviously benefited white enslavers, enslaved people were prohibited from receiving any type of education. For example, in 1830, North Carolina passed a pretty typical law to prohibit the education of enslaved people. The statute stated,

Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write, has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion, to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State:
Therefore, be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, that any free person, who shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any slave within the State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave or slaves any books or pamphlets, shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in this State…

Where education wasn’t prohibited, it was filtered and controlled — for generations. Historical knowledge was distorted, identities were compromised, heritage was lost, and actual memories were forgotten. These were the consequences of one of the most harmful and persistent methods of oppression, only exacerbated when the misleading information remained unchallenged and internalized among so many — printed in textbooks, discussed in lectures, and memorized for exams.

Often, the implementation of a new education system leaves those who are colonized with lack of identity and a limited sense of their past. The indigenous history and customs once practiced and observed slowly slipped away. ~Nwanosike & Onyije

Although the oppressive intentions of western education were initiated long ago, young people are still negatively affected today. We have plenty of evidence that today’s school curricula continue to enforce outdated notions of European superiority, representing history’s “winners and losers,” with students often finding their own histories either distorted or entirely overlooked. For example, recently in Texas, a textbook about Mexican-American heritage was harshly criticized for its factual errors and barely disguised racism. Compared to the “driven and competitive” European industrialists, Mexican men were described as lazy, unprofessional and likely alcoholics. And in 2015, McGraw Hill was forced to apologize for its textbook that referred to enslaved Africans as “workers” who “migrated” to the U.S. to work on agricultural farms.

In the U.S., Black and Latino students are least likely to see themselves or their ancestors positively represented in typical history curricula. As a likely result, these students are consistently scoring lower in U.S. History assessments than their white and Asian classmates. U.S. Department of Education data from 2014 revealed that race was a greater indicator of a student’s performance in a U.S. history class than socio-economic status or gender.

Average scale scores for U.S. History, grade 8 (by race/ethnicity)

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2014 U.S. History Assessment.

Average scale scores for U.S. History, grade 12 (by race/ethnicity and National Lunch Program eligibility)

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2010 U.S. History Assessment.

This leads me back to the bored and disgruntled teenagers who wait for me to get on with my presentation. They expect to be challenged, maybe. But I’m not certain they’re paying attention until I challenge their expectations about history class: “In 100 years, how many of you want to be remembered?” That’s usually everyone. Then I ask, “how many of you can name one of your ancestors who lived 100 years ago?” Now it’s maybe one or two students — usually none. But with their interest piqued, most students become curious about those ancestors who once hoped to be remembered. When were they forgotten? Why were they forgotten?

Perhaps they once believed their ancestors were irrelevant or inaccessible. Perhaps they accepted the notion that their family histories were not as “great” as those one-sided histories that are represented in textbooks. Like many of us, I believe these students have been subjected to the same education policies that once oppressed and pacified our ancestors. Knowing that education might “excite dissatisfaction in their minds, and…produce insurrection and rebellion” (see the North Carolina statute above), writers of contemporary history textbooks have perpetuated the same limitations and bias of a 19th century colonial education.

Now, we have a choice to make.

With students listening carefully, curious to learn if history has anything to do with them, we must determine the purpose of their education. Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, explained: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Standing in front of once disengaged and disenchanted students, I choose freedom over conformity, and knowledge over acceptance. This is why I bring their ancestors into the classroom. I want to introduce them to a version of education that upholds their freedom, encouraging them to learn other sides of the story and think critically about every lesson. Now we can begin to address the gaps in knowledge and self-confidence that have been sustained for generations. We can begin to speak the names of our ancestors, embrace our heritage, shape our own identities, and reclaim our histories.

It’s never too late for us to heal. But unless we acknowledge and break the cycle of oppressive education now, we’ll be too late to reach the students who are sitting in classrooms today.

Learn about Ancestors unKnown. We’re using curriculum and workshops to introduce young people to genealogy research and other untold histories worldwide. Because it’s not work if it’s a revolution.

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