How the Whitewashing of History Threatens our Democracy

This whitewashing and censorship of history not only fail to educate our youth about this country's origins, but they also threaten the very foundations of...

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By Aries Ho

About a month ago, I witnessed a rather worrisome moment in my U.S. History class. We were discussing the atrocities committed by early Spanish explorers, such as Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés, when one of my classmates raised his hand to answer a question with a hurt look in his eye. As he described the systematic subjugation of Native Americans at the hands of the conquistadors, he began to sound more and more disgusted as he responded to my teacher's prompt. What had made him so angry, he said, was the fact that our U.S. History textbook completely glossed over the genocide committed by the Spanish in their quest for gold. He seemed ashamed to have been forced to rely on the day's handout for this information, having been “lied to” by the reading from the night before. My teacher admitted, “The textbook isn’t the greatest. She also said that she often finds it necessary to supplement its information with articles and documents to paint a fuller picture of America’s history.

My classmate wasn’t naive or wrong for being unaware of the dark origin of America’s colonies; he was simply misinformed. According to our textbook, “More surely than any army, disease conquered region after region.” This description depicts the eradication of Carribean and eastern Native Americans as accidental and inadvertent. While it’s true that disease played a major factor in the Native Genocide, this phrasing downplays the horrific actions taken by the Spanish. The cruelties inflicted upon the Native Americans are only discussed in a Point/Counterpoint section that depicts history and hero-worship as equally valid viewpoints. Stuyvesant students are lucky enough to have the privilege of in-depth analysis and discussion of this country’s past in our classes, with incredibly gifted teachers who have the talent and resources to keep us informed. This is not the national experience. Such whitewashing and censorship of history not only fail to educate our youth about this country's origins, but also threaten the very foundations of our democracy.

Last year, the Texas Board of Education voted on which historical figures to emphasize and which to remove from the state’s social studies curriculum. Among those figures were Hillary Clinton and Hellen Keller, whom the board decided to remove to help “streamline” their curriculum. This blatant censorship fails to give students a proper view of American history. Defenders of this decision may assert that most students are already aware of such a prominent figure such as Hillary Clinton, and that students who aren’t can easily find out about her through the news. But trying to keep up with modern politics is akin to trying to get into the Simpsons or South Park in 2019. It’s possible to hear about current events, but without the proper context, it’s impossible to understand the motives and reasoning behind policies and decisions, to recognize the different parties and ideologies at play, and to understand the impact these decisions have on the broader American populace. There are certainly students whose interest in politics will encourage them to explore and research history on their own, but a majority of students will simply find themselves confused and lose their curiosity. It’s our education system’s job to provide the context necessary to help students understand the consequences of our history and understand the effect it has on the modern world. When the system fails to do so, students may find themselves misinformed and apathetic about politics, leading them to be easily manipulated by our politicians or to simply neglect their civic duty to participate in our democracy.

But one need not censor history to manipulate present-day politics. By presenting a biased, sanitized, and misrepresented version of events, textbooks can deceive students into accepting hateful ideologies and bigoted perspectives on history. Last year, Texas finally included slavery as a central factor of the Civil War, marking the end of a longstanding campaign to whitewash one of the country’s greatest shames. During this country’s Reconstruction era, which followed the Civil War, the wives and daughters of fallen confederate troops formed a “heritage group” called the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) to gain control of the narrative surrounding the war. Soon becoming the de facto women’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan, the UDC published children’s books depicting the Klan’s actions as noble and justified, and campaigned to erect dozens of statues memorializing Confederate generals. They also spread misinformation about the Civil War through the school system. The UDC is often credited with popularizing the myth of the “lost cause,” which states that the Civil War was about states' rights, not slavery, and that the plantation system was beneficial for the slaves.

Until this year, Texas had been indoctrinating its students with this narrative. From calling slaves “workers” to claiming that the Confederacy rebelled over the Union’s “authoritarianism,” this doublespeak has helped condition students to idolize the Confederacy and has primed them for recruitment into hate groups. Students often adopt the world view presented by their parents and teachers, and though schools cannot control a student’s home life, they certainly shouldn’t peddle fiction as fact. We live in the age of information and misinformation, where it’s much easier to change facts than it is to change opinions. If a student who’s been conditioned to accept the “states’ rights” argument realizes his textbook doesn’t provide him enough information and goes online to research the topic with his biased worldview, there are countless hate groups willing to take his ignorance and run with it.

We saw the product of the division and hatred fostered by these myths on August 12, 2017. In response to calls to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, dozens of white nationalist groups organized a two-day protest called the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. With over thousands of protesters and counter-protesters in attendance, the rally quickly became violent, resulting in the murder of Heather Hyer by a neo-Nazi. These myths have resulted in a dogmatic investment in southern iconography, one that allows people to confuse hatred with patriotism. With many participants willing to shout Nazi slogans and stand side-by-side with swastikas, the effect biased and misrepresented history has on this country’s polarized voter base is clear.

This biased and whitewashed view of history isn’t only limited to the South, as a majority of textbook companies do their best to comply with Texas’s curriculum. Texas has an incredible amount of control over the national social studies curriculum, as it’s one of the nation's biggest textbook contractors. Instead of making separate textbooks to comply with different state regulations, many textbook publishers just opt to produce textbooks that satisfy Texas’s curriculum, since it’s often the most rigid and demanding. This means that all across the country, there are thousands of schools teaching this distorted view of American history, and there are millions of kids digesting it. Again, not every school is Stuyvesant. Not every school has the budget to hire effective teachers and purchase updated textbooks. Even with Texas losing its monopoly on our education system, there are schools in this country with textbooks that go back to the ‘90s, when companies were forced to comply with Texas to stay in business. The danger that comes with distorting history will only compound over time. As accurate information online becomes increasingly obscured by myths and misinformation campaigns led by trolls, this country will need well-funded and unmanipulated social studies programs to have the tools necessary to participate in this country’s democracy; otherwise, we will find themselves confused, misinformed, misled, and gaslighted by politicians and populist hate groups.

We cannot have a united country with a divided view of history. As time goes on, what was once censored will become forgotten, while the myths and misrepresentations will become facts and common knowledge. We live in dangerous times, where facts are relative and the truth is being distorted. Given Stuyvesant’s excellent teachers who go above and beyond the call of duty to educate us, we can make the most out of history class and stay informed in this increasingly hazy world. If we don’t, we are all in danger of finding ourselves unable to keep up with modern politics, misled by malicious organizations, and bewildered by the ramifications of the past and present. Those who fail to learn their history are doomed to be controlled by it.