Questioning American Education: Insular History

Why aren’t primary school students taught more about the history of foreign-born Americans?

Non-native Americans shaped the United States into the nation it is today; our current youth should be aware of this. It is the job of the schools these students inhabit to provide unbiased and multi-faceted recounts of history. Pride in the cultural and ethnic diversity that exists within this country should be widely promoted and serve as the foundation for the public school historical curriculum. However, there exists a flaw in the way history is being taught, reflecting the hypocrisy of existing claims of equal representation and recognition.

In the United States, students generally begin taking history classes in the fourth grade. They learn about the history of their state of residence, early American settlers, and Native Americans. The prioritization of other subjects in younger grades is reflective of two major factors: teachers’ belief in the greater importance of other subjects relative to history, and public schools’ focus on standardized testing, which primarily measures mathematical skills and reading comprehension. This limited curriculum progresses to studies of the ancients (Greece, Egypt, and China), and eventually reaches high school level studies of the United States, Europe, and “the world.” These distinctions will be familiar to anyone that has taken AP courses, as these are the exact sectors into which they divide history.

The first problem arises at the very titles of the distinctions. One full year on the United States. One full year on Europe. Oh, good—one full year on the entire world, which will also include a recap of the United States and Europe, as if the preceding classes didn’t give those areas enough attention. Still, the focus on Europe and America is not the biggest fault of the American education system. The flaw this country should be most ashamed of exists in classes taught on US history.

In high school, the history of the United States is generally taught chronologically. It begins with studies of the indigenous people of America in the 14th century and ends with the modern era. In between, the focus lies mainly on three periods: the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the World Wars. However, this focus is somewhat misleading. The curriculum usually emphasizes key battles, and great white “pure-American” leaders that led the country to wonderful triumphs—defeats and wartime atrocities conducted by those same heroes are skimmed through quickly. Only a handful of students across the country will learn, in detail, of American failures or negative global reputation. This includes such fiascos as the Pentagon Papers, the Hollywood Ten, and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

Even some country-wide triumphs are omitted from standard education, including, shockingly enough, the Civil Rights Movement. In a 2010 study of the country’s civil rights curriculum by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 35 states received an F grade, meaning their schools taught less than 20%  of the SPLC’s suggested content. Only Alabama, New York, and Florida received A’s, teaching more than 65% of the proposed curriculum.

Much of what Americans know about these events comes from blockbuster movies, splattered with erroneous information and false representations. This raises interesting questions, like that verbalized by Michael Conway: “Before the release of Selma, I wonder how many people ever reflected on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s attitude toward the 1965 marches in Selma.” Despite the importance of the Civil Rights Movement in US history, it is not a mandatory part the history curriculum in some states. Omissions like this are especially frightening when considering their importance not only to American history, but also to the development and progression of the American national identity.  

Students sit in their primary school buildings for 12 years and graduate with a vague understanding of the patriotism of the Founding Fathers, yet not their irony in keeping slaves. They may not know about the real-action patriots and fighters who risked their lives, saved others, and yelled at the top of their lungs to see changes be made. A middle schooler may be able to explain the importance of Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride, but what about the Polish-American hero who turned the American Revolution into an ultimate triumph for the rebels? Tadeusz Kościuszko, a military officer under Benjamin Franklin who improved the defensive fortifications and trenches at Saratoga, is just one of the many examples of foreign-born patriots who don’t receive the credit they deserve for their contribution to American society.

To paint an accurate picture of US history, history curricula in American public schools needs to be comprehensive and nuanced. Foreign-born immigrants should be recognized for their contributions to the progression of the United States. Minority groups of native-born Americans must have greater representation, too. The Harlem Hellfighters were praised while they fought for the United States during World War II, but where is that praise now? Where is the praise for Nat Turner? For the Men of Steel? It may exist in very little quantities, but this is certainly not enough. This is not what a nation of diverse cultures and races should foster within its walls. American schools are failing to present youth with an unbiased portrait of the world’s history, and subsequently not preparing them to be world citizens.