What are we learning in high school history class?

From our last class discussion about the “staging” of Rosa Parks’ bus boycott, to recalling our realization that MLK was not a one man band who single-handedly crafted the civil rights movement, it shocks me to think about how much our text books glazed over America’s historical truth.  When I think of the history that most of us learned in elementary school, the only thing that comes to mind is: “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492”.

In part II of Chapter 7, we learn just how dark the shadow of World War II is. In incidents like explosion that killed 202 navy seamen in July 1944 at the Port Chicago, San Francisco, the United States government treated black soldiers with no human dignity (273). Branding black soldiers as rapists when there was no substantial evidence (272). Removing all dignity. Violent, widespread lynchings. Intense voter intimidation… Before this class, I didn’t have an accurate perception how inhumanely the government, and many American citizens, treated black Americans throughout history. As the NAACP worked to end discrimination and secure full citizenship for black Americans, widespread violence is still going on.  Why didn’t we learn about this extreme violence in high school!

Another thing that came up in our last class discussion was how hard it must have been to be an organization like the NAACP to be fighting against a system that is completely set against you.  It’s so eye-opening to hear these stories and to begin to feel the experience of black Americans in the 20th century. To gain a better picture of living every day in fear for your life and knowing that if any white person accused you of something you could probably not defend your innocence. In Chapter 7 and 8, we see Marshall working tirelessly to defend and advocate for black Americans through the NAACP.  In just the year 1944, he traveled more than 42,000 miles working for social justice (286).  His steadfast and determined character in such a time of danger speaks to incredible leadership.

As the wartime oppression turned into a demand for “justice now,” this line stuck out for me: “if black men and women rejected the idea of being a ruled group, they ‘must be willing to make every sacrifice necessary to retain the right to vote’” (285). We’ve never lived through a time when our population has had to fight for the right to vote, so it’s easy for the full importance of suffrage to escape us. Truly comparing our own lives to the lives of the black Americans of the civil war era, is eye opening to say the least.

How many of you have taken your full citizenship for granted?  Did you learn about the true civil rights history in high school (if you did, was it just a really good teacher?) Although Prof. Fergeson was joking, it really does seem like we need college history to correct, or give a more complete story, to what we’ve learned in the past. Drawing from chapters 7 and 8, what are some things that you learned that you didn’t know before, and you think you should have known? Any comments on the seeming inadequacy of high school history classes?

– Caitlin

11 thoughts on “What are we learning in high school history class?

  1. To begin, this was a very thought provoking blog post, thanks Caitlin! I would definitely have to say I take my citizenship for granted. In the beginning of the course, I was disillusioned with the idea that the right to vote is not all that important, and that of all the Civil Rights battles, the fight against disenfranchisement was the least meaningful. However, the more I read about the constant rejection not only from society but also from the American government, and how little influence African Americans can have on the politics and leadership of their own country dealing with issues involving their well being, the more I realize voting’s importance. Even to be able to get one representative or some type of foothold or leverage in a position of power would be significant for the change in policy and attitude towards negro suffering; and this simply cannot happen without voting power.

    As far as history lessons go, these tragedies were greatly overlooked in my classes as well. Yes, I was aware of discrimination and even violence, but certainly not to the extent of families attending lynchings and buying postcards for those who missed it. I was also very unaware of the obstacles that negroes faced in policy change. The rejection and failures that we continuously read about in the last few chapters seem like enough of a discouragement to end the whole movement. I am even more impressed with leaders and activists of this time period after seeing more of the whole story.

  2. In response to your first question, I think that everyone at some point in time takes advantage of their full citizenship. Although many people know that blacks and women had to struggle and fight for years to gain the right to vote, still many people do not utilize this right. In 2008 for the presidential election, 64% of the electorate voted. These were record numbers, but still only a little more than half of the people who have the right to vote actually did. Aside from just showing up to vote, I also think that people take advantage of this right by not being informed voters and voting responsibly. It is sad how people don’t care enough to do research about candidates and vote according to that rather than simply because of political parties or how the media portrays them.

    As for the second question, I too was surprised by some of the things I have been hearing in class and reading about the civil rights movement. I have had a slightly different high school history experience it seems, though. For AP US History, my teacher had us read the book entitled Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, written by James W. Loewen, and we did a whole unit on what history classes and textbooks are getting wrong. While this could not have possibly covered everything, I feel like I have been given a little bit more of a perspective on how history can be skewed or on how we as students can sometimes not be learning the whole story.

  3. Great post, Caitlin, it’s definitely important to not take our citizenship and rights for granted, and to look carefully at everything we learn to make sure what we’re learning is not given to us from a biased or misconstrued viewpoint.
    What you talk about in your post makes me think back to the most recent primary here in Virginia a few weeks ago, where we had somewhere around a 3% voter turnout. When I compare this with how blacks were fighting so hard for the right and ability to vote, I see a huge gap. How can we go from where people are so motivated to stand in the rain for hours for the CHANCE of getting to vote, to where we are now where we don’t seem to care at all? So many people have said that if we don’t exercise our rights they will eventually be taken away, are we prepared to lose our right to vote? Would we care if we did?

    As to the inadequacy of high school history classes, I think you make a good point. How do we know what we learn is true? Everything we read has some bias, even primary sources. We can learn the facts, but how can we interpret them accurately? I am continually brought back to the saying “history is written by the victor,” so I think it naturally follows, that the history that we believe is really from who convinces us the most recently; who “wins” in conveying their version of history. I realize I might be stepping on toes here, but how do we know we won’t go off to grad school and learn something even more different, maybe even contradicting that which we learned here in college?

    • Josiah,
      I appreciate you bringing up the idea that “history is written by the victor,” especially in this context. As Ransby challenged us to rethink the legacy of Dr. King and our class questioned the classic protest story of Rosa Parks, I’ve been wondering who gets remembered and why? Why is Dr. King remembered as being synonymous to the Civil Rights movement? Why is Rosa Parks association with the NAACP ignored in high school history? Why haven’t I learned about Ella Baker before college? Seeing that I’ve been on a little bit of a power kick lately (not wanting power, but fascinated by power and who gets it and who doesn’t), I think these are definitely messages that have been shaped by how the powers that be want us to think about our own power. The demigod image of Dr. King keeps us waiting for a savior to fix our injustices, whereas Ella Baker would inspire and empower young students to make change. Then again, discounting the role of the NAACP empowers Rosa Parks as one individual able to change the course of history with one small act of defiance. What does this mean? Are certain ways of remembering history more empowering than others, or am I reading too much into this?

      – Amanda

  4. Caitlin,
    I really appreciate your post. Nearly everything you mentioned were the things that really stuck out to me in the readings. This discussion you pose connects so well with what we learned in our “Race, Class, and Schooling” course in the sociology department where we read a similar book to the one that Kate mentioned by Loewen. Personally, I don’t feel like anything I learned in high school was the full and true history because all the material was aimed at simply scratching the surface. I remember in our other class, many of us agreed that to alter the racial terms that the nation currently faces, all of the textbooks that are out there would have to be re-written and introduced from the very beginning in kindergarten, but obviously the great expense and the reality of that happening is slim. It is amazing and so sad to me that I am just learning about all of these important activist and events in college after i’ve been supposedly been learning about the civil rights movement since like elementary school. For example, I attended Henry L. Stimson Middle School, but I NEVER ever knew who he was, until reading chapter 7 in this book. How are people going around naming schools after such individuals and not even placing crucial importance on learning the true history. It’s just crazy. And to make things even worse, the huge educational inequality blocks many minority and lower class children from even having aspirations of attending college. If there are never getting to college and correcting what they learned, it almost seems like they are living in the shadows/living a lie (or you get what i mean-hopefully).

  5. I agree with Joell- so thought-provoking! This semester I am taking a rhetoric class that deals strictly with citizenship: basically, what defines citizenship and who gets to be a citizen in our country. It’s fascinating and sometimes horrifying to look back on our nation’s history and see the populations that have been denied citizenship. Our society is definitely biased towards straight, white, wealthy males and I do think that in many cases we don’t learn about this bias/consequences until we reach college. It wasn’t until last semester in my Justice class that I read “Blood Done Sign My Name” and learned about the angry/violent side of the civil rights movement that really doesn’t get covered in grade school.

  6. After having two years of different classes that discuss racism, discrimination, and different cultures; I believe that history in college is necessary to understand the true meaning of history and what happened in the past. In high school, teachers provide an understanding of events when it comes to the past, but they do not analyze the different aspects of history like Richmond has for me. For example, in my U.S Hsitory class i learned about the Civil Rights Movement and racism, but my teacher never fully explained the hardhsips and the struggles that African Americans were forced to deal with. We learned about Jim Crow Laws and how people were segregated, but we did not learn about lynchings and detailed accounts of the cases where all-white juries were deciding cases for African Americans. These ideas provide a completely different understanding of what African Americans had to go through. Even though i am still learning and continuing to have a better understanding, I will never truly understand or know their hardships because I am not an African American that lived during those troubled times.

  7. Not to belabor the point, but I really did enjoy your post and the ensuing discussion. It really is a bit eye opening to see how civil rights history tends to be sugarcoated in high school. I think this is a dangerous trend that can have some negative consequences. By covering up specific aspects of the civil rights movement and framing it in a specificaly biased ways high school history classes are not doing the students any favors. Sugar coating the true history breeds ignorance, something that can truly inhibit a society. For example, our class is full of extremely intelligent and well educated individuals, yet very few of us knew about the prevalent racial slur, coon. This is not because we are generally unintelligent, but rather this can most likely be attributed to the fact that our schools did not teach us this. The consequences of not being taught this in high school was that we were unable to recognize racism when it was directly in front of us. Therefore, high schools should not frame history in specific ways due to the potential negative impacts.

  8. I most certainly have taken my citizenship for granted in many circumstances. I was having a discussion with my friend the other day who is from Mexico and she was telling me that if she doesn’t get a job before she graduates, she will have to go back to Mexico. Often we get caught up in the trivial aspects of daily life and forget to be thankful for the people who have helped to make our country the way it is. I too found many of the instances listed in “Lift Every Voice” to be extremely disturbing to the point that I had to put the book down.

    I had a thought in Friday’s class about the speech given by Obama. As amazing as it is that we have a black president, the fact that our black president is giving a speech in regards to the murder of a young black boy is defeating. We often think that as a country we have progressed so far from the racism that was rooted in this country in the past, but how far have we really come? I do not discredit all of the work and progress that has been made thanks to organizations like the NAACP, but to see news like the Trayvon Martin case is very disturbing. Charles Houston would have had something to say about that.

  9. Caitlin I think this idea of complacent citizenship has become more present in today’s politics. I feel you touch on this a bit when you discuss the African Americans fight for a vote. Wherein today we have the right to vote yet we don’t exercise our right. WHY? We demanded those rights from the British and then the African Americans demanded them from the whites so why do we now take our citizenship for granted. I know sometime I become out of touch with politics because I get so frustrated with the games and the blaming. However I have never not exercised my right to vote. Maybe that is because I am young. I bet more of the youth population votes than any other generation. I think this is because we are still idealistic and not yet cynics of the system. I think many African Americans became cynics after continual oppression and discrimination in a time where they were fighting so hard and living in such a difficult time. I think now more than ever it is vital that everyone exercises there right to vote. It is sad that anyone would take it for granted.

    I also think that our high school or elementary education is not necessarily lacking in history education but it is interesting how they choose to tell the story at certain ages of educational development. I was not offended that I had not known of this before in fact i think they timing of this discovery was perfect. Some facts however maybe should not be left out from the education in elementary school and high school because it affects the way you view a subject and the way you think critically and develop you own views.

    Eliza McLean

  10. As everyone has been saying, great post Cait! For me, I learned in my African-American history course in high school about Rosa Parks bus boycott being “set-up.” Although, I remember laughing to myself and thinking “how clever!” We all come from unique upbringings and schooling backgrounds, but for me I was fortunate to grow up and attend school in a town where I was not seen as the majority. Socio-economic levels varied from some of the richest to the poorest, and black, white and everything in between. Issues of citizenship came up frequently as there were many Hispanic immigrants living in my town and in my classes. During middle school, one of my best friends was deported and I remember being so angry because I knew she worked hard in school and her mom was a hard worker as well and trying to make a life in the U.S. for the two of them. That is why for me, I know how much citizenship can really mean to people and how lucky I am to be an American citizen. That being said, as a white female my “rights” may still be to this day different than those individuals of a different race. I believe that the work of the NAACP and Ella Baker are still not done. In a class I took last semester, we learned about the large number of African-American males that are targeted and incarcerated every year. The numbers are staggering and an institutionalized system of racism that still carries over from the “civil rights era” is certainly still not over.

    Last week, I was in DC visiting a friend and around midnight we headed over to the monuments and I was able to see the MLK monument for the first time. As I stood there and looked up at the mighty statue that was above me, I did not think about MLK and all of the tremendous things he did for the Civil Rights movement, instead I thought of the Ella Bakers and everyday citizens who did so much in their own right to help change the U.S. political and social landscape. MLK represents a movement and a period of change in U.S. history, he should not be all that we remember or are taught in school.

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