I was born in Vermont and educated in predominantly white public schools. The social studies curriculum I experienced centered the voices of white men who had “conquered” foreign land and offered no critical interpretation of the implications of that conquest. It was not until I had a “radical” high school educator that I first heard the term “reparations” and began to understand the way my lived reality and personal identities connected to our historical past.
Those who critique attempts at teaching the truth have suggested that white children might experience shame when confronted with lessons on systemic racism. But for me, shame only came from not knowing the truth and in having to unlearn a history that had been wrongfully constructed.
For too long, and in too many places, pivotal events in U.S. history have been taught in ahistorical ways. Intentional disinformation campaigns created by the United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to ensure that students left their history classrooms with a flawed understanding of the roots of the U.S. Civil War. Today, teaching that brings in the voices of Indigenous peoples, perspectives from those who had been enslaved, as well as the experiences of workers is being cast as “radical” with claims of “indoctrination.” But I reject the notion that the foundation of this nation did not involve dispossession of Indigenous peoples and chattel slavery.
In an era of intentional disinformation campaigns, and at a time when “the truth” is obfuscated at the highest levels, it’s critical that educators ensure students do not leave their classroom with giant misconceptions about their history. This does not require an educator “stand and deliver” nor does it involve a kind of “indoctrination,” but rather it means educators make skilled choices to bring in critical perspectives. The work of Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, Dr. Kimberly Parker, and Julia Torres provide a beautiful model in examining texts through a critical lens. Through #DisruptTexts, they have modeled highly engaging critical pedagogy that encourages young people to pull deeper meaning from their reading and at the heart explains that “all students deserve an education that is inclusive of the rich diversity of the human experience.”
Although many of the critiques of teaching the truth can be cast aside as extremist, even some thoughtful historians are beginning to push back against this more honest historical approach. In a recent post, prominent historian Kevin M. Levin calls into question the Zinn Education Project’s Pledge to #TeachTheTruth. Levin suggests: “We [history educators] should emphasize the complexity of the past and work to create an environment where students can think freely and arrive at their own conclusions about ‘the truth’ of American history.” While I agree with Levin that the founding of the U.S. was complex and students should have access to rich materials that allow them to grapple with this reality, educators cannot allow students targeted by radical misinformation campaigns to leave the history classroom without a clear understanding of our past.
Ultimately, teaching the truth is not about shaming students, but rather it’s about a more complete history. In moments when students might experience shame, I see my role as sitting together with them to thoughtfully examine and integrate those feelings. Instead of getting“stuck” in their shame, students can integrate new and troubling knowledge about our nation’s history while developing a more complete understanding and deeper sense of self. To teach a more complete history is to bring back the voices of those who have been intentionally silenced. It is this more full, complete, and honest history that has the power to rehumanize our education system and ourselves.