Story by MADISON KULEDGE
Why is it that students can recite the 45 presidents of the United States yet when asked to name important events of the Civil Rights Movement that becomes a challenging task?
History teaches us about our past, why things are the way they are today and most importantly it helps us shape our future by learning from our mistakes.
“I think history is one of the most important subjects our kids can learn about,” said Michelle Bias, the parent of two Utah high school students, in a phone interview. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for our past.”
All across America in May 2020 following the death of George Floyd and continuing protests and riots, the public got a rude awakening to how little it truly knows about America’s history regarding race.
Slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement are all vital moments in our country’s racial history. Yet, many have only ever heard of these things. Teachers think that most high school students do not have an adequate understanding of America’s racial history.
And why is that? Why is our knowledge lacking?
Currently, across the U.S. there is no unified standard for U.S. history curriculum. Each state sets its own standards. However, there is a set standard for what types of things should be studied generally, according to the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies.
And several states don’t mention the Civil Rights Movement, slavery or other related matters. In a recent analysis by CBS, the network found that “seven states do not directly mention slavery in their state standards and eight states do not mention the civil rights movement. Only two states mention white supremacy, while 16 states list states’ rights as a cause of the Civil War.”
Per the Utah Core State Standards for Social Studies for grades seven through 12, there are only two standards in the curriculum regarding race:
“Students will use case studies involving African American civil rights leaders and events to compare, contrast and evaluate the effectiveness of various methods used to achieve reform, such as civil disobedience, legal strategies and political organizing. … Students will identify the civil rights objectives held by various groups, assess the strategies used, and evaluate the success of the various civil rights movements in reaching their objectives, paying specific attention to American Indian, women and other racial and ethnic minorities.”
Megan Spencer, who is currently a student at the University of Utah who attended Alta High School in Sandy, Utah, said that she believes that her history education was lacking.
“The ongoing events in our society have made me aware of so many issues regarding race that I have never learned before,” Spencer said in a Zoom interview. “I wish I would have learned this while I was in high school but now, I am left to take classes in college to learn about these important issues.”
To gain knowledge on these issues students are left to do their own learning and research or take additional classes where information is highly specific to a certain topic.
The U offers classes regarding the history of race in the U.S. Some of these courses offered include American Slavery, American Revolution and Race, and Gender and Incarceration.
What can we do better as a society and how can we fill in this gap of knowledge? One place to start is with how the curriculum is written.
“Cheap politics should not write our curriculum,” said Dave Harper, a Utah high school history teacher, in a phone interview. “Curriculum is and ought to be constructed by a number of groups such as parents, political leaders, teachers, and yes, student input, but not agenda-driven proponents. And such proposals must be based in accurate evidence.”
Within the history curriculum, there needs to be as much emphasis on subjects such as slavery, the Civil War and treatment of American Indians, as there is on the founding fathers and the U.S. Constitution.
And it’s never too early to begin this teaching. Andrew Platt, an AP U.S. history teacher, said, “Children are raised in a country that is already inundated with messages about race both explicit and implicit. Children are already learning about race whether we like it or not.” Schools are a place where we can shape this teaching and inform children so they are well educated.
Teachers are hopeful the events in the months following the death of George Floyd have taught the public and Congress that there need to be changes made with our public-school history curriculum.
Platt said in a Zoom interview that he recently read “Caste: The Origins of our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson to better inform himself on issues regarding race. “I think this is the best way to understand America’s history with race. I think that we should teach the history of America’s racial caste system.”
Clearly, there is more work to be done. However, over the last 10 to 15 years, the United States has made improvements. TV host John Oliver said in a segment regarding the U.S. public education system, “History, when taught well, shows us how to improve the world, but history, when taught poorly, falsely claims there is nothing to improve. So we have to teach it well and continue to learn it.”
Dave Harper, the high school history teacher, said, “No school is ‘good’ the way things are and we strive to improve. Teachers constantly read and study the latest developments in their field, especially in U.S. history.”