The Stories They Tell Us: Keeping History Honest
Like many teachers, I had my students write about "Columbus Day," a few weeks ago. In Hawai'i, we call it Discoverer's Day to commemorate the Ancient Polynesians (though, it's not a state holiday), but most of my students grew up hearing about Columbus in their elementary school classrooms.
We watched a video and discussed why the holiday was still called "Columbus Day" in some states. At one point, a student asked, "Why weren't we taught these things to begin with?"
The Atlantic's Alia Wong provides some insightful reporting on this topic. In her most recent piece, "History Class and the Fictions About Race in America," she points out:
A consistent point of tension across all these examples is whether history classes and their accompanying texts are misleading kids with Eurocentric interpretations of the actors and events that have shaped the human experience. "Research finds that the overwhelming dominance of Euro-American perspectives leads many students to disengage from academic learning," wrote the author and teacher Christine Sleeter in a 2011 report promoting the academic and social benefits of teaching ethnic studies in schools.
As Wong notes throughout the article, teaching facts or stories that feel irrelevant or false leads to students believing history is "boring." As those students become adults, the distaste sticks with them and affects their willingness to engage with critical historical discussion and research. Many history teachers report they didn't even choose to teach history, they were merely asked to. Why question something you didn't want to teach to begin with?
The thing is, we must question the veracity of education in our nation.These stories may sometimes be more complicated (I know I had some personal reflections to work through on Columbus Day), but they are essential to students understanding of their own identities—both the honest struggles and the untold heroes erased out of the Eurocentric narrative.
Teachers and parents, like Roni-Dean Burren, who call out the not-quite-truths we tell children understand that this matters not only because we should be honest with students, but because the stories we tell about each other matter. They affect the way students understand themselves, their families, their communities, and their own potential.
I encourage everyone to read Wong's piece, and to ask ourselves often: am I questioning the narrative in front of me? Or am I accepting the story someone else has told me without knowing if it's true?