In marking the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre last summer, The Oklahoman reported that many people had never even heard of it. Of course, it’s shameful that so many of our fellow citizens are unaware of “one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history.” But it is not terribly surprising.
Unfortunately, Americans are appallingly ignorant of the history of racism in the United States. Yet it’s not a singular void. Americans are appallingly ignorant of U.S. history, period. Our lack of knowledge regarding the nation’s racist past in particular is a symptom of our lack of historical knowledge in general.
Why? A popular belief in liberal circles is that history classes fail to address the darkest elements in our national saga. As the 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones contends, slavery has been treated as “an asterisk to the American story.” Writing in The Nation earlier this year, Elie Mystal argued that the public school system willfully obscures the “sins and horrors” of our history in order to “whitewash the episodes of white terrorism” and “protect young white minds from ever knowing the truth about our country.”
Yet that’s not the full story. Are there textbooks in circulation that present a sanitized, fairy-tale version of our history? Yes, there are. Some even refer to slavery as “Black immigration.” It’s disgraceful. Textbooks like these are egregious and should be immediately scrapped. But they are outliers.
The disturbing and vicious history of racial violence in the U.S. is included as a matter of course in today’s standard U.S. history survey textbooks. In publications such as United States History and Geography (McGraw Hill), The American Nation: A History of the United States (Pearson), and America: History of Our Nation (Prentice Hall), students learn in detail about everything from slave whippings and lynchings to race massacres and church bombings. It is not uncommon for textbooks to include even the most grisly of images, such as a photograph of the charred body of 17-year-old Jesse Washington, lynched in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916.
We are faced with an intriguing puzzle, then. For more than a generation, any serious textbook published by a mainstream publisher has included ample and accurate coverage of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. Yet Twitter is abuzz with claims from users that their U.S. history courses ignored or downplayed these topics.
There are several possible explanations for this seeming paradox. One is that teachers don’t devote enough class time to these topics, even if they appear in the textbooks and other official curriculum materials. They may feel ill-equipped to take on such challenging subjects, or they could be intentionally downplaying America’s history of anti-Black exploitation, disenfranchisement, and violence.
I suspect that the “erasure” of these subjects, for whatever reason, does happen in some classrooms. Along these lines, we should be vigilant in contesting the wave of state legislation prohibiting the teaching of so-called divisive concepts. Any U.S. history curriculum that doesn’t treat race and racism is like a biology class that doesn’t include carbon.
But here’s what I think is the most important dynamic in play: Most people simply don’t remember the content that was covered in their history classes. “Boring” was the most frequent answer in a survey that asked Americans to choose one word or phrase to sum up their experiences with history classes in school. In far too many classrooms, U.S. history is a kind of forced march in which students encounter one fact after another without any sense of meaning or wonder.
Indeed, every survey of Americans of all ages and backgrounds consistently finds that we lack basic knowledge about virtually every major historical event and development in our country’s history. More than one-third of us, for instance, don’t know which century the American Revolution took place.
The 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress identified only 15 percent of 8th graders as at or above “proficient” in their knowledge of U.S. history. College students and college graduates don’t fare much better. A survey of college students at the “Top 50” colleges, per U.S. News & World Report rankings, found that 78 percent could not match the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” with the Gettysburg Address. A different survey found that one-third of college graduates didn’t know that Franklin Roosevelt introduced the New Deal. When it comes to the population of U.S. adults, only 56 percent can name the three branches of government. (Twenty percent, by the way, can’t name one.)
Any standard school curriculum is going to teach these basic facts. What, then, accounts for such alarming knowledge gaps? There’s a big difference between simply covering topics and having those topics come alive in a manner that is compelling and memorable. The same goes for Black history. Most U.S. history classrooms probably do a decent job representing Black history but are failing to bring the subject matter to life. Given the vital importance of understanding the agonizing horrors and monumental achievements associated with Black history, that’s something we should all find concerning. And educators should start thinking now about what they can do differently.