Whose History Is it Anyway?

Assume responsibility for your own learning. Textbooks don’t always get it right.

(Image: File)

This article originally appeared in The Atlantic on Oct. 21, 2015.

Don’t get me wrong, STEM is important. The STEM fields are projected to drive job growth for the next several decades; STEM jobs are expected to grow twice as fast as those in other industries.

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But history is important too, and according to this fascinating article in The Atlantic, as a school subject it’s taught about as well as math is—which is to say, poorly.

Experts are now saying that history shouldn’t be taught through textbooks, but through the use of primary source documents; history isn’t one tidy, linear story—it’s a variety of viewpoints and arguments and interpretations and analyses. But according to The Atlantic, only a minority of history teachers studied history in college or even like the subject. The Atlantic says, “… 34% of those teaching history classes as a primary assignment had neither majored nor been certified in the subject; only about a fourth of them had both credentials.”

Is history as important as STEM? Read on before you answer.

In October, McGraw Hill found itself at the center of some rather embarrassing press after a photo showing a page from one of its high-school world-geography textbooks was disseminated on social media. The page features a seemingly innocuous polychromatic map of the United States, broken up into thousands of counties, as part of a lesson on the country’s immigration patterns: Different colors correspond with various ancestral groups, and the color assigned to each county indicates its largest ethnic representation. The page is scarce on words aside from an introductory summary and three text bubbles explaining specific trends—for example, that Mexico accounts for the largest share of U.S. immigrants today.

The recent blunder has to do with one bubble in particular. Pointing to a patch of purple grids extending throughout the country’s Southeast corridor, the one-sentence caption reads:

The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.

The photo that spread through social media was taken by a black Texas student named Coby Burren, who subsequently texted it to his mom, Roni-Dean Burren. “Was real hard workers, wasn’t we,” he wrote. Roni-Dean quickly took to Facebook, lambasting the blunder: the reference to the Africans as workers rather than slaves. A video she later posted has been viewed nearly 2 million times, and her indignation has renewed conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement while attracting coverage by almost every major news outlet. “It talked about the U.S.A. being a country of immigration, but mentioning the slave trade in terms of immigration was just off,” she told The New York Times. “It’s that nuance of language. This is what erasure looks like.”

Read more at The Atlantic.