A Textbook Problem
The Detriments of America’s Overly Patriotic History Curriculums
Globally, America is viewed as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” where people can be and think anything they wish. It is the world’s great melting pot, home to the ubiquitous American Dream. At least, that’s what we are taught.
America is an exceptional country; we have an intriguing, complex history, laced with both good and bad. I have loved learning about Christopher Columbus, George Washington, the Revolutionary War, the roaring 20s, and all other parts of America’s story, but it was not until recently that I learned that those people and events are less than half of our country’s narrative.
Packer’s tenth grade U.S. history course is fairly inclusive and liberal, and was a valuable historical experience. The tenth grade curriculum was created by Dr. Strauss, along with Upper School History Teacher Dr. Ryan Carey.
Students read and compare the celebratory narratives of historians Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, to the work of Howard Zinn, who takes a more critical approach to recounting America’s past.
Monika Johnston, History Department Head and an American history teacher of over 25 years, is proud of Packer’s tenth grade history curriculum. She believes that it is innovative and, through exploring how history is written and consumed, introduces the idea of celebratory versus critical history.
In Ms. Johnston’s opinion, only teaching the positive aspects of American history is not really teaching history, but instead teaching the narrative of the state.
“It’s not our job to create patriots,” she explained.
However, many students in the U.S. are not taught the same history curriculum that we are; various states lack comprehensive history education and lean towards celebratory and “patriotic” history educations.
In 2014, a school district in Ohio received a curriculum review for their AP History course, which stated that “materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system… Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”
In Georgia, state Senator Fran Millar, chair of the State Higher Education Committee, argued that despite earlier Americans not always treating Native Americans “fairly,” the goals of westward expansion triumphed over the importance of just treatment. He also believes that the pictures in some textbooks that depict poverty and slavery are “disturbing,” and would rather that they show images of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Upper School History Teacher, Dr. Sarah Strauss, started teaching U.S. history in 1992 at a public school in Massachusetts and commented on her experience with teaching the topic during the early years of her career: “It was right when they were starting to adopt statewide standards,” she said. “I think that having standards for public education is a really good idea. But not giving teachers any freedom at all was something that, as a teacher, was an issue for me.”
At her previous school, Dr. Strauss taught two tracked history courses; one for those who were ‘college bound,’ and one for those who were not.
“Students had to take U.S. history in the eleventh grade there,” she said, “and in my lower track class I was given a textbook from 1973. In my upper track class I was given a textbook from 1991. So, indirectly, the school district was telling me what people were supposed to be taught.” She smiles and adds, “I ended up tossing out the textbook for my lower track class.”
Because some state-mandated schools curricula are government dictated, the students of that school do not receive this vital American history education, simply due to the school that they attend. However, not all private or independent schools are perfect either, but no one should be deprived of this education simply because of the censored narrative of American history that the government wishes to perpetuate.
While there is certainly merit in learning about positive, admirable moments that have defined who we are as Americans, failing to acknowledge “un-patriotic” moments in our history makes the American narrative incomplete.
There is a fine line between patriotism and nationalism. This line is blurred by the lack of education about our country’s past. Author George Orwell puts it perfectly: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
Mr. Erland Zygmuntowicz, a history teacher of 38 years and the teacher of Packer’s AT Government course, is well versed in the differences between celebratory and critical history.
“There’s a strong temptation and tendency to recall a nation in a very celebratory fashion, and to instill a kind of one-dimensional and unreflective patriotism,” he said. “Patriotism [shouldn’t be] defined as unquestioning obedience, as if one couldn’t love a country or a person without wanting to make it better or seeing flaws, because, as far as I know, there’s no nation that’s perfect.”
Mr. Zygmuntowicz further explained that members of state level educational committees are the people making many of the curricular decisions that define how history is taught, and that they often lean toward celebratory narratives.
This lack of comprehensive historical education will, in the end, be detrimental to our country’s future. The balance of patriotic and negative historical education is vital is ensuring a comprehensive understanding of who we are. This issue is deeply rooted in American identity, and that is why it is so important. Patriotism, in a broad sense, is good; it fuels a person’s desire to make their country a better place.