Opinion: History is Not Just One Story

Kunal Kumar, Layout Editor-in-Chief

In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, Americans have faced a moment of reckoning. Acts of racism and discrimination are still pervasive, and remain embedded in the fundamental American education system. Until early 2019, the Texas State Board of Education listed slavery as a mere “side issue” in the Civil War. According to The New York Times, Texas houses approximately 10% of the country’s public school students, and thus its curriculum remains vastly influential in setting standards and shaping students’ worldviews. Additionally, Columbus is often celebrated in schools as the person who “discovered America,” when in reality he contributed to the dislocation of indigenous people, the start of the transatlantic slave trade, and the spread of lethal diseases to an entire continent as noted by a journal published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Because education is instrumental to the social and intellectual fabric of young people, it is imperative that our education focuses not just on dominant narratives, but also on counternarratives and multiple perspectives. 

In elementary and middle schools, history is viewed as a subject that is linear and factual. To succeed in a history class requires route memorization of dates and events. Because children gain this view of history in their earlier years of education, they may continue to view history as a mere memorization of a textbook. Rather, from an early age, history should be taught from multiple perspectives, and students should be encouraged to challenge institutions or historical figures from a young age. For instance, in AP US History (APUSH), assignments such as DBQs (Document Based Questions) encourage students to analyze multiple primary sources and develop opinions on historical events. This method of instruction allows students to not just understand a moment of history, but to also understand its societal effect on all parties involved. If this style of teaching history were to be incorporated at an earlier age, young students would be able to value the idea of having multiple perspectives. 

For instance, in regards to the Columbus controversy, Eric Shed, the director of the Harvard Teacher Fellows program, states that it is valuable to know that understanding “Columbus is important, even if he isn’t someone to be celebrated”. In fact, by discussing Columbus’ role as a turning point in population migration, culture, and ideas, students can explore multiple facets of that period of history, including the violent treatment of Native Americans, the course of American immigration pre–and post–Columbus, and the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. By exploring multiple narratives, students would be better-equipped to discuss modern day controversies, such as the celebration of Columbus Day or the ongoing crisis that Native Americans face as they continue to be kicked off reservations.

Mr. Loro, a teacher at the Valleyview Middle School in Denville  has applied this method of instruction to his students in his social studies class. Loro stated, “over the years, standards of these events have not changed, but interpretation has. The shift has moved from celebrating the positive European contribution to highlighting the negative impact on Native Americans.” A large reason for this has been the rise of sensationalism and social media, which tend to focus on the negative implications of such events. This spark in “woke” culture has certainly shaped students’ perspectives and personal opinions, allowing them to develop their own beliefs. Loro agrees that it is important to allow students to think for themselves and encourages free thought by providing students with articles that showcase multiple perspectives. Furthermore, he has strayed from open debates in class, as these discussions often resulted in aggressive, one-sided arguments. Instead, Loro presents planks for both sides of the debate and has students complete individual reflections, free from the influence of peers. As a teacher of social studies, Loro stated “the learning has to be real for each individual student. When you show only one perspective, you lose most of the world, anyway. So it’s important to be unbiased and focus on not instilling morals in students.” 

As socially and politically heavy topics continue to dominate our news headlines and textbooks, it is important to expose students to multiple perspectives. This will not only help students form their own opinions, but also encourage them to explore the implications beyond the surface. Ultimately, the glorification of controversial figures like Colubmus can be avoided by teaching students how to learn, instead of directly presenting them with information, which prevents free thought.