Textbook history doesn’t tell the full story

By Amy Kim
Valencia, CA

We’ve been studying the world through a lens of deceit.

To what extent should George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s attitudes toward slavery diminish their accomplishments? Why didn’t the U.S. intervene adequately in the Rwandan genocide of 1994? Why is the 1968 My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, in which women and children were brutally slaughtered by American soldiers, described in a single paragraph in many textbooks?

I don’t recall being asked any of these questions in my Advanced Placement U.S. History class last year. Why some parts of history are de-emphasized or even erased in contrast to their significance leads me to a conclusion that American history is biased; exploitation and oppression are noted as achievements of our country.

If you can’t take my word for it, take the words of the author of “History in the Making,” Kyle Ward, whose book compares American history textbooks from different eras. Ward’s research found biases of exclusion—whether the events are written in the first place—and biases of explanation—how the events are described to the students.

In 2015, the College Board changed its A.P. U.S. History exam guidelines to present a “clearer and more balanced approach” to history. Changes were designed to clarify any “misinterpretation or perceptions of imbalance,” including topics like America’s national identity and founding documents.

But we are still memorizing in a class where we should be questioning. We are forced to submit to the fundamental bias of the curriculum that still depicts America as the emancipators, not the masters, of slaves.

History is written by the winners, the saying goes. That means America, which considers itself the “winner,” gets to steer the national narrative in its favor, disregarding the multidimensional perspectives behind every story.

American textbooks are written by various authors and publications, most commonly McGraw-Hill and Prentice Hall. Then it’s up to individual school boards to decide which ones to use—and most of the books they have to choose from get grades my friends and I would consider embarrassing.

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