Changing How California Teaches History

History can be either a boring, anachronistic and even disempowering subject for children, or a magnificently life-changing and worldview-shaping one. California is at a moment now when it has to choose which of these approaches our schools will get to teach. SB1057, an important legislation aimed at improving history standards and endorsed by an incredibly diverse coalition of educators and community organizations, recently passed through the legislature with strong bipartisan support. It presently awaits Governor Brown's approval so that it may become law, allowing for some long overdue revisions and improvements to the K-12 History-Social Science Content Standards set by California's Department of Education and State Board of Education.

The problem, in brief, is that the state education guidelines that define what must be included in textbooks and taught in classrooms have not been updated since 1998 (and even at that time, not much was changed from the earlier 1987 standards). The result of this inertia is that the children of the Silicon Valley state are being told to absorb and get tested on ideas about the world from a period when the Cold War had not even ended! This is awkward, to say the least.

Lest we presume that the history curriculum doesn't need changing like the sciences because it's about the past, this is what we must recognize: the past might not have changed, but how we view it, and of course, how we view ourselves, the world, and nature, have evolved considerably since that time. In recent years, historians have found better ways to tell the story of who we were and who we are. As a result, many of us who teach in the social sciences approach the past not as sterile dates and names but as an ever changing journey. We seek not just memorized test results from our students but the delight of collaborating in the discovery of more meaningful ways to tell the human story.

Discovering those newer ways of telling the story is important for a more pressing ethical reason too. In its early days, social science research was often plagued by outrageous pseudo-scientific racist and sexist myths that effectively made life miserable for many human beings around the world. Only a small group of people had the power and privilege to write about everyone else in those days. Although many strides have been made since, and the United States and California pride themselves on support for equality and diversity, there are still some lingering prejudices and intellectual blinders in the outdated guidelines in use today.

The present curriculum tries somewhat to be inclusive and notes the contributions of diverse groups of people in history, but its template of historiography, the way it tells the story of the world, still bears biases. The lessons on some communities are still not presented in terms that make sense to them, or their own scholars. The lessons on Hindu history, for example, perpetuate a dubious theory written by colonial European writers over a century ago rather than an account of how Hindus see their own civilizational and philosophical heritage and continuity. A similar marginalization is present in the case of Persian history too.

The issue is not only about whose perspective is recognized in the narration of history. It is about recognizing the agency and philosophical integrity of the civilizations we study. For example, a sixth grade guideline stipulates the teaching of "origins and significance of Judaism as the first monotheistic religion based on the concept of one God who sets down moral laws for humanity." It is indeed welcome that students should learn about the origins of the Judeo-Christian heritage thus. However, just a few lines down the page in the guidelines, we find that the sixth grade history of India and China stipulates that students begin not with an equivalent lesson about the moral vision of ancient India and China, but merely a point about how rivers and geography determined their cultures . One civilization is depicted as having agency, the heart and mind and will to imagine a better world for all; and the rest as mere reflections or victims of their environment. Even the names in the curriculum, drawn from old colonial days, are misleading; like "Aryans" for "Hindus" and "Brahmanism" for "Hinduism.

This kind of neglect is not without consequences. Children can easily get put off from the rewarding experience of learning world history in spite of being in a state that is a microcosm of the world. Worse, the existence of condescending and outdated points of view in the curriculum validates bullying and intolerance towards students whose heritage is portrayed poorly. The good thing though is that all this is close to being changed for the better. Rarely has school history captured the attention of so many diverse communities and constituencies. It is a good sign for California that our diversity has brought us closer together in common cause for knowledge, self-discovery, and a better world for all, and a better world it will be, once SB1057 becomes law.