Despite President Donald Trump previously disavowing the phrase, “Teach American Exceptionalism” is officially one of two education tenets on his reelection agenda. At a Fourth of July rally, he claimed children “are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes but that they were villains.” At a subsequent press briefing, Trump urged schools to restore “patriotic education” and blamed the recent protests on the “left-wing indoctrination” in which “many young Americans have been fed lies about America being a wicked nation plagued by racism.”
Well, I have taught U.S. history in New York City public high schools since 2009 and I can assure you the curriculum is still exceedingly Panglossian and incredibly whitewashed.
As history teachers, we have a duty to teach students to examine, analyze, evaluate and critique historical events and help them understand why they are still relevant today. Part of what makes our country truly exceptional is that so many different kinds of people contributed to its success. People of all different colors, religions and backgrounds came here from all over the world and their experiences, both positive and negative, are worthy of study.
Focusing on the “heroic” accomplishments of some while omitting the struggles and oppression of others (particularly women and those of color) from the curriculum literally teaches students that some lives do not matter (enough to learn about and in general). It also wastes a critical opportunity to have students examine the centuries of systemic racism in the United States, including by its founders. To teach that the people who built and/or succeeded in this country are flawless heroes (a) is inaccurate and (b) can have very real consequences (not to mention it’s incredibly boring). There is no reason we can’t recognize Thomas Jefferson, for example, for his contributions to our freedom and democracy while simultaneously acknowledging that he owned over 600 slaves.
Trump is right: My curriculum needs a massive overhaul. But not in the way he wants. Recent events have made many of us reflect on how we can do better moving forward. I believe educators, now more than ever, have a responsibility to teach our students the full picture of our history, and that includes racism and white supremacy.
The U.S. is not the only country with a complicated past. In Germany, high school students are required to take a course on the Holocaust. Many schools take field trips to concentration camps, and teachers invite survivors to speak to their classes. Nobody argues German students would be better off skipping over that portion of their country’s history, and in fact, most would agree it helps them understand today’s current events even better. As history teachers, we can’t cherry-pick from the highlight reel and call it a day. We must cover a wide range of topics, people and events as thoroughly as time will allow.
“I believe educators, now more than ever, have a responsibility to teach our students the full picture of our history, and that includes racism and white supremacy.”
I personally have the arduous but necessary task of revamping my lessons to more accurately represent the history of our country while also preparing my students to pass the U.S. History and Government Regents Exam, a graduation requirement in the state of New York. Teachers use the exam as a guide of what to focus on throughout the year.
The January 2020 version of the test included 50 multiple-choice questions, of which I counted only four questions regarding African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and/or Hispanic Americans. There was one question about women’s suffrage, but not a single question about a specific woman. A peek through previous years’ exams revealed similar statistics.
Does this seem like a fair or accurate representation of the contributions women, Indigenous, Black and other minority/oppressed groups have made to our country’s 400-year history? The United States is 40% nonwhite, and 85% of the NYC public school population are students of color, and yet a test that claims to assess knowledge of our nation’s history has virtually erased the experiences of so many groups. Would our diverse student body not benefit from learning about them, in addition to some valid and necessary critiques of our white predecessors?
When I first designed my curriculum, I pored over every past test to make sure I covered everything so my students were prepared. Teaching at a transfer school in the South Bronx, my students were over-aged and under-credited and many had repeatedly failed the test and were running out of time to graduate. Many of my students had learning disabilities or were English language learners, and all were economically disadvantaged students of color. I felt tremendous pressure to help them pass the test and graduate. I wanted it so badly for them but I also needed them to pass to secure my own tenure and improve my school’s rating.
The sad reality in many classrooms is that even if it’s on the well-intentioned Social Studies Core Curriculum or Common Core, if a topic doesn’t come up frequently on the exam, teachers will skim or skip over it to spend more time on the topics that do. Nine months of test prep later, most of my students passed. But what did they learn? What resonated with them? What will they remember and use moving forward in life? What should they have learned that would have helped them in life, but didn’t because “it wasn’t on the test”? What else besides “American exceptionalism” had they encountered?
While I encourage my students to analyze each chapter of our country’s history with a critical eye, I must do more to expose them to a wider variety of people who contributed to our society and yet don’t necessarily appear in our history books. I am willing and excited to make these changes a priority in my classroom and I truly hope the New York State Board of Regents will make it a priority to incorporate a more diverse batch of questions from our country’s rich and storied past.
Knowledge truly is power and we have an obligation to teach our students about all kinds of people and all forms of racism, othering and disenfranchisement ― and not sweep it all under the rug and claim we’re “exceptional.”
If we want our next generation to be curious, empathetic and engaged citizens, we must teach them what really happened and how we all got to where we are today, for better or worse. As President Barack Obama said in 2012 on the night of his reelection, “What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. ... That’s what makes America great.”
Katherine Glass Shah has taught U.S. history in NYC public high schools since graduating from Middlebury College in 2009. She holds a master’s degree in Teaching Adolescents with Disabilities in Urban Contexts from LIU Brooklyn and is dual-certified to teach secondary social studies and special education.