History studies should be multifaceted

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa., (U-Wire) — I was always the kid in the back who tried to question my teachers’ authority, in hopes of undermining her and maybe starting an elementary schoolwide walkout. I was the Rosa Parks of the school system. I never bought what they tried to sell me. Even in my youthful rebellion, I had something going for me: I knew history couldn’t be that simple. Sadly, I think our generation and those following us are losing that feeling.
Our view of history has been constantly distorted by public schools and textbooks that take it upon themselves to edit and omit important and factual parts of world history. This creates an alternative reality that, in many cases, does not resemble the truth. Howard Zinn, author of “A People’s History of the United States,” writes: “The historian’s distortion is more than technical — it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports — whether the historian means to or not — some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.”
The public school that chooses to omit the true history of the Native American people is not only committing a grave injustice to the fathers of this land, it is also breeding a generation of children whose basic understanding of their history and heritage will be incomplete, incorrect and tainted with ideological half-truths. When it is taught that the Native American is a savage whose intent to kill peaceful explorers is outdone only by his complete lack of morality, the student acquires a mentality that condones the killing of those different than himself in the name of progress. The student begins to see progress as the killing off of “inferior” peoples, fostering a mentality that is both ignorant and dangerous.
History cannot be seen or taught as a series of disconnected events whose varied participants can be excluded at will so as to fit a specific ideology or class curriculum. History is a continuum. Denying the role of any one group in any specific event is effectively denying history ever happened. Seeing the recent events in Kosovo as an isolated event bred the mistakes of NATO when it bombed; it failed to realize that by picking sides and including military force it was denying the true historical conflicts that have marred the region, further aggravating tensions between the two sides and making a compromise less likely now than before.
Understanding history makes us sensitive to the plight of certain people, and the undermining of this principle has created a generation of American children who see history as one-sided, dominated by the technically advanced white race and derailed at times by the less-desirable minority.
The teacher who decides to omit certain facts is not teaching history; she is teaching fiction. The scary thing is that fiction is more readily acceptable, for it paints the actions of children’s ancestors and themselves and justified by denying that the oppressed exist or even matter.
Slaves throughout history were painted as docile, willing servants without much of a fighting spirit. This view has carried over to today, encouraging younger kids to see minorities as lazy, since they see it as part of their historical culture. Contrary to popular belief, slaves were actually very actively rebellious, opposing white elitist rule and often joining with white servants in hopes to overthrow their repressive rulers.
This view of history, rarely taught, retracts all claims of “lazy slaves” and an established racial animosity between whites and blacks. It states just the opposite.
History classes, starting from the early years, have to include varying viewpoints and allow children to understand that history is not dominated by any one group or series of events. Everything must be given equal credence so as to create an accurate representation of the past. Events have to be seen from different angles, people studied from different sources. Only through a diverse approach can we hope to overcome bias in history.
When you were taught of Columbus’ valiant “discovery” of America and subsequent “pacification” of local natives, you were told a half-truth. When the founding fathers were presented as egalitarian-minded statesmen in the search for freedom for all, you were short-changed. When slavery was described in two paragraphs in your history book and given about as equal attention by your teacher, you were given the shaft.
History has to be taught the way it occurs: as a composition of many different viewpoints, events and sources. If not, we may as well start claiming the earth is flat and that wrestling is real. They’re all lies in the end.
Martin Austermuhle’s column originally appeared in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania State University paper, the Daily Collegian.