U.S. History Curriculums Have a Representation Problem, Too

US History BELatina Latinx

Conversations around the deficits in U.S. History curriculums are gaining momentum. Educators of color have long been speaking out about the importance of updating the way K-12 history is taught throughout the country. As Black Lives Matter protests intensify and back-to-school season approaches, the lack of representation in the content of academic institutions has been amplified more than ever.

In many states, teachers are taking the opportunity to reinvent the way Black history is addressed in the classroom. Traditionally, it’s been taught from the lens of victimization and oppression rather than their contributions as individuals. The president of the National Council for Social Studies, Tina Heafner, talked about this perspective in an article for Good Morning America. “We know that students of color don’t have anything to connect to within the American history curriculum,” she said. “[It’s] presented from that of the dominant white culture and it’s not inclusive of people of color.”

In an article for the Valdosta Daily Times, teacher of multicultural courses, Brittany Bell explained that the way curriculums have traditionally been designed have led students to believe that the contributions of African Americans began during American Slavery. Her educational model operates under an understanding that, as a result of a historical focus on slavery and segregation, the contributions of these individuals before they were stolen to be slaves end up ignored and unknown. 

Similarly, Native American history also falls through the cracks of K-12 education. Wisconsin is one of only twelve states that require that Native American content be included in K-12 education. The five-part mandate, called Act 31, is intended to regulate what should be taught and equips teachers with the knowledge they need before entering the classroom. However, professor Heather Ann Moody uncovered flaws in this process in a survey conducted for her dissertation in 2014. A third of the surveyed educators who received their license after 1991 indicated they had not received college-level instruction on Native issues, which is in conflict with the law. 

These examples serve as microcosms of a larger problem: Mandates that are put in place to fill the gaps that have long existed in curriculums are acting as band aids that aren’t addressing the roots of the problem. In a country where American students have a historically poor standing in their overall knowledge of U.S. history, what does their understanding of POC history truly look like? 

Lack of understanding and knowledge fuels hatred and bigotry. For example, a Red Lake Obijwe student at University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire was a victim of hate slurs marked on her dorm room door. A month later, a group of students at a nearby high school appropriated the traditional tribal dance during a pep-rally.  

When you simplify the narrative of a community, harmful stereotypes can hold students back from understanding the contributions and backstory of their schoolmates. Michael Vendiola, the education director for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and former program supervisor for the Washington’s Office of Native Education,explains that this kind of reduction of identity “severely impacts the success of tribal students in the public-school system because most of the time (what is taught comes from) a very narrow point of view.”

These narrow points of view and simplified versions of history are dangerous. As a result, institutions need a closer examination of the narratives being perpetuated through their antiquated curriculums and the people that have dictated what is taught and how. While there are teachers that have sought out external resources to ensure inclusive portrayals of history, enhance the education of their students, and fill the gaps of orthodox curriculums, a major overhaul of the standardized system is overdue in order to begin to see the changes being called for.