An Accurate History Gives Us the Context to Understand Our World

John Stanley Painting Oil on Canvas

While talking with my family recently, the topic of history came up. This was in the context of news about Republicans meddling in the teaching of history. I had said something about the importance of having an accurate history. Without it, children would grow up not understanding the context of their world.

How about a quick example? Consider the topic of police brutality in the United States. Focus on the problem of racial bias in policing and how it has led to the death of many Black men. Could anyone make sense of this problem without knowing something about our troubled history of race relations? And what if the only information they had about race relations was incomplete? What if racism was never mentioned in their history classes? What if they never learned why the Civil Rights movement was necessary?

It was in this context that my dad shared something about his education in history. He mentioned that he can't recall learning much of anything about Native Americans. He said that he learned that early White settlers had to fight Native Americans in self-defense. They were defending themselves from attacks. The question of what they were doing there in the first place wasn't part of the lessons.

I found this shocking until I reflected on my own education. I hadn't learned anything different from this. Nobody ever mentioned how many treaties the U.S. violated. Nobody told us about how our ancestors stole the land. And nobody ever questioned our right to invade and take someone else's nation.

Is it any wonder that Native Americans are still omitted from so many conversations? Several generations of White Americans learned a distorted history. These lies absolved us of responsibility or guilt. They also left us unprepared to engage with reality.

My history education wasn't all bad. I learned about slavery, racism, the Civil War, and Jim Crow. I had a context for understanding why Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act mattered. I understood that the Black Panthers were a response to police brutality. I wasn't surprised by the Rodney King incident. I recognized it as the latest in a long history of racist violence.

I also learned about the Holocaust. We struggled to understand how it could have happened. How could people do that to one another? Our teacher struggled to explain the anti-Semitism of the time. He gave us some of the context but blamed much of it on economic factors. He did not tell us about its longstanding history within Christianity. Still, this would help me understand the threat posed by neo-Nazi skinheads years later.

Native Americans were a massive blind spot, but there were others. We learned nothing about indigenous peoples of any kind. We learned nothing about LGBTQ people. We learned nothing about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Who build the railroads, and how were they treated? We learned little about the many challenges faced by immigrants. We heard about "Enlightenment values," but not freethought or humanism.

The effects of not having a context hit home recently. I observed a White woman reacting to the Land Back movement. She saw it as greedy native people trying to steal land from deserving Whites. She didn't perceive this as racist in any way. Without any understanding of the relevant historical context, why would she?

If those in power want to maintain their power, they'll want to control what children learn. They'll want teachers to teach what is in their interests. They'll want to prevent children from learning things that might undermine their power. They'll tell you it is about not wanting children to feel bad about themselves, but this is a smokescreen. They seek to preserve their power.

I'll close by asking you to consider a question. What is the appropriate response to learning about a historical atrocity? How should one feel after learning about genocide, slavery, or bigotry that led to violence? Shouldn't we experience some unpleasant emotions? If we don't, how can we manage to avoid such things in the future?

Image by David Mark from Pixabay