OPINION: We all need new lessons in American history

When Chara Bohan began teaching the history of Jamestown to high school students, it was a few years before the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project uncovered the actual location of the Jamestown Colony in 1994. Since then, our understanding of how people lived in the first North American settlement run by the British has grown exponentially.

She always makes a point to state that Jamestown was the first settlement run by the British because there were other settlements before Jamestown run by other countries but many of us haven’t learned anything about them. The winners get to write history and the British won that war.

So Bohan, an education professor at Georgia State University, was perplexed by the way the recounting of the Civil War from the perspective of Southerners came to be the dominant narrative across the country.

From the 1870s through the early 20th century, Southerners wrote and published their own history textbooks for secondary schools. These “mint julep” history textbooks, as they would come to be known by the 1960s, reinforced the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War, which depicted enslaved people as happy and content and centered state’s rights as the reason for war.

This version of events would spread to the North as textbook companies acquiesced in order to win business from Southern states. The historical rewrite would eventually become the dominant version of events — a version which continues to have an impact on history curriculum in the U.S., Bohan said, and which might help explain why only 8% of U.S. high school seniors can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.

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At a moment when critical race theory — a scholarly exploration of how U.S. systems of education, health care, housing, etc., have been built on laws, policies and rules that are racist — has been branded a “monstrous evil” by certain critics, the findings from Bohan’s research underscore a similar theme: the desire to avoid a collective and constructive conversation about a moment in our nation’s history and its continued impact on the American people.

Eight states have passed legislation banning CRT, though most don’t actually mention the term. In Georgia, the state school board introduced guidelines barring CRT-related discussions while local school boards have criticized CRT and a few have even passed resolutions banning teaching it. Anyone surprised by the response to CRT hasn’t been paying much attention to history or history books.

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Last year, an analysis of textbooks in Texas and California showed exactly how political divides shape what students learn about U.S. history. Textbook companies continue to commit time and money to satisfy the desires of state policymakers. In textbook adoption states, panels convene to review textbooks and request changes to publishers who have little choice but to comply as schools and teachers shift away from textbooks and toward more online educational resources and tools.

In several of my pre-journalism career years during the mid-1990s, I worked in educational publishing, specifically in product development for K-12 science materials. I recall the heated debates over how to manage creationism vs. evolution in high school textbooks. There were spreadsheets noting which versions of the books could be sold in certain states and which states needed a fully customized version. It was hard for me to grasp that our understanding of evolutionary biology was dependent on the state we live in.

Bohan was fascinated by history books named after a drink that were written particularly for a Southern audience. That fascination led to a research study that includes a historical narrative and content analysis of how six textbooks — three Southern and three Northern — written in the decades after Reconstruction portray three divisive figures: abolitionist John Brown; John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated Abraham Lincoln; and Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate army general and prominent figure in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.

Depending on the source, Brown, who led the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry to resist slavery, is either an insurrectionist of questionable sanity or a national hero whose planning displayed ingenuity. Bedford is either a murderer who killed Union soldiers as they tried to surrender or a brave commander who only rushed Fort Pillow after troops refused to surrender.

While both Northern and Southern textbooks condemned Booth for assassinating President Lincoln, Southern textbooks ignored or downplayed the event by deemphasizing Booth’s accomplices while Northern textbooks linked him to a larger conspiracy. By the 1930s, textbook authors in the North and South had both converged on the same portrayal of Booth as a demented actor.

But this is all ancient history, right? What does any of this have to do with what is happening today? Textbook publishing has evolved, has certainly become more inclusive, but remnants of these early rewrites of history linger and it is hard for us to grasp why they can be problematic.

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“It is hard for people to understand things like structural racism, and what happens is you get this immediate defensive reaction ‘I am not a racist,’ but people haven’t dug deep into the complexity of what that means,” Bohan said. “It is important to understand the broader phenomenon of the South trying to rewrite history because of a humiliation of loss and racism. The North went along because they were willing to trade African American rights for reconciliation.”

Today, about 20 states (Georgia eliminated statewide adoptions in 2016) still have adoption policies and textbook committees representing both sides of the ideological spectrum, each demanding changes to educational materials by wielding the power of contract cancellations.

Among those of us for whom high school is a distant memory, large numbers have learned different versions of our nation’s history. Bohan hopes all of us will turn to historical research for an update.

“What you learned in high school is outdated, and new information has been learned,” Bohan said. “I love the subject, of course, but I think it should be fascinating for the larger swath of humanity … lessons from the past can inform us in the present.”

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