School Curriculum Too Negative About America?

Report says schools are unfair to America

Agree or not? I’m no expert on the education system, and frankly have little idea of what is being taught in schools. But it does make sense, as it seems to reflect a general focus prevalent in certain elements of society on avoiding whitewashing the sins of America (while doing just that to other societies & cultures).

The fundamental question here is what is “balance”? I would suggest that as long as all facts are covered, the focus should be on that which will mold people’s attitudes in the most productive manner. I would agree that too much focus on the negative will breed an excess of cynicism, as well as encourage wrongdoing through an “everyone does it” attitude. But again, I am not familiar with the school curriculum.

Any thoughts?

I’ll give you an european perspective:
German kids learn plenty about German failings in history and as we all know there are more than enough. By no means does this result in people who are unappreciative of democracy or their country. Quite the opposite. Learning about history should allways mean learning something for the future to avoid the mistakes of the past.
Here is what I mean by an european perspective:
My feeling is that Americans are tought that they live in the greatest and most righteous country in the world. That’s why they belive they should be the worlds police (sorry, I don’t want to hijack this thread into world politics) and that’s why they are frequently perceived as arrogant.

Why do you think the question is balance? It should simply be:* What is the historcal truth?*

Well I was in high school about four years ago.

We learned from books that said that America was “unpopulated” except for a few “savages” when Europeans came. We went on to learn an awful lot about things like the Teapot Dome scandal and the ins and outs of elections that happened a hundred years ago. I believe our book had one sentence about the labor movement. We “didn’t get to” Vietnam.

We never even had a world history class, so it couldn’t have been whitewashed.

So I think anything they teach has to be an improvment over the worthless and irrelevent history of distant elections and ancient wars that we learned. People need to learn enough in their history classes to be able to read newspapers and understand what the heck is going on. That means stuff like Vietnam is pretty important, while stuff like the war of 1812 is less.

And face it. For most of America’s history, it’s been a pretty unpleasant place to be anything but a middle to upper class white male. I’ve got to recommend Zinn’s A Peoples’ History of the United States for a summery of all the stuff that is left out or glossed over in the history books. I don’t think the answer is only to learn about those things- but instead to find a balanced way of teaching history that addresses several sides of the issue and even a bit about how our ideas about history are created.

Which is exactly what they did after I graduated and they realized they needed to reform the cirriculum.

From high school for me (7 years ago) history was lots of stupid crap on Columbus and other conquistadors, then dragged into the pilgrims, and finally got interesting during the American Revolution, only to bore until Civil War time, followed by lame reconstruction and roaring 20s garbage. Then, in the last month of school, we hurried through WW2. Korea and Vietnam? What were they? No one in our class knew.

Now, i shall break down from that what was being teached. (besides the bad English that would make me use the word teached)

conquistadors and the ilk: you could not mention them without wholesale slaughter and exploitation of Indians. Because that is what happened.

Pilgrims: need to mention the indians saved them, and were repayed by killing them off and stealing their land. because that is basically what happened when you boil it down. also everyone learned this by second grade, why they kept teaching it 10 years later is beyond me.

Building up to the revolution: bunch of lame colonial gov’t garbage. The textbooks had to make special points about women and minorities as required by lame lame throughout the country, so we learned alot about Betsy Ross and Crispin Attucks. (you think that Dave Barry book is kidding when it keeps mentioning “Women and Minorities were making advances”? that’s more gosiple truth than you know)

Revolution: England is evil, so we rose up and killed them bloody redcoats. I assume now most classes just watch the Patriot. We got to see 1776 when it was constitution time, and i bet they still do. We also learn way to freaking much about the Articles of Confederation. Triangular Trade focues on (slaves, molasses, rum)

Building up to the Civil war: Lousisianna Purchase, Lewis and Clark emphasised too much because of Sacajawea. 1812 war glossed over, Andrew Jackson focused on. (he killed indians illegally!) Jump to slave state/free state fighting, Texas shows up, South suceeds, Lincoln is prez, we spend three days watching Glory, war ends, Lincoln dies. Although yes states rights, you can’t discuss this without slavery and what white people did.

Reconstruction: Radical republicans. Carpet baggers. Andrew Johnson Impeached. Expansion westward. Grant’s people are currupt. Immigrants in New York (why they choose 1900 to focus on that i’ll never know). Usually George Washington Carver shows up (he killed Geroge Washington, you know)

Roaring Twenties: The books love to use 20’s slang, so i learn to tell chicks they have nice gams. Bootlegging, Charleston, Capone, Prohibition. Textbook writers have a hardon for the 20s

Depression: I gots lots of moneys—OH NOES!!! We be poor. Alphabet soups. FDR saves the day (but wants lots more supreme court justices). Suddenly there is one week left of school. Japan attacks, we kick butt, and Nuke civilians, See you next year!!!

50’s and beyond: Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh there’s a* 19*50? Daddy, what’s Vietnam?

Current Events: If you want to know what is going on now, you need to take the Current Events class, not history, since even though history is getting written now, we don’t cover it. also, monorities and women did stuff, but the man keeps them down.
Basically that’s it. I don;t know what these surveyors want us to teach, since lots of bad crap did happen. Glossing over history with a coat of happy little ducks paint is not something i support.

If i taught history, I would teach from modern day backwards, and maybe we’d get to the Civil War by the end of the year (so kids could watch Glory and give me time to catch up on grading papers.) They learn that stupid Pilgrim crap every freaking year, and most places drag it out until November to tie it in with Thanksgiving. (Yes, rexdart, i ganked that idea from you)

soooooo…i hit submit instead of preview, so the spelling errors are fast and furious above. Sorry.

What textbook was this?

I have to admit I find it quite difficult to believe that a textbook used in California, where IIRC you are from, between 1994 and 1998 said something like that. Who wrote it and what was the title? I’ve got to know what school district used THAT book.

Where the hey did y’all go to school? I graduated from high school in Virginia in 1977 and the teaching wasn’t “some savages were here before the civilized folk came over.”


I mean, dude.

Like, dude. Man, your childhood sucked.

I left high school in 1984, all of it in Indiana, and the history we got there was worlds and away better than that. It helped that many of the teachers had quite a sense of humor and liked to present history as a matter of real people doing real things instead of demigods striding a mythical landscape.

We used A Pocket History of the United States, which was published at some point in the 1940s and is still apparently in use today. It was meant as a “serious textbook” to “prepare us for the AP exam”. If you want, I could dig up my copy thats covered in red ink where I underlined every inaccurate, biased, or outright offensive comment.

Humph! You think you had it bad. I went to a Christian school, and the textbooks were excellent, if you like a good parody. Every myth of American history, including Betsy Ross, and George Washington’s cherry tree were reported as fact.

From what I’ve been reading, the way history is taught is slowly changing for the better, though not without bitter opposition.

There seems to be a prevasive fear in some that any criticism of our nation or its leaders will lead children to reject all authority. They seem to feel that any mention of our country’s past mistakes is enough to shatter young people’s fragile patriotism. I believe differently. I think children will respect our country more if we’re bold and honest enough to own up to our errors.

Nothing makes history more boring to kids than to present it as a recitation of dates and the deeds of shining, infallible paragons of virtue. (No child can relate to a godlike figure with no human flaws.) Nothing makes it duller than taking away the chance to debate and interpret, but some folks, such as Mel Gabler think that “Too many textbooks and discussions leave students free to make up their mind about things.” ** They fear to let students think, because they can’t control what conclusion the student may come to.

We make history boring for children, glossing over the areas which make us uncomfortable in favor of a dry presentation of names, dates and places. History is a rich, fascinating subject, but we’ve pasturized it to the point of dull monotony. **Tars Tarkas ** made a very good point: the wars are the only interesting parts of history as it’s presented to kids, because there’s the only action. There are equally compelling struggles that went on behind the scenes which are tactfully ignored, but could really catch the children’s interest.

I work in a museum, and part of my job is to give students tours of the museum. Instead of boring them to tears talking about early state politics, I talk about chamber pots, and how hard life was for the early settlers. I tell them about ettiquette and corsets, leeches and bloodletting. I tell them funny stories about state’s founding fathers.

In short, I try to make them have a good time while learning about our past. And it works. One student returned with his family a week after his field trip. His mother told me she was astonished when he had asked to be taken back to a *museum. *I like to think that some of them will remember what they learned, and it will kindle in them a love for history.

One of the problems is that no history curriculum can possibly be inclusive enough or deep enough. If you want to include more depth about any one event or part of America’s past, you have to leave out the study of some other event entirely. If, on the other hand, you want to add the study of some event not currently covered, (say, America’s involvement in Vietnam), you have to either leave out some other event or make the coverage of something else a bit less in depth. Invariably, the latter is what happens, because nobody ever wants to leave out anything. This results in a curriculum that is “an inch deep and a mile wide”, ie, a huge list of names and dates that students memorize for tests then promptly forget.

This problem is nearly unsolvable so long as we insist that such a huge, complex area of study should be a single class. The solution is to make American History a two year curriculum the way Algebra is now. With twice as much time, more depth and breadth could be added. However, now you’ve just bumped the “What do I leave out so that I can add this new content?” problem up a level. To expand and split the course means to leave out some other part of the curriculum–and nobody ever wants to let their pet area of the curriculum be replaced.

In any case, the public school history curriculum isn’t meant to be comprehensive. At best, it seeks to give a basic overview of America’s past, an introduction, though in it’s current single course form it usually fails at that task, simply as a result of having too much to cover in too little time.

To address the OP directly–the goal shouldn’t be to present either a positive or a negative image of America, but as honest and objective a view as can be presented.

The problem isn’t that history is negative about America. That’s actually a good thing, because it can shock impressionable young minds into getting involved and making positive changes in society.

The problem is that schools aren’t too good with helping people get engaged. Students may know of soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but they don’t hear about NGOs. Voter registration is offered only at some schools. As a result, apathy grows.


FWIW, my son’s 7th/8th grade American history book (it’s not home, so I can’t name the title) is fairly decent. I’ve got some small quibbles about different points it makes, but it actually attempts to provide the motivations and the resulting actions of most of the people most of the time. So far, the only egregiously dumb thing they’ve done was play up the Crispus Attucks story (take a foreshadowing of the Kent State Massacre with poorly trained troops overreacting to out-of-control demonstrators and then make a black guy the hero of the rioters? wtf?), but the overall tenor of the book has been good. Of course, the book is useless, because, as mentioned above, the teacher spends inordinate amounts of time playing irrelevant movies. (Johnny Tremain, anyone?)
I’m not sure that the claims made by the people in the Hoover Institution are valid, anyway. Among the most cynical and disaffected group in the country are the people who were raised on the pure “America has always been the beacon of liberty and hope to the world” myth propagated in the 1950s and 1960s. If there is an actual text that can be shown to devote more time to the negatives than to the positives, then it should probably be replaced. I rather doubt that that is the story that kids are learning in their classrooms, however.

Quibble: Bradford and his Plymouth group (retroactively named “Pilgrims” a couple hundred years later) always maintained friendship with the indians until they were eventually swallowed by the Puritans hanging out around Boston. The Plymouth Separatists were not part of the later riff-raff that actually killed off the local peoples.

And, of course, there is NO MIDDLE GROUND AT ALL! One MUST have an utterly negative history or nothing but pretty fiction. It is not possible to present anything with a bit of balance.

No one is suggesting that any false information be presented. But, as many people have noted, there is a limited amount of information that can be presented to a class, and an unbalanced overall picture is a false one.

A lot of bad stuff happened, but a lot of good stuff happened too. And a lot of the bad stuff is improperly understood if it is not understood in the context of what other countries and cultures did at the time. There is a lot of room for a presentation of accurate facts, that by skewed focus and context leaves the student with an overly negative and cynical view of their country and society.

What is the basis for this assertion?

Right. Miles fucking Standish just loved those cute little savages and wanted to do everything he could for them. :rolleyes:


It seems to me that these, and other problems with our culture, need addressing, and that to pretend that everything is peachy-dandy is not only unrealistic, but also dangerous. Cynicism need not be the only result of teaching that these problems exist.
Perhaps a curriculum that includes our warts and flaws, that is taught by a competent teacher who invites debate and who can challenge the students to explore real solutions to such maladies, would be in the best interests of all Americans, as well as the rest of the planet’s inhabitants.

One of the teachers at my high school flunked people because they didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address after we won the American Revolution. Maybe we could work on that stuff first.

Aside from your demonstration of your own point, was there a purpose for this strawman? I have never suggested that only the negative be presented and have explicitly stated that a book found to be primarily negative should be removed.

That the Baby Boomers (who were raised on “we’re the good guys” and Disney) are the first generation to show a significant turning away from the political process (in terms of turning out for the vote, support–financial and donating time–for political parties, and similar measures of interest in governance).

Can you back your sarcasm with facts? Standish was involved in the first hostile encounter between the Mayflower settlers and some group of locals before the actual landing at Plymouth–an encounter in which no one was injured. He was, four years later, involved in a fight at Wessagusett in which either three or five Indians were killed after he was alerted by the Massasoit of the Wampanoags, Ouasemequin, that Pecksuot intended to destroy that settlement. Standish was both cheered by some members of the Separatists and reproved by others for his violence in that incident. I have never seen any reports of any other actual fights in which Standish was involved (although there are a lot of vague references to him “battling” the Indians even though no actual battles are mentioned). On the other hand, Standish figures prominently in most of the actions in which the Plymouth Colony under Bradford purchased land from the Indians.

I am sure that Standish had all the contemporary prejudices toward the “heathens” among whom he found himself, but I have not seen any evidence of him displaying bloody hatred for or leading attacks against the native peoples of Massachusetts.

Sorry, I mistyped that. Pecksuot was the individual that Standish killed in hand-to-hand combat after Pecksuot insulted Standish. The leader of the group who wished to destroy Wessagusett, (probably with good reason), was Wituwamet. Wituwamet was killed in the same incident, but not by Standish.