History Whitened Out: Part 1 - How High School World History Classes Continue To Get It Wrong
"Where have any other subgroup of people contributed more to civilization?"
Rep. Steve King
At this very moment in the public schools in the state of New Jersey millions of high school students are being robbed of a valuable educational experience only because we as educators continue to follow a very eurocentric and outdated model. This especially stands out when one looks at the content and the time period that educators are forced to focus on in high school World History classes. The core curriculum for teaching World History in high schools in the state of New Jersey starts at roughly the 1300s which coincides with the rise of Western Europe beginning with the Renaissance and Enlightenment Period. Calling a high school history class a World History class is really a misnomer because that isn't exactly what most high school educators teach their classes, at least not in New Jersey. To be fair middle school students are the only ones that are given any real lessons that come close to resembling the world.
Once they move on to the high school level which is an important age, as students begin to formulate an identity and think more critically the lessons begin to change. At that point rarely does a high school class focus its attention on the "world." What we are really being told to teach is "European History" or more appropriately the "Rise of Europe." At the level of high school there seems to be a shift in the psychology from a more inclusive global perspective toward a more exclusive nationalist one. My fear is by moving three quarters of the world out of any meaningful discussion it could at the very least promote a gross amount of ignorance about the world in which we live, and at its worst lead to a form of racial chauvinism. I realize that educators want to create good patriotic citizens, but there has always been a thin line between patriotism, nationalism, and racism. Too much of one can easily blend into the other.
Many Americans were shocked when United States Congressman from Iowa Rep. Steve King made reference to minorities never contributing anything to civilization, but Congressman King's sentiments are expressed in the values that are passed down to our children through the educational system.The rest of the world is only mentioned in history class as Europeans stumble upon indigenous people through either slavery or imperialism brought about by the "European Age of Exploration." The way the narrative is set up is Europeans are the main or central actors and everyone else is a useful prop in a play in order to push the eurocentric narrative forward. The ancient world otherwise known as B.C.E. or Before The Common Era which puts an emphasis on ancient civilizations in Africa, Mesoamerica, and Asia are either not touched on at all, or are hastily mentioned.
No talk then about man's origins in Africa and his ability to master fire, weapons, tools, and art long before humans spread into Asia and Europe. There will be no discussion to be had about the building of pyramids and ziggurats in Africa and Mesopotamia, and the knowledge of geometry that went into those structures. No talk about the organizational skills that had to be mustered to create a wonder like The Great Wall of China. All of those events occurred way before the 1300s, and teaching that would go against the core curriculum goals in the state of New Jersey.
Most of these classes do however make mention of the ancient Greeks wrongly holding them up solely as the "Forefathers" and custodians of Western Civilization. After a link is made between the Greeks and todays society they quickly move on to the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, as if the whole history of the world that matters started there. Even if you are not living in New Jersey the state of World History throughout the rest of the country is no better. The textbooks often show the connections the ancient Greeks have with the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, but what they dont do is highlight the interconnections the ancient Greeks had with both Africa and the Middle East, or the relationship Middle Age Europe had with the Muslim world. Greece as well as Renaissance Europe is suppose to exist on an island by itself isolated from any outside influences. Not only is this way of teaching history incredibly eurocentric, but also from a historical standpoint it is misleading. If indeed Western Civilization was influenced by the European Renaissance and Enlightenment Period which were in turn influenced by the ancient Greek philosophers, the question that must be asked is who influenced them? Is it to be believed that history is created in a vacuum as some may have you believe, or are we all in some way interconnected drawing our strength from multiple fountains of peoples and civilizations? It is my belief that what we call Western Civilization was brought into being by African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and European contributors.
Each working together and contributing to World History like the spokes on a wheel. Students of all backgrounds need to understand that they are not mere spectators and observers of history, but that they are active participants in history. They are not props in a play but actual actors. Teaching like this may help lure students into the classroom, fill up seats, and may even help toward lowering the drop out rate, serving to counteract the number of students of color who have become disillusioned with the educational system. Indeed studies have shown that there is a strong link between students who drop out of school and students that end up in prison. In fact the correlation between high school drop outs and prison is so prevalent that it has been described as a "public school to prison pipeline."
It has been said in the past that this approach of teaching history can not be done because there simply isn't enough time in the year. It has also been said that highlighting the contributions of minorities though noble is not really rooted in history, but more rooted in self-esteem building. As we will see not only is this approach to World History far from being feel good mythology masquerading as history, it is actually rooted in hard evidence. Evidence that has been overlooked and pushed aside for a more eurocentric vision of the world that tries to maintain a exclusiveness that essentially translates as whiteness.
James W. Loewen. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. 1995. Touchstone.
Cheikh Anta Diop. The African Origin Of Civilization: Myth Or Reality. 1974. Lawrence Hill Books.
Martin Bernal. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots Of Classical Civilization. 1987. Rutgers University Press.
Ivan Van Sertima. Golden Age Of The Moor. 1996. Transaction Publishers.
John M. Hobson. The Eastern Origins Of Western Civilization. 2004. Cambridge University Press.
Jonathan Lyons. The House Of Wisdom: How The Arabs Transformed Western Civilization. 2009. Bloomsbury Press.