We have all heard of “the most brilliant man” in American history: Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps because he was our president, wrote the Declaration of Independence, or because of his philosophical writings. There are also other names we don’t hear very often, or ever at all. There are men and women, who just like Jefferson, made a significant contribution to literature, history and society. Despite their hard work, they are ‘till this day, unacknowledged.
Our history and humanities curriculum gives certain individuals in U.S. history more recognition than others. Roberta Logan, a member of The Boston Teacher Residency Program, and a coach for WriteBoston, offers one reason: “American history has a history of being Eurocentric; most historians have been white Americans.” This creates a message that the silenced and invisible are not as important.
An example of such a person is Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American female poet. Her works focus on her perception of slavery and how her anomalous life, learning Latin and Greek under her master’s permission, led to her sophisticated writing skills. Instead of learning about women like her, or hearing an authentic perspective on slavery, we learn from the blunt writings of outdated textbooks that don't provide much insight.
Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, but the light bulb cannot work without the filament. Lewis Latimer, an African-American inventor and draftsman, invented the filament. Despite being born right here in Massachusetts, serving in the United States Navy for the Union during the Civil War and inventing a toilet system for railroad cars, we still do not learn about him.
These individuals made significant contributions and deserve recognition. Students need to be exposed to a variety of meaningful and insightful works in all fields. While European history is important, learning the history of those often marginalized is equally as important. This is where we find cultural understanding of “outside” achievements that have gone unnoticed. Our student population is increasingly diverse. What is being done to make sure we see ourselves reflected in history too?
Part of the problem is the over-reliance on textbooks in humanities classrooms. Darlene Franco, junior at the John D. O’Bryant High School, concludes, “textbook classes are easier because you are reading the material yourself,” without being dependent on the teacher. But, easier is not always better. Textbooks do not allow for intellectual conversations. They do not allow us to move beyond colorless and tedious facts and make meaning out of history.
Not all of history can be put in one curriculum, but if frequent updates were made, we could get a glimpse into diverse cultural histories. That leaves the question, who is responsible for ensuring curriculums are updated? Both teachers and the Director of Curriculum and Instruction should regularly update our curriculums to reflect the diverse knowledge students need to fully understand the world.
“Frequently, people say the victors get to tell the story and often that means they tell the story that reflects positively on their exploits… American history textbooks often support this assertion,” said Logan. “Many historians who are Hispanic, African-American or Asian, as well as Euro-Americans, have focused on expanding what is included in American history scholarship and teaching, but the trickle down to high school classrooms has often depended on the interest of the teachers and the mandates of the schools in which they teach.”
Lying by omission is when one fails to correct pre-existing misconceptions. That is what our history and humanities curriculums have been doing.