Why Do Young People Have Trouble With U.S. History?
Their access to information is conflicting with the curated version we try to teach them.
The political right in the United States has long assailed public education as a bastion of leftism. Indeed, on July 3rd, 2020, President Trump stated:
“Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes but that they were villains. The radical view of American history is a web of lies, all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.”
Of course, President Trump never actually attended public school. Those of us who did attend public schools and currently have children in them, know this to be largely untrue.
While there may be a push in some jurisdictions recently to have a more inclusive US History curriculum, public schools tend to teach from a perspective of American Exceptionalism. This view highlights the positive aspects of US History. It does teach many of the negative aspects, because they are inescapable — slavery, the Civil War, Great Depression, and the fight for Civil Rights. However, the overarching theme in public school social studies and history classes is that while these things happened, we overcame and moved on as a country.
The point is to instill a sense of pride and heritage, which are undoubtedly important in any society. However, in doing this, a lot of the especially negative aspects tend to become lost, glossed over or even denied. Examples include the brutality of slavery, the true reasons of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Lost Cause myth, the magnitude of the suffering and stifling of Black people during the Jim Crow era, and a general failure to connect it all to the state of modern society.
History and the Rise of the Information Age
In the past, information was easier to control. School boards and boards of education carefully selected text books, and beyond that, the student had to go out of their way to learn more. Critical interpretations of history have long existed, but students had to seek out such resources from a bookstore or a library.
The internet and the digital age changed everything. Suddenly, we had information available from the comfort of our own homes. We had more information available on special computers in our libraries. We got to a point where we could order whatever book we wanted and have it delivered to our doorstep, or eventually instantly downloaded to a device we held in our hand. If we had a question, we could “Google it” or look it up on Wikipedia.
Generation X and early millennials straddled between the old way and the new way. Eventually, a generation of later millennials and Generation Z came along that didn’t know anything but the new way. These are generations used to the democratization of information. Anything they want to know is accessible at their fingertips via a smartphone.
Many of these students discover aspects of US History that seem to have been hidden from them by their educators and even their parents. This leads them to wonder why.
We can attempt to write off some of this by saying that our time in a classroom is limited, and to cover all of US History from pre-colonial times through the modern era would just not be possible. We move through history fairly quickly to cover as much of the items we deem important as possible, thus planting the seeds of knowledge. If a student wishes to discover more, they now have the foundation to do so.
What we’re seeing today is an increasingly loud, diverse and growing number of young people who are discovering what was glossed over or left out, and connecting it to the social problems they see today.
For example, we’re taught that the Civil Rights movement was about discrimination and segregation. We’re taught about the concept of separate but equal, we see pictures of ‘colored only’ water fountains and learn about lunch counter sit-ins. Then we’re taught that all of these things just ended by the late 1960’s.
When this is the history you learn, it’s easy to then look at racial problems in today’s society and dismiss them. It’s also frustrating to learn things outside of the classroom that directly connect history to today’s racial problems and wonder why the additional context and information wasn’t taught.
The reason younger people have so much trouble processing US History right now is not because they’re taught by public schools to hate the country and its history. It’s actually quite the opposite. They’re taught a specifically curated version of US History that highlights exceptionalism, and then they discover outside of the classroom how much their classroom is glossing over or hiding. That leads to distrust, anger and shame, and they have trouble reconciling these emotions.
Young people today are far more curious than we give them credit for. We now have a generation and then some who have never known a world where they didn’t have instant access to information. They do not know a world in which Google, Wikipedia and YouTube did not exist. Yes, there is a lot of bad information on the internet, but there is also instant access to a lot of good information.
The problem is, we’re still teaching them as if we can control the information, and they’ve caught on to that. If we want to fix the unrest, we have to acknowledge this. We have to help them process a balance between all of the good things we’ve accomplished as a country, with the negatives. We have to help them contextualize. We have to include everyone’s history, from Native Americans, to the colonizers, the founders, the slaves and the slaveowner, immigrants, explorers, soldiers, scientists, inventors, investors, entertainers. We have to help them understand the wrongs and figure out creative ways to right them.
As long as we’re continuing to try to control information in an age in which it cannot be controlled, we’ll continue to foster ignorance, anger and shame. We must be honest.