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Sultan: Why we never learned certain parts of American history in school

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The past few years have revealed some startling gaps in our American history education.

I graduated college with a minor in history. But the first I heard of the 1921 massacre of hundreds of Black Americans by a white mob in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was after the 2019 hit TV series “Watchmen” based a story around it.

I was hardly alone.

Of the 305 people surveyed by the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, 83% said they never received a full lesson on the Tulsa Race Massacre or Black Wall Street at any point in school. And the omission is part of a pattern: The Washington Post recently published a list of several other racist rampages most of us never learned about in school.

Last year, CBS News reviewed the social studies standards in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to get a sense of how Black history is taught around the country. It found that seven states do not directly mention slavery in their state standards, and eight do not mention the civil rights movement. Sixteen states list “states’ rights” as a cause of the Civil War.

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Generations of schoolchildren in the South were taught public school curricula shaped by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. That’s one reason the traitors who fought to uphold slavery are still revered as heroes by some white people.

David Cochran, professor of history at John A. Logan College, a community college in Carterville, Illinois, said most of his students are unaware of the political forces that shape the version of history they are taught in schools.

“We are presented American history as a story of progress,” he said. “Things that don’t fit within that narrative tend to get pushed to the side.”

For generations, the social, political and economic interests of the white majority have played a major role in how that narrative gets structured. When you’ve been told, and believe, that your ancestors are the heroes in the story of America, facts that complicate that story may be ignored or distorted.

Cochran said many of his students come to his classes thinking history is a boring topic because their education has seldom transcended the myths.

“When they begin to learn different stories that they hadn’t been taught before, when they see the people they’ve been taught to revere as all too human, they become fascinated,” he said.

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He often hears the same question: “Why was I never taught this before?”

The college draws students from Southern Illinois, many of them from small “sundown towns” who have never been taught why their communities are nearly all-white, he said.

“Even things that are right in front of their noses are not explained or made obvious,” Cochran said.

He said some white students will ask why they should feel guilty about America’s racist past. He tells them that he’s never heard anyone say they should feel guilty for it.

“Guilt has nothing to do with awareness,” he said. The more uncomfortable question becomes: Am I on the hook for trying to correct the lasting impact of these wrongs?

Running parallel to the story of American progress is the idea that this is a land of opportunity, and that hard work is always rewarded. The natural conclusion is that If you don’t share in that abundance, then obviously you are doing something wrong. Learning about redlining, restrictive covenants, discriminatory banking and policing practices really messes with that narrative, Cochran said.

The vast majority of his students, however, are grateful to learn the missing pieces in the story they’ve been taught.

“Students are thrilled to encounter these stories,” he said. “We really underestimate students all the time. They can handle nuance. They can handle the fact that our heroes and our country are not perfect.”

Cochran has been teaching American history for more than 30 years, and says he is glad that people are starting to learn a more inclusive version of the American story. He adds that if we had been taught sooner to listen to a diversity of voices, events like the Tulsa massacre would not be coming as a big surprise to so many.

“These stories have been talked about and told for a long time,” he said.

It’s time we started listening.


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