Cherry-Picked History Is a Threat to Public Health

Wasie Karim on how revamping the teaching of American history will allow students to reckon with our nation’s past while also serving as the first step toward fact-based education and healing.

February 18, 2021

America’s past few years have been characterized by racial tension, white supremacy, and a worsening pandemic. To see where this all began, we should look no further than the American history classroom.

In its current state, American History is taught to elementary, middle, and high school students as a series of historical facts presented as objective truths. Information is typically drawn from Americentric textbooks providing an understanding of history from the perspectives of authority figures – the Founding Fathers, military leaders, Congress, and presidents. Students then take multiple-choice exams affirming these facts, reinforcing their supposed objectivity while ruling other possibilities as incorrect. This format, while helpful in standardizing teaching across multiple classrooms, comes at the expense of conveying an oversimplified historical narrative with few counterarguments.

In a 1994 interview with Rethinking Schools Magazine, Howard Zinn described how presenting history as “objective” is misleading:

"Objectivity is neither possible nor desirable. It’s not possible because all history is subjective; all history represents a point of view. History is always a selection from an infinite number of facts, and everybody makes the selection differently, based on their values and what they think is important."

U.S history textbooks often create a narrative of American exceptionalism – the idea that America is unique from and superior to other nations – through the inclusion and exclusion of certain historical truths in favor of others.

Because textbooks serve as the primary source of historical narratives in the classroom, students often accept them as absolute without question. As a result, students are left vulnerable to the biases every textbook carries.

These may arise from crafty language that avoids blame; omission of key historical events and counterarguments; or value judgments and opinions passing as fact.

Take, for example, Christopher Columbus. As early as elementary school, students celebrate Columbus as a visionary who discovered America, despite his mistaken assumption that he navigated to India (hence the misnomer, “Indians”). Rarely, however, do textbooks discuss Columbus’ genocide of the indigenous Arawak people on the Caribbean Islands. Ultimately, students receive a one-sided history of Columbus’ accomplishments while remaining uninformed about the damage he caused. This skewed understanding leaves no room for students to sympathize with the victims of Columbus’ ambitions and reinforces a distorted reality where actions have no consequences. A comprehensive understanding of Columbus would consider more perspectives, such as the accounts of Bartolome de las Casas, a priest who accompanied Columbus to the Americas and documented Columbus’ placement of gold and glory over Arawak lives.

By failing to offer diverse perspectives on historical events, American history courses do not teach students how to synthesize multiple sources of information, nor do they challenge students to look for accurate sources beyond their textbooks. As a result, these courses condition students to accept whatever information is presented to them while failing to teach what constitutes credible information. This leaves Americans vulnerable to misinformation, which, most recently, has allowed for the spread of racism amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unable to distinguish between fact and fiction, Americans fell victim to worsened race relations. White nationalism – a product of misinformation – has grown in recent years, as evidenced by the 2017 Charlottesville riots and 2021 Capitol riots. Such emboldened racism could have been averted if students better understood America’s racial history, the unnecessary suffering that accompanies it, and its persistence in the present day. This would require students to learn historical perspectives that are often omitted from history textbooks – that 12 U.S. Presidents were slaveowners; that the Civil War was not a battle over states’ rights; and that the Civil Rights Movement encompassed far more than Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil disobedience and “I Have a Dream” Speech.

Americans also fell prey to misinformation surrounding COVID-19. False claims – that masks are ineffective at controlling viral spread, that social distancing is futile, and that ingesting bleach could thwart the virus – proved reckless as the invisible foe devastated America. Hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 deaths were not enough to convince many Americans that they had been misled. Had our history courses taught us not to revere authority figures, but instead, to recognize their fallibility, more Americans may have sought evidence-based precautions against the virus. We could have prevented a public health disaster.

For the sake of public health and safety, it is imperative that American history education be rebalanced. For every account of American exceptionalism, a countering perspective should be offered. Alongside the prosperous Roaring 1920s, students should learn about the deadly 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre; alongside Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, students should learn about the residential segregation caused by federal redlining; alongside Dr. King’s palatable civil disobedience and “I Have a Dream” speech, students should learn about Malcolm X’s hardline civil rights stances through The Autobiography of Malcolm X; and alongside the Vietnam War, students should learn about the devastating My Lai Massacre. By juxtaposing different views, students would learn that America’s historical arc bends toward progress when its citizens are fully informed.

To promote the healing of our nation, students must receive an honest, multifaceted understanding of American history. As public health professionals, we understand how crucial acknowledging the darker side of our nation’s history is for overcoming public health catastrophes and racial disparities in health. To critique our past and present is not to be unpatriotic, but to confront injustice and mature as a nation. Perhaps, James Baldwin summarized this best in Notes of a Native Son: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her personally.”

Wasie Karim is a 2021 MPH candidate in the Department of Health Policy and Management. He received his Bachelor's Degree in Biochemistry and Arabic from Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York.