We’re taught from a young age about the founding and development of America, how those who upheld the values of our great nation – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln – had a singular focus in mind: the pursuit of liberty and justice for all. But this story of American history may be just one of many “versions” taught in different states via their own distinct textbooks. Thus what we think of as historic gospel may not be so straightforward.
In truth, lots of aspects of history are open to interpretation. The common adage of being “written by the victors” holds true, especially for contentious topics such as race, politics, or legal interpretation. Perspectives on these ideas vary state-to-state, or even county to county, making history textbook manufacturers struggle to appease educators.
For example, in California, an American history student may find a paragraph explaining the contested nature of the 2nd Amendment, while a student in Texas has a blank space.
“We can’t build bridges without first agreeing on where to put the foundations.”
This is just one example of how state governments alter the educational narrative throughout the country. It demonstrates an important problem: our country claims to be united under a set of shared ideals and rules, yet we can’t even agree on what some consider basic aspects of our own history. How can we make judgments or hold debates in an increasingly polarized landscape without common ground? We can’t build bridges without first agreeing on where to put the foundations.
The most distressing part of this problem is that it unhinges the education process. American students have no frame of reference to judge the content of their textbooks: the textbook is supposed to be their frame of reference. Education systems are meant to provide students with foundational knowledge, enabling them to then synthesize their own informed beliefs of the world around them. If something held to such a standard as an Amendment of the Constitution is taught with partisan sway, then we can’t expect the future generations of our country to be open to opposing ideas.
Admittedly, teaching history is more complicated and open to revisionism than explaining a science concept or a math equation. But even though concepts essential to American history have no one clear perspective, we should strive to teach as many of them as possible to provide a holistic picture. Facts shouldn’t be dictated from the person with the strongest political following or the largest bullhorn. The story of America has many facets, each with its own merits and drawbacks. But if we want to move forward as a nation, we must collaborate to tell the complex, diverse, and shared narrative that made us into what we are today.