At the end of July 2019, a group of coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, began organizing to demand millions of dollars in unpaid wages from Blackjewel, the bankrupt coal company that formerly employed them. The workers set up a protest site, camped on railroad tracks to block a train of coal cars from leaving a Blackjewel mine, rallied support on social media, and may soon, with the sale of several of the company’s assets in the area, see a measure of relief.
It’s a story that stretches back more than 100 years in Appalachia, spanning the formation of the United Mine Workers of America, the battles that raged at places like Blair Mountain, and the long, often bloody struggle to secure decent conditions for people doing hazardous work in an exceptionally profitable industry.
It’s a significant part of American history—history that actualizes concepts like class and poverty in ways that may well connect with the lived experiences of some students and expand the worldviews of others. And yet it is by no means a central part of American history curricula. Even Rand Paul, who represents Kentucky in the Senate, was unfamiliar with the labor movement in Harlan County when he first ran for his seat in 2010.
Labor history does not get a great deal of attention in most schools. Not Pullman, not Boston, not the movement that led to the establishment of the weekend, or the 40-hour workweek, not union busting or “right to work” laws.
It’s not just labor history. The standard American history curriculum in middle and high schools all too often engages more in hagiography than in an effort to help people better understand why their country, whatever its stated ideals, looks and behaves as it does.
That is what studying the past should do: help to explain the present.
People who know that seasonal workers used to arrive in the Southwest from Mexico each spring and depart each fall, or are familiar with our predilection for destructive antidemocratic intervention in Central America, may understand the current situation at our southern border much differently.
People familiar with the massacres at Fort Pillow and Greenwood, with the history of lynching in the South and race riots in the North, may see the ongoing assault on black and brown bodies by American police officers through a different lens.
People who understand the history of redlining may move through their own cities with new interpretations of them and how the forces of racism and bigotry have shaped their own lives.
People familiar with poll taxes and literacy tests may respond differently to voter identification laws and voter roll purges, or to the refusal of a candidate like Stacey Abrams to concede a gubernatorial election like the one that took place in Georgia last year.
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People who know that Philadelphia police blew up the MOVE home in 1985, or who know that Chicago police murdered Fred Hampton in 1969, will necessarily interpret differently the fact that six leading activists in Ferguson have died since Michael Brown was killed there in 2014.
What is happening in this country in 2019 is not by any means inexplicable. Donald Trump, despite what Joe Biden might have you believe, is not an anomalous, ahistorical force. The Republican Party’s submission to white nationalism was not sudden. History demonstrates this clearly. Back in 1971, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon were guffawing after Reagan cracked that African delegates to the United Nations—”monkeys”—were “still uncomfortable wearing shoes.”
Of course, given the breadth and depth of American history, what we teach in classrooms is largely a question of what to prioritize. In that process, we often overlook much of what is vital to seeing clearly the society we have built. Students are drilled on the names of the founding fathers and the particulars of the Virginia Plan, but left ignorant of our country’s history of domestic fascism—how many Americans could identify Madison Square Garden as the venue for a massive Nazi rally in 1939? It is a question not just of knowing history but also of equipping young people with the tools to interrogate the world they live in.
This, of course, is an ideological judgment. But history classes are nothing if not a series of ideological judgments, valuations of the merits of the many histories and narratives that coexist in this country, and choices about which of them to present and how.
Conservative politicians have historically understood this and behaved accordingly. For years, Texas’s social studies curriculum mandated that slavery be taught as one of four central causes for the state’s involvement in the Civil War—alongside tariffs, states’ rights, and sectionalism. Several years ago, the Republican National Committee took aim at the Advanced Placement US History course on account of its “emphasiz[ing] negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” Oklahoma moved to ban the class. Georgia and Colorado took similar steps, and the result was that the College Board, which administers the course, revamped the curriculum to put a renewed emphasis on American exceptionalism. It should come as no surprise, then, that only 8 percent of American high school seniors can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, the practice around which every other concern in that era revolved.
Education alone cannot dispel racism, but it can help—especially if it’s education that seeks to connect the past to the present for students in meaningful, concrete ways.
Such a change in our classrooms would have an impact on our politics as well. The Democratic presidential primary, for instance, has become a contest between candidates who want structural, fundamental change in the United States and candidates who do not.
There are certainly a number of ways to make the case for structural change in America. But some of the strongest evidence that structural change is needed, that our problems go much deeper than one white nationalist president, lies in our history.
If we agree that a core function of our education system is to prepare young people to both make sense of their lives and contribute meaningfully to our democracy, an honest, unsparing presentation of that history is crucial.
The world is difficult enough to make sense of as it is. But young people want to figure it out and improve it—and we should be giving them every possible piece of relevant information with which to work.