History Curricula Aren’t Cheat Codes for Changing Other People’s Worldviews

Many people talk about changing history curricula, especially in grade schools, to instill their preferred worldview in the population. This has been a thing for as long as mass education/schooling has been around, though the temperature of the debates is currently higher-than-average.

Does changing history curricula actually change students’ worldviews? A little, but not nearly as much as proponents think it does.

Most of you have been in a grade school history class. Did it always interest you? Do you remember all the history facts the class covered? Did you uncritically absorb your teacher’s point of view with no resistance, not even resistance confined to your own mind?

I’m going to go out on a limb and claim that the answers to all those questions are ‘no.’

In a high school class, I mentioned the Songhai Empire and the gold-salt trade in West Africa. One of my classmates stared at me and asked, ‘How do you know that?’ The irony was that all the facts I mentioned I remembered from a middle school history class—and that classmate had been in that class. Though she had been in a class which taught facts about the West African gold-salt trade and the Songhai Empire, she had completely forgotten it by high school.

Why did I remember the facts about the West African gold-salt trade and the Songhai Empire? I don’t know, but it must have interested me.

Recently, I took part in an online conversation where some U.K. people talked about how Asian history is so much more fascinating than British history. Then some American commented about how boring American history is, though one commentator mentioned that the myths about American history are interesting (the example they gave was about when slavery really ended in the United States).

This gave me pause. I recall learning more about Asian history than British history in grade school, and my knowledge of British history to this day has some glaring gaps. ‘Asian’ history is much broader than ‘British’ history, but I don’t think Asian history is any more fascinating than European history, nor is, for example, Japanese history more fascinating than British history.

I remember, in middle school, thinking that American history was boring. By high school, my attitude about American history changed. I don’t remember what the turning point was, but it had something to do with becoming more independent in my education and tracking down historical facts because they were interesting, not because a teacher required me to do research lest I get a bad grade. Perhaps I’m not so different from the person who finds American history so boring, except the myths which going outside the official narrative can dispel.

Someone in the conversation who has worked as a teacher pointed out that if you cram too much into curriculums, teachers can’t teach any of the material well, especially to students who don’t want to be there. I’ve worked as a teacher too, and I agree. Many of these calls for adding such-and-such history to public education ignore the realities of the classroom.

My grade school education covered every dynasty in Chinese history from the Qin to the Qing (excluding the dynasties from eras when China was disunited). To me, Chinese history can be as fascinating or as boring as British—or American—history. Many Taiwanese people I met considered their Chinese history education boring.

Do you see a pattern? I do. People are more interested in the history they seek themselves than the history a teacher/curriculum forces upon them. I suspect if those UK people had learned ‘Asian’ history in school it wouldn’t ‘fascinate’ them.

Popular understandings of history come more from popular culture than public education. Take, for example, the fact that black people served as soldiers in the Union Army during the United States’ Civil War. Most Americans didn’t believe this until the Hollywood movie Glory came out. I bet if a movie about the Songhai Empire became a blockbuster in the United States, historical facts about Songhai and the West African gold-salt trade would be much more widely known among Americans.

Does that mean that the cheat code is to control big-budget Hollywood movies, not classroom education? No. The key is not controlling the content of Hollywood movies. The key is to be popular. That is, to present the story in such a way that people want to know the story. Hollywood is better at that than formal education because Hollywood depends on willing, not captive, audiences. But Hollywood movies which cannot entice audiences won’t spread historical knowledge, true or false.

Classes which force students to be present generate much reactance. Perhaps they make the idea of alternative, hidden, ‘censored’ histories more appealing (and maybe that’s a good thing).

Even in classrooms which coerce students to show up, there are ways to make them more interested in history. Such as sharing personal narratives.

To deliver a message about history to as many minds as possible, people must want to hear it. Making a message compelling is a lot of work. What’s especially hard is understanding others well enough to craft a message they will hear, because that requires listening to other people—real listening—which means hearing things we don’t want to hear.

We might even have to change our own minds instead of theirs.

No matter how well we craft a historical or other message so that as many people as possible will absorb it, some will reject it.

It’s so much easier to demand a top-down curriculum change and call it a day—especially if you ignore the outcome.

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