Academic journal article Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights

Reforming High School American History Curricula: What Publicized Student Intolerance Can Teach Policymakers

Academic journal article Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights

Reforming High School American History Curricula: What Publicized Student Intolerance Can Teach Policymakers

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION.................... 2

II. LESSONS FROM THE PAST.................... 6

A. Systemic Deficiencies in American History Education.......... 6

B. Today's American History Textbooks.................... 7

C. Local Delivery of American History Education.................... 10


A. Lynching.................... 13

B. The Trail of Tears.................... 14


V. CONCLUSION.................... 16


The descent from local celebration to national embarrassment happened overnight to the Phillipsburg (N.J.) High School varsity wrestling team. A day after the Stateliners capped an undefeated season by capturing a state championship on February 16, 2014,1 a photograph surfaced on social media showing seven white team members posing with a dark-colored wrestling dummy that was hanged from the ceiling with a noose around its neck.2 The life-size, black wrestling dummy wore the T-shirt of perennial rival Paulsboro (N.J.) High School, another wrestling powerhouse located in a city where about one-third of the residents are black (Phillipsburg, by contrast, is about 85% white).3 One Phillipsburg student wrestler saluted the camera while standing behind the dummy, another pointed at the hanging dummy while holding a paddle, and two more students wore hoodies that came to a point at the top, reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan.4

Students at McAdory High School (McCalla, Ala.) created a similar stir on a Friday night just three months earlier. Before a second-round football playoff game against the Pinson Valley (Ala.) High School Indians on November 15, 2013, McAdory cheerleaders and students held a bust-through banner reading, "Hey Indians, get ready to leave in a TRAIL OF TEARS Round 2."5

The same night as the McAdory incident, Dyersburg (Tenn.) High School students, on the sidelines and in the stands, unfurled their own large "Trail of Tears" banner at a football playoff game against the North Side (Jackson, Tenn.) High School Indians.6 Photographs of both football banners quickly reached social media for wide dissemination.7

Chatter on social media speculated about whether racism motivated the students at the three high schools or whether the students failed to appreciate the historical significance of the wounds that their publicized taunting opened.8 In a written apology read by their lawyer at a press conference, the seven Phillipsburg wrestlers insisted that their actions "were not premeditated, but rather were spontaneous gestures without any forethought";9 the seven insisted that they "did not intend to disparage anyone."10 Not convinced, one skeptical columnist assailed their posed photograph as "obviously a well-planned, thought-out attack."11

Whatever impulses drove the students at the three high schools, the back-and-forth on social media overlooked a more constructive point about public education that warrants attention from state and local policymakers. The three incidents lend persuasive support to prominent figures who see shortcomings in the way the nation's history- particularly incidents that cause general discomfort today-is taught in many public high schools under state standards and curricula.

Ignorance of American history is one plausible explanation for the Phillipsburg, McAdory, and Dyersburg incidents, and I would hope that it is the actual explanation for those incidents. I hope that the students would not have belittled lynching or the Trail of Tears if their high school history classes had taught them that the first was a form of domestic terrorism fueled by mob rule for decades and that the second was a government-sanctioned death march forced on several thousand helpless Native Americans after wholesale land theft.12

"We're raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate,"13 says David McCullough, the dean of American historians after winning two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. …

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