“Don’t Know Much About History”: When History Classes Fail to Prepare Youth Athletes
By Doug Abrams
For the Phillipsburg (N.J.) High School Stateliners varsity wrestling team, the descent from local celebrity to international embarrassment happened swiftly last week. A few hours after the Stateliners capped an undefeated season by winning a state title, a photograph surfaced on social media showing several white team members posing with a black mannequin that wore the T-shirt of rival Paulsboro (N.J.) High School, whose roster includes several African Americans. Evoking images of lynching, the black mannequin was hanging with a noose around its neck. One wrestler appeared to be saluting, another pointed at the mannequin while holding a paddle, and two wore pointed hoodies reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. http://www.nj.com/gloucester-county/index.ssf/2014/02/paulsboro_wrestling_dummy_depicted_in_racist_photo_image_being_investigated_in_phillipsburg.html
Three months ago, McAdory High School (McCalla, Ala.) created a similar stir. For a second-round football playoff game against the Pinson Valley Indians, McAdory cheerleaders created a bust-through sign reading, “Hey Indians, get ready to leave in a TRAIL OF TEARS.” http://d1jrw5jterzxwu.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/article_media/trail-of-tears-mcadory-high-school_0.jpg
In both New Jersey and Alabama, school officials publicly apologized for the messages and disciplined the offending students. Chatter on social media disagreed about whether racism fueled the students, or whether they were pranksters ignorant about the inhumanity they invoked and the hurt they inflicted. We need not take sides in these discussions to suspect that the messages demonstrate once again how ineffectively American history is taught in so many of the nation’s secondary schools.
Lessons From the Past
Ignorance of history is the most plausible explanation for the Phillipsburg and McAdory incidents, or at least I hope it is. I would hope that no group of high school students would belittle racial lynching or the Trail of Tears if they knew that the first was domestic terrorism fueled by mob rule for decades, and that the second was a death march forced on thousands of helpless Native Americans. Even to students temporarily overcome by sports hoopla, allusions to known murder and cruelty send no worthwhile message.
I suspect that history classes have taught the Phillipsburg wrestlers and their classmates little or nothing about the true horrors of lynching. Almost 3,500 African Americans were summarily hanged, shot, or burned at the stake by vigilantes between 1882 and 1968, mostly from 1882 to 1920 and mostly in the South. Most of the black victims were guilty of nothing except appearing to challenge the Jim Crow caste system, or to look at a white person the wrong way. Each day of their lives, African Americans knew that their lives might depend on the whims of a lawless mob and a rope. I doubt that the Phillipsburg wrestlers would have struck their pose if their parents or teachers had ever shown them photographs such as the ones at this link: http://withoutsanctuary.org/main.html. (Warning: strong stomach needed.)
I doubt too that history classes taught the McAdory cheerleaders anything about the Trail of Tears. Shortly after Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, federal authorities forcibly removed more than 100,000 Native Americans from their homes in the southeastern United States, land that other settlers coveted. Acting on Presidential orders throughout the 1830s, federal authorities placed the Indians in internment camps and then forced them to march more than a thousand miles, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, to what is now Oklahoma. About 15,000 men, women and children died of starvation, disease, and exposure to the elements.
“We are raising generations of young Americans,” two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough said in 2011, “who are, by and large, historically illiterate.” Americans know McCullough as longtime host of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) series “American Experience” and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. He is perhaps the greatest living American historian, the author of nine books, including such masterpieces as Truman, John Adams, and 1776.
But McCullough has also emerged as a leading advocate for reforming the way secondary schools teach American history. He places the blame for high schoolers’ historical illiteracy squarely where it belongs, on “all of us who are educators, parents, and writers.” “We must not blame our children, or our grandchildren, for not knowing what they haven’t been taught.”
Surveys and studies back up McCullough’s stern criticism. In 2010, the U.S. Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress reaffirmed that students perform worse in civics and American history than in any other subjects. (This is the Department’s latest assessment of civics and history proficiency, with another report due later this year.) According to the Wall Street Journal, only 12% of high school seniors had a firm understanding of American history, and only 2% understood the importance of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 school desegregation decision that fundamentally changed American life.
Like “a Hollywood Costume Drama”
Historian Kenneth C. Davis particularly criticizes the way secondary schools treat uncomfortable aspects of our national history, such as lynching and the Trail of Tears. “Most of us learned history from textbooks that served up the past as if it were a Hollywood costume drama. In schoolbooks of an earlier era, . . [s]lavery . . . got the glossy makeover – it was merely the misguided practice of the rebellious folks down South until the ‘progressives’ of the North showed them the light. American Indians got the same portrayal in textbooks that you saw in B-movies.”
McCullough is right that many high school history textbooks today still serve up “politically correct mush.” In many places, much of the reason stems from systemic reluctance to be honest with students. Many history textbooks are written by eminent historians who spend their careers interpreting, analyzing and criticizing when they write for professional audiences. But often they turn out bland textbooks because they know that before being adopted for classroom use, the texts must win approval from state and local review boards, including ones in places where forthright treatment of topics such as lynching and the Trail of Tears would be a sure way not to close the sale. Classroom teachers may sense too that their careers depend on avoiding controversies that might invite parental complaints, lawsuits seeking to upset the curriculum, and perhaps even efforts at book banning.
“A Certain Amount of Self-Criticism”
The United States is a strong nation rightfully proud of its national heritage, and we should not resist teaching the younger generation about both the bad and the good. “Any healthy democracy,” says historian Gordon S. Wood, “has to have a certain amount of self-criticism, and that often takes the form . . . of writing critically about the past.”
“Honest history is the weapon of freedom,” wrote historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., because “[t]he strength of history in a free society is its capacity for self-correction.” Each generation enhances this capacity with exposure not only to past triumphs (of which our nation has plenty), but also to past injustices such as those suffered by the victims of lynching and the Trail of Tears.
Before high school athletes ever step onto the field in a multicultural America, they need respect for the past that this exposure encourages. Because athletes appear in the local limelight more often than their classmates, their missteps hold greater potential to attract attention that may permanently dog them and their schools once news accounts hit the Internet. And wouldn’t the nation be better off if high school history lessons equipped students to choose tolerance, rather than to do what the Phillipsburg wrestlers and the McAdory cheerleaders did?
“Hard to Believe”
In the wake of the disturbing football bust-through sign, McAdory High School’s principal announced that he would ask the school’s social studies teachers to present a special unit about the Trail of Tears. The principal’s reaction showed genuine concern, but McAdory’s history classes should have been teaching the Trail of Tears all along.
In an editorial condemning last week’s Phillipsburg wrestling photo, the South Jersey Times expressed disbelief. “It is hard to believe that the [wrestlers] would not know by the time they’re in high school the ugly history of lynching of black people in America and particularly in the South.” The Times got it wrong. Ignorance of American history in today’s high schools is not hard to believe at all.
[Sources: Ana Rodriguez, McAdory High School Will Be “Disciplined” for “Trail of Tears” Banner, Jeffco Superintendent Says, http://blog.al.com/wire/2013/11/mcadory_high_school_cheerleade.html; Phillipsburg Officials Investigating Controversial Wrestling Photo as Communities React, Star-Ledger (Feb. 18, 2014); McAdory High School Apologizes for Trail of Tears Sign, http://www.wsfa.com/story/24001310/mcadory-high-school-apologizes-for-trail-of-tears-sign (Nov. 25, 2013); Lynchings: By State and Race, 1882-1968, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchingsstate.html; Timeline for National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Assessments from 1969 to 2017,http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/about/assessmentsched.asp#assessment_sched; Elizabeth Prine Pauls, Trail of Tears, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/602008/Trail-of-Tears; William Jewell College, Achievement Day (2007) (quoting McCullough); David McCullough, History and Knowing Who We Are, 58 Am. Heritage (Winter 2008); Brian Bolduc, Don’t Know Much About History, Wall St. Journal, June 18, 2011; Kenneth C. Davis, Don’t Know Much About History (1990); Margaret MacMillan, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (2009)]