If we were to simultaneously sit in classrooms in Texas and California while discussing the Civil War, we would be listening to two separate, most likely conflicting messages. California’s education system might criticize the rise of big business in the late 1800s, pointing out how economic advances harmed the environment, but schools in Texas might describe entrepreneurs such as Andrew Carnegie as heroes. Railroad tycoons and coal kings encapsulated the American Dream by becoming self-made men, but the negative impacts of rampant capitalism would likely be downplayed. The main question to come to mind might be “why?” The answer all boils down to location, speaking to a broader pattern of minority erasure stemming from regionalism.
It is a difficult task for anyone to admit faults in their nation’s past. It took thirty years and pressure from Japanese-American activists to make a public statement about Japanese-American internment camps in World War Two. Yet slavery was hundreds of years ago, unlike World War Two. Surely this would result in a fair assessment of slavery, right? Not quite.
Romanticizing the Antebellum South
There is a clear divide in how the Civil War is viewed depending on whether you come from the North or the South. The biggest example of this is the historical dichotomy regarding t slavery and racial inequality. While the Northern states were more industrialized, the Southern states relied on an agrarian economy to survive. However, it is impossible to discuss the history of the South without mentioning slavery. Southern plantations were large farms that slaves were forced to toil on every day. This creates conflict for any Southern board of education. Do they acknowledge their troubled past, telling the horrors of the slave trade, or do they tell an idealized, whitewashed, and not true-to-reality version of history?
When addressing slavery, a Southern textbook is likely to erase their narrative. Students take notes on plantation structures and Southern culture, but there is an unsettling air of pride to it. There is no rule stating one cannot be proud of their country’s heritage, but textbooks seem place the lifestyles of the plantation aristocracy on a pedestal and yearn for the old structures and hierarchies. We rarely hear about the horrors of slavery in more conservative school systems.
History classes dedicated to the Civil War are deeply flawed. It is engrained in students’ minds that slavery was not the primary cause of the War, with states’ rights and the need to preserve the economy also being contributing factors. States’ rights and the economy were actually secondary issues that were tied into the larger issue of slavery. We cannot prop states rights or the economy to stand on their own outside of slavery. States sought to protect their right to own slaves, and the economy was only in trouble because slave-based labor was threatened.
Erasure of African-American struggles
Typically, Southern students might have to wait until 11th-grade history class to learn about the participation of African Americans in the abolition movement. This is a stark contrast to the extensive coverage of the Missouri Compromise and the Mason-Dixon line beginning in 2nd grade. Figures like Henry Clay are praised as heroes for establishing compromises that continued slavery while the bubbling tension between the North and South is only briefly acknowledged. Meanwhile, the advancements of African-Americans post-Civil War are greatly dismissed or not mentioned at all.
The Reconstruction era is briefly covered, but the classes tend to focus on Abraham Lincoln’s attempts to rebuild the nations without discussing the reign of the Ku Klux Klan. While the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments are acknowledged, the textbooks then go eerily silent on racial inequality. The Harlem Renaissance, Jim Crow, the KKK, and other impactful statutes, advancements, and movements in African-American history might be touched upon, but the amount of time spent discussing them pales in comparison to how much attention the white American narrative is given. This ensures that students feel detached from the legacy of racism that permeates American society today. It also comes as no surprise that many people are ignorant of pro-Confederate monuments built in the twentieth century. Many believe these statues are a monument to history, but they were often a reactionary construction by white Southerners during times when the racial status quo was challenged. During the Civil Rights movement, these statues were beacons of hope “toward a white supremacist future.”
In fact, the story of the Civil Rights movement is superficial at best. Textbooks may praise the actions taken by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., but more conservative education systems tend to neglect the brutality black people faced at the hands of Southern leaders like Eugene “Bull” Connor. These times were violent, with police dogs being released on innocent African-Americans, but many students will not learn of these inhumane tactics until high school. Once the Civil Rights era is finished being taught, it is very rare a textbook touches upon the struggles of the African American community again.
Bridging the regional education gap
Because history in the North is taught differently than in the South, students are left with an unclear picture of historical events in order to have an objective understanding of history, they are forced to do their own research. For students who are apathetic or disinterested in history, they are likely to blindly accept the beliefs of their teachers. Unfortunately, students throughout the United States leave their education system missing important pieces of the historical puzzle. Their location impacts their education, which has dangerous consequences for their worldview.
In many ways, the location-based method of teaching American history makes it difficult to create national unity and closes the door to meaningful dialogue. For example, the Charleston riot in 2017 was heavily impacted by the location of one’s education. Many Southerners saw the removal of statues as an erasure of history and an attack on Southern culture, but Northerners viewed the events as an attempt to foster a better sense of racial equality.
The geographical differences in education are not limited to just discussions of race. Latino, Native American, and LGBTQ+ history receive different coverage based on the school’s location and political views. Southern schools are less likely to teach LGBTQ+ issues while places like California and New York may portray objections to religion in a negative light. The 1960s New York City Stonewall riots for LGTBQ+ rights is usually only mentioned as a sentence in the larger story of civil unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. Striking balance when discussing religion is also challenging, regardless of whether or not the school is religious. In 2018, the Texas Board of Education sought to place greater emphasis on the Judeo-Christian inspirations behind the founding documents of America, yet religious persecution is barely touched upon.
Does the location of schools determine what students study? Absolutely. Is it a dangerous practice? Yes, and we should pay more attention to this issue of miseducation if we want to create students willing to learn from the mistakes of the past in order to create a brighter future.
Caroline "Callie" Hawkins
Caroline "Callie" Hawkins is a recent graduate from Houston Christian High School located in Houston, Texas and plans to attend Trinity University in the Fall of 2021. Currently she is talking a gap year with Year On to further develop her skills and explore new opportunities. In her free time, she enjoys drawing, reading, and learning more about history.