As the father of four children, I find myself incredibly agitated with the false history that continues to be propagated in our elementary schools generation after generation. This includes the falsified study of the discovery and founding of our republic, as well as our nation’s treatment of minorities and indigenous peoples.
For some reason, educators “back in the day” felt that it was necessary to present a fictionalized version of American history. This could have been done for a variety of reasons to include the dissemination of political propaganda in the pursuit of national pride. Another reason may have been to hide the more shameful aspects of our past such as the practice of racism and genocide. The “dumbing-down” of curriculum is certainly a contributing factor and the ever-popular celebratory history (in which we present our subjects as colossal heroes) can also share some of the blame. Unfortunately these falsehoods have become so embedded in our pop-culture they are unlikely to change anytime soon. (Thanks Disney...)
What I find most disturbing is that fact that we know this is bulls**t, yet we continue to allow the teaching of the same candy-coated folktales to our kids. I vividly recall being subjected to these fairy tales as a child and how surprised I was when I grew old enough to comprehend the truth. Only then was I was able to truly understand where my country came from and how we got here. In retrospect, these fabrications did nothing but prohibit my learning. In case you may have forgotten, here are some of the most frequent lies that were, and still are, taught in our nation’s elementary schools:
The story of Pocahontas: As children, we are taught that Pocahontas was a happy Powhattan Indian princess who saved Captain John Smith’s life and later fell in love with him. The truth is that Pocahontas was only twelve years-old at the time that The Virginia Company arrived in the New World. She was kidnapped by the English during Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613 and held for ransom. She later married a tobacco planter named John Rolfe and died of unknown causes (some believe due to the exposure of white man’s germs). There are no accounts of her ever saving the life of John Smith. Oh, and as with most Native American tribes, the Powhattan people were later run off of their own land. To this day, active members of the Virginia Powhattan Tribe do not participate in any events commemorating the history of Jamestown.
Of course there are a multitude of lies being taught about the Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity by flying a kite in a lightning storm and, subsequently, getting struck by lightning; America was founded to be a Christian nation; and George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree and later confessed to it. The truth is that Franklin would have been killed had the experiment gone the way it is presented, the Founding Fathers represented a variety of religious and secular preferences and would never have instituted a national stance on religion, and George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree and probably told plenty of lies in the pursuit of land and power. Of course the slave owner issue is also glossed over when discussing the lives of Washington and his fellow Virginia planters Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (by himself): Pauline Maier published a remarkable book in 1997 that uncovered ninety state and local “declarations of independence” that preceded the famous congressional document. According to the History News Network, “The consequence of this historical tidbit is profound: Jefferson was not a lonely genius conjuring his notions from the ether; he was part of a nation-wide conversation. Again, textbook writers have watered down the legend while missing the main point. While many textbooks now state that Jefferson was part of a five-man congressional committee, but do not mention a word of those ninety documents produced in less famous chambers.”
Paul Revere’s “Midnight Ride” is another example of one person receiving credit for the efforts of many: Historian David Hackett Fischer published a deconstruction and reconstruction of Paul Revere’s Ride in 1996 and proved that Revere was not acting alone. According to Fischer Revere was part of an intricate network of patriots who all rode horses, rang bells, and shot guns to sound the warning. Fischer’s book was so popular that textbook writers had to deal with this new information: Revere was not alone, they now admit — William Dawes (and sometimes Samuel Prescott) rode as well. They water down the legend, but they do not embrace the real impact of Fischer’s findings: the mobilization of April 18-19, 1775, was a truly collaborative effort involving an entire population.
These are just a few of the more prevalent fabrications that are frequently taught in regards to early American history. The truth is that this kind of fictional content saturates our textbooks all the way up to the 20th-century. So how do we deal with this? Obviously schools are going to continue to teach the content that is required of them at the state and national level, so a radical turnabout in elementary education is unlikely. Therefore change must be implemented at the parenting level.
My recommendation is not that radical and does not require a degree in education: Let’s simply give our children some credit and tell them the truth. Their reaction may surprise us.