US History Education: Not Smart Enough to be Biased

Bald Eagle

Photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region

Originally published March 6, 2014

A poster on reddit wanted to know if schools still taught US History from a nationalistic, great-man view of history. Looking back, I found this difficult to answer, because I can neither say “yes, their teaching had a clear institutional bias” nor “no, they did a great job teaching about the nuance of history”.

My high school history curriculum consisted solely of “what videos can we get from ISD,” so it’s hard to point to a specific bias there, apart from a bias in favor of Ken Burns style documentaries (i.e. really long ones).

To be fair, some of my teachers actually tried to teach, but for all their efforts, their results were not much better. It would be difficult to pinpoint any particular bias, that much is true, but mostly because the overall teachings represented little more than some form of flawed or outdated scholarship filtered through a massive game of telephone.

Typical history lessons from my K-12 educational career include such fine pieces of scholarship as:

  • Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, was an African-American.
  • All conflicts between Christians and Muslims, or Jews and Muslims, are part of one long conflict that started with Isaac and Ishmael (no, this wasn’t a Christian school). The major example of the time was the Balkans conflict.
  • The United States won the Revolutionary War by using guerrilla tactics while the dumb British stood in lines and wore red. Once we became a country, we forgot how to guerrilla, and that’s why the Vietnam War was lost.
  • The Civil War was about taxes. Also something called a cotton gin, which may or may not be a cocktail.