In reality, history is a very biased area of teaching and especially a very biased way of thinking. “History is not just what-really-happened-in-the-past, but a complex intersection of truths, bias and hopes.” It lies in the nature of history that some things are forgotten and others are added on purpose. In a book dedicated to the topic, the author, James W. Loewen, writes: “the teaching of history, more than any other discipline, is dominated by textbooks… the books are boring… [they] exclude conflict or real suspense. They leave out anything that might reflect badly upon our national character” Here are some projects aimed at getting things right:
If we look through our history books it seems as if “our society in general was the society of MEN”. However, some women did not let themselves be reduced to cooking and educating the children, they actually made history. The project She-Story wants to “make visible some extraordinary women that contributed the development of the society of the Mediterranean with their work and life, but didn’t gain enough attention and recognition in the past.”
History has always meant “national” history. A way of telling the past in which the own national is the (mostly heroic) centre of the world. A new project based in Holland is now offering history teachers a tool to teach their subjects with different points of view. Historiana “provides content that is inclusive for all people, regardless of their cultural, religious or ethnic background. Alternative themes and topics such as Human Rights, Migration and the Environment, are integrated alongside traditional ones such as the World Wars and the Industrial Revolution.” Generally, Historiana offers a new way of approaching history education, an approach which is “learner centered, and promote key competences, such as critical thinking and multiperspectivity”.
Zinn Education Project: Teaching a people’s history
For the US, you can find a enriching list of projects on how to teach history with a more critical view here. The Zinn Project’s “goal is to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. The empowering potential of studying U.S. history is often lost in a textbook-driven trivial pursuit of names and dates.” Here’s also a video worth watching. It focuses on Mexican American Studies and the right to tell your own history.
Finally, to get back to Columbus, just think about him for a second and what they told you about his adventures in school. Now, read these lines taken from Lies my teacher told me:
- “Columbus claimed everything he saw right off the boat. When textbooks celebrate this process, they imply that taking the land and dominating the indians was inevitable if not natural” (44).
- Most important, [Columbus’s] prupose from the beginning was not mere exploration or even trade, but conquest and exploitation, for which he used religion as a rationale. If textbooks included these facts, they might induce students to think intelligently about why the West dominates the world today” (45).
- “Christopher Columbus introduced two phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their near extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created a racial underclass” (60).
- Columbus’ story really is “.. one of the primary instances of genocide in all human history” (64).
- “Columbus is not a hero in Mexico… Why not? Because Mexico is also much more Indian than the United States, and Mexicans perceive Columbus as white and European. “No sensible Indian person,” wrote George P. Horse Capture, “can celebrate the arrival of Columbus.” Cherishing Columbus is a characteristic of white history, not American history” (70).
- “The worshipful biographical vignettes of Columbus in our textbooks serve to indoctrinate students into a mindless endorsement of colonialism… the Columbus myth allows us to accept the contemporary division of the world into developed and underdeveloped spheres as natural and given, rather than a historical product issuing from a process that began with Columbus’s first voyage” (70).
So what alternative is there? The Rethinking Columbus Project says: “Why rethink Christopher Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is a foundation of children’s beliefs about society. Columbus is often a child’s first lesson about encounters between different cultures and races. The murky legend of a brave adventurer tells children whose version of history to accept, and whose to ignore. It says nothing about the brutality of the European invasion of North America.”
Rewriting the truth about colonialism is a big task but first steps are being taken.