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Historical perspective and education

July 9th, 2004 · 3 Comments

While I was thinking about Robert Scoble’s post and book review titled Did China beat Christopher Columbus by decades? I read Dare Obasanjo’s response.

I often think to myself that there is a lot of background racism in the United States. By background racism, I mean racism that is so steeped into the culture that it isn’t even noticed unless pointed out by outsiders.


Now every child in America is brought up to believe that Europeans showing up on some land that was already inhabited by natives is “discovering America” and introducing it to the world.

This makes me wonder how much the history lessons I received growing up in Nigeria differs from the version British kids got about the African colonies. Perhaps there is also some white guy celebrated for having “discovered Africa” and civilizing the black savages who he met when he got there.

Reading Dare’s post, Scoble’s post and the discussions in their comments intrigued me.

When I was in elementary school I was taught that Columbus discovered America. We made ships out of paper to celebrate his feat, and memorized the names of the boats. There’s an October holiday in honor of the explorer.

But times have changed and I doubt children in America are still taught that Columbus did indeed discover this land. Last I heard, even the name of the holiday had been changed.

Yet what was taught remains in those of us who learned it then. Each culture and generation has its own assumptions and perspective on the past. I didn’t realize how much “background racism”, to use Dare’s term, was inside me until I married my husband. Becoming a part of his family, taking his last name, having children together, I began to see life and experience America from other angles. Perspectives I had had since childhood were challenged and changed. I saw assumptions I had made. I’m still finding new places and making discoveries inside me…

What I’m enjoying about homeschooling is the ability to try to enhance/correct my own education and to expose our kids to a variety of perspectives. For example, this summer we started studying American history. We’ve read about the Constitution and the Declaration. We talked about the Tea Party and taxes. We’ve learned about Lincoln and we’re reading a book about Lewis and Clark. We’re planning to go see the fort the expedition used during their West Coast winter.

But we’ve also gone to see where the Suquamish once camped. We’ve stood on the beach near where the tribe met Captain Vancouver in 1792. I’m planning to read to them a book about York, Clark’s slave, and his experience. The girls and I enjoyed learning about a woman, Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself to fight in the Revolutionary War. This fall we are going to read the fictional journals of a girl (named Abigail) in revolutionary New England, a Chinese railroad worker, and a Hawaiian princess. I like to think that the experiences Ted and I have had will help shape our daughters sensitivity and perspective, and that who we are will affect them even more than what we try to teach them intentionally.

Yet I know that the time and place, the where, when and how we are living now – and how our families lived in the past – creates a frame of reference we are giving our girls. And our daughters, in the years yet to come and with their own heritage, will have their own stories and their own history.

Tags: homeschool

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bob V // Jul 9, 2004 at 6:30 am

    I thought I’d see what the wikipedia has to say: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_columbus

    Since the wiki is written collectively, it ought to do a good job of stamping out bias. As you can read, they do a good job of clarifying that he wasn’t the first human to find the Americas, nor was he the first European. They still acknowledge, however, the dramatic changes that his rediscovery triggered.

  • 2 Bob V // Jul 9, 2004 at 8:30 am

    I just found this from Cato Institute: http://www.cato.org/dailys/07-07-04-2.html

    From the statistics they quote, it seems that after decades (centuries?) of Eurocentric bias, the pendulum has swung clear to the other side in mainstream history education.

    My response to all this is to wonder why we can’t expect kids to know all sides of the story. Is it too much to ask that a kid be able to identify Dwight Eisenhower as well as Susan B. Anthony? Why is it an either/or decision?

  • 3 Julie // Jul 9, 2004 at 11:18 pm

    Thanks, Bob, for your research. It’s interesting to see how the pendulum swings. I agree that it should be a balance, not one or the other. The wikipedia account seems thorough and fair. Writing about this and reading your comments has given me more insights. Thanks.