History textbooks tell a skewed story

Sneha Cheenath, Editor in Chief

History classes have the unique ability to affect the belief systems of an entire nation. They are key in establishing cultural sensitivity and bridging the gap between the past and the present. 

However, it is impossible for history to be portrayed in an unbiased manner. History is sourced and written by people, and every person has a point of view that will affect the way the narrative is written. And because humanness is the very core of history, it will not go away. 

AP World and World Geography teacher Ms. Deme Sakkis said that “There’s always going to be bias in any material that you look at… I do believe [historians] try to present the most unbiased perspective, but there’s still always going to be a bias.”

Human nature is to be personally involved in stories, and history is no exception.

The National Council on Public History (NCPH) said historians generally piece together the past through a variety of primary sources. Governments have been keeping records for thousands of years, which provides a lot of information for historians. Personal records such as diaries, along with art can also be very useful. And physical objects like cloth or pottery are also used to uncover details about society and civilization. 

The NCPH furthered that because these sources often do not tell a complete narrative, historians need to do a lot of contextualization and filling in the blanks. 

However, even with the most unbiased of sources, history will still have a personal slant, because it is written by historians. They come from a certain background and are written for a certain audience, and this greatly changes the way it is written. 

“Our textbooks are written by American professors, maybe Europeans as well. But they are still going to try to present the most accurate depiction,” Sakkis said. 

This bias materializes in America’s interpretation of the America-Mexico war. In a detailed description based upon observation of Kyle Ward, the author of “History in the Making,” they say that the war took place in 1848. When history classes first began to teach about this war, it was a story of American heroism and Mexican villainy. But by 1911, an appearance of American guilt began to show in the textbooks. In 1955, it became appropriately unbiased, by today’s standards. 

Human nature is to be personally involved in stories, and history is no exception. But over time, personal investment will decrease, and history becomes more accurate; the NCPH said that there is an ever-changing perspective of history, as “the shape and meaning of historical events look quite different from different vantage points and time periods.”

The bias is to be expected. However, it appears that many students do not expect it; the textbook is often treated as the absolute truth by standards set by the state, and it translates into many classrooms. Eighth-grade history and English teacher, Mrs. Sarah Dillon, explained that the state standards do not require teachers to use supplementary sources or quantify the veracity of the textbook at all.  

“We are expected to teach the state standards using their materials, but as teachers, we go beyond this,” she said. 

While it is not mandatory, the classes that go above the minimums set by the state standards are the most successful. 

“It’s really important to also use outside documents other than the textbook in our education,” Sakkis said, “like looking at newspaper articles, manifestos, and different perspectives on the same topic.”

However, the lacking effectiveness of history classes is not unseen by the state. Dillon explained that there is a new framework set for history teachers, encouraging them to teach more thematically than chapter by chapter. This encourages a stronger emphasis on the lessons that can be learned from history, rather than the actual happenings. 

“I think the state is heading in the right path by implementing this framework,” Dillon said. 

In the study of history, teachers are attempting to show how the past played out through an unbiased view. In the absence of an unbiased source, teachers should instead use other sources to show a wide range of perspectives, because that is the only way to give a comprehensive view of history. 

“All people have a point of view, and that’s a valid point of view,” Sakkis said.