Learning now what I wasn’t taught about history – Hartford Courant

I graduated from high school in 1975 along with the largest group of the baby boomers. From fourth grade through graduation, I attended multiracial, city schools in Philadelphia and Bethlehem, Penn. In the 45 years since high school, I find myself continually amazed at what I wasn’t taught.

My lack of education had little to do with poor teachers (most of mine were quite good) or lack of books. Rather, my mis-education sprang from the completely Euro-centric perspective of the curriculum. Here’s a small sample of what I didn’t learn.

· The first books printed with movable metal type came from Korea, 200 years before Gutenberg in Europe. But I was taught that Gutenberg was the first to print with movable type. The first movable type actually came from China 400 years before Gutenberg. I learned almost no Asian history at all, unless it came attached to a European (Marco Polo or other European explorers).

Anything about sub-Saharan Africa except that enslaved people came from there. I thought the only great civilizations on that continent were in Egypt. Yet much of Africa had vast empires, seats of learning, art and architecture to rival anything in Europe.

Enslaved Africans came to North America before the Pilgrims. Yes, I knew Jamestown predated Plymouth, but, because of the mythologically huge Thanksgiving holiday, it always seemed the Pilgrims’ story meant the real beginning of “America.” I was not taught that enslaved Africans began building this country before the Mayflower even sailed.

Speaking of Thanksgiving, I never learned that the native peoples of North and South America had huge cities. All those elementary school dioramas of long houses and tepees made it seem like the native population was small, impoverished and living in the woods. And I won’t even start on my education about native peoples in the west that came from all those Hollywood movies featuring white people in “red-face.”

· I heard the term “Arabic numbers” but never was taught to connect the numerical system we use to the Arab peoples, who introduced it to the West, or to Indian mathematicians who developed it. The historical mathematicians presented to me came from Greece and Western Europe. As were nearly all the scientists about whom I learned, completely ignoring the Asian, African and Arab worlds’ many scientific advancements.

Clearly, my education had a few holes, to put it mildly. These omissions cemented a world view that made whiteness normative and “best,” so that I judged all other peoples in the world from the perspective of how they measured up (or didn’t) to white achievement.

What I would hope to report is that my children’s education (my youngest graduated from a Connecticut public high school in 2016) was not grounded in the same kind of Euro-centrism as mine. While improvements had been made, their urban, multi-racial and multi-cultural school’s curriculum still left many basic assumptions unchecked. My Asian-American children still had to learn about Asian history outside the classroom. The history and cultures of non-European peoples still took second place or were highlighted only in those special ethnic “months.” History, art, literature and science still came primarily with a Euro-centric male perspective.

It is long past time to change this, long past time to increase the number of lenses through which the story of the world, this nation and its peoples are understood and communicated to our children. Teaching a few “heroes” is not the solution. We must help the next generation, and all of us, to understand that the teaching of history always comes with a point of view, and that different participants in any story find different truths within it. Only by hearing all the voices can our children understand our past and shape our future, reveling in the richness of all the world’s nations, cultures and histories, learning from them that there is no competition for “the best” culture, for all have gifts and all have flaws.

To those of us shaped, or misshapen, by our limited educations, we need to remember that fact as well. That means going back to school in a way, listening to voices long silenced and demeaned with a hope of seeing through a different lens. It means admitting that we don’t know what we don’t know. It means being clear on how that has shaped our perspective on the world, then opening our minds, hearts and spirits to what we have been missing all along.

The Rev. Dr. Rochelle Stackhouse is the Transitional Minister of the First Church of Christ in Hartford (Center Church). She lives in Hamden and Hartford.

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