Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2014


This article concerns the way public high schools teach American history under curricula and standards mandated by state law. “We’re raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate,” says David McCullough, the dean of American historians.

The article describes three recent nationally publicized incidents in which high school students belittled lynching and the Trail of Tears, evidently without appreciating the episodes’ legal and historical significance to African Americans and Native Americans respectively. Standards and textbooks typically recognize diversity and multiculturalism, but research and surveys indicate that classroom teachers frequently sanitize or avoid discomforting topics that might trigger complaints, protests, and even efforts at book banning.

As a nation proud of its heritage, the United States acting under state laws should not shrink from frank classroom dialog about the past. “Honest history is the weapon of freedom,” wrote historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., because “[t]he strength of history in a free society is its capacity for self-correction.” Each generation enhances this capacity when educators candidly present both past triumphs and past tragedies.



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