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Opinion: UC system should adjust US history requirement to improve quality of education

High schools do a poor job of teaching students about structural racism and the lived experiences of communities of color. With the exception of one campus, UC undergraduate campuses should not allow students to satisfy the American history and institutions requirement with high school history classes. (Ashley Kenney/Photo editor)

By Sophia Kloster

Dec. 1, 2021 9:54 p.m.

The University of California claims its mission is to provide societal benefits through education and knowledge.

But at the moment, it puts the weight of its students’ United States history education on the shoulders of the high school education system.

The UC requires all undergraduate students to complete one course on American history and institutions. At all campuses but one, the UC Santa Barbara campus, this university-level requirement can be fulfilled by high school-level courses – either a one-year high school U.S. history class or a half-year U.S. government class coupled with a half-year U.S. history class.

However, many high school U.S. history classes are biased at best and maliciously exclusionary at worst – especially with regard to racial minorities.

Because of both omission and biased portrayals of the histories of people of color in high school history curricula, the UC should not continue to rely on high school-level courses to provide a satisfactory education in U.S. history and institutions.

For instance, historian and sociologist James Loewen’s analysis of 12 major American high school textbooks found that seven of them lacked terms such as “racism,” “racial prejudice” or any term starting with “race” in their indexes. Thus, some students may not learn about systemic racism such as redlining and historically exclusionary naturalization acts – even though their consequences are still felt today.

Beyond omission, there are also problematic portrayals of topics such as slavery and the colonization of the Americas found in high school textbooks that perpetuate negative stereotypes and misconceptions.

High school U.S. history courses often glorify American history, but they shouldn’t.

“It’s that sort of American ethos of freedom and liberty which doesn’t stand up to the reality over time,” said Arranne Rispoli, a history doctoral student researching the intersection of race and religion in early America.

Fittingly, there is a plethora of examples of U.S. history textbooks used in high school classes that omit injustices faced by people of color in America.

“There’s just a lot left out, and it’s very whitewashed,” said Jennalee Stack, a third-year anthropology student. “I don’t think high school history courses encapsulate U.S. history for what it is.”

For example, in a 2018 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, none of the sets of standards from 15 different states addressed white supremacy in relation to slavery.

This is a vast loss to classrooms, as many recent events show white supremacy is still present in America today. For example, the Department of Homeland Security has classified white supremacy as the gravest terror threat to the U. S.

Even more recently, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol – in which a former UCLA student participated – shows this threat is not going away and must be included in students’ education.

Additionally, 87% of K-12 state standards teach students about Native Americans exclusively in a pre-1900s context, thereby ignoring important topics such as Native American suffrage and continued Native American existence and struggles in the present day. Even the curriculum of the history prior to the 1900s harmfully downplays the genocide of Indigenous peoples in America during European colonization.

The oversight of details so essential to American history is a disservice to students and those to whom those details belong.

“Developing adults … have to have an understanding of the structural inequities of our nation,” said Rispoli.

Arguably worse than the omission of these histories is the biased and problematic portrayals evident in many standard high school textbooks.

One textbook assigned to Texas high school students in 2018 stated that many slaves “may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot, for they knew no other.” Another textbook referred to Africans in the Atlantic Slave Trade as workers brought to America to “work on agricultural plantations.” Similarly, another textbook referred to Africans in the Atlantic Slave Trade as “immigrants.”

This downplay of slavery in high school textbooks perpetuates the problematic myth of the “happy slave” and minimizes the gruesome realities of the exploitation of enslaved Black people upon which the U.S. was built.

UCLA provides many history courses that highlight the difference between these high school courses and the quality of college-level courses. For instance, the History 13 series provides perspectives on U.S. history in three different time periods, emphasizing the socioeconomic effects of its colonial origins.

An additional difference between high school and college-level courses is the varying qualifications of instructors.

“U.S. history at a high school can be many, many things,” said Robin D.G. Kelley, a distinguished professor in UCLA’s history department and the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History. “There are some great history teachers at the high school level, and there are some really problematic ones.”

This is in part because many high school level teachers are often not qualified to teach the subject. According to a Schools and Staffing Survey from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 26% of history teachers polled were certified to teach history and had a postsecondary degree in the subject.

“I don’t think they’re up to date with everything and are definitely still perpetuating very harmful values in their students,” Stack said.

And as of right now, high school courses with this problematic material and unreliable teaching are what the UC’s American institutions requirement relies on.

To be fair, some high school teachers and textbooks certainly excel at teaching an encompassing and realistic curriculum about the history of the U.S.

But they aren’t accessible to all students, and relying on them to fulfill the UC’s American history and institutions requirement does a disservice to students who have received a skewed and inaccurate view of American history.

“You’re going to have some kids learning certain topics and some kids not, and then when they come to college, if they’re expected to know something, it’s going to create an imbalance in learning,” Rispoli said.

This disparity in education may also cause students to enter the UC with biased views.

There is no way to standardize every UC student’s history education to ensure they learn an encompassing view of U.S. institutions.

“The one fact of history, which is absolutely true, is that there is no agreement on anything,” Kelley said. “History is contested, and that contestation is not about simply right versus wrong, but it’s about deepening our understanding.”

Thus, students’ U.S. history education should not be standardized but rather designed to incorporate the diversity of interpretation within the study of history.

The UC should embrace the differences various instructors have to offer while ensuring its students have the opportunity to learn history free from bias.

If UC campuses truly want to better society through knowledge, they cannot rely on the high school education system to do it for them.

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Sophia Kloster
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