“History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.” —Howard Zinn
Earlier this month, staff at the Children’s Defense Fund-Texas joined students, parents, teachers and coalition members of Teach the Truth: Texans United Against Censorship in Education at a State Board of Education meeting on proposed changes to the state’s social studies curriculum. Texas is one of many states reexamining what history schools will be expected and allowed to teach, and when young people were given their turn to speak, current Texas middle school, high school, and college students shared comments like these:
“We deserve to have ourselves reflected in the courses we study.”
“It’s important to accurately teach history to prepare your future leaders to make informed decisions with proper historical context. It is just as important for students to understand the diversity of the human experience.”
“I’m here as a student to ask for a public education system with an accurate representation of the history of America.”
CDF-Texas Youth Civic Education and Engagement Intern Alisha Tuff put her thoughts this way: “It is time to strengthen African American/Black, Latino, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous, women, and LGBTQ+ voices in the curriculum. This country was built on the backs of many of these people. It is time to honor all of our experiences. We are going to be the generation that changes things. … We will not allow the whitewashing of our ancestors’ experiences to prevail. We have the power to influence education reform, and our collective voices will lead to the education we deserve. We are the protectors of our ancestors’ stories. We belong in history, and we will no longer allow our existence and history to be tarnished.”
I was blessed to have Howard Zinn as one of my own history professors and mentors at Spelman College. An eloquent chronicler of “The People’s History of the United States,” the civil rights movement, and the longings of the young and the poor and the weak to be free, he understood and taught us the importance of history. He also taught us to stand up and feel empowered to act and change our own lives and the community and region in which we lived. This is a lesson these students already understand. Young people are speaking up, and their voices are yet another reminder that all children need to be taught the full truth about their own and others’ history in our increasingly multicultural nation and world; that Black, Native American, Latino, Asian American, LGBTQ, immigrant and women’s history are all American history, and that none of our children can afford miseducation and ignorance about the rainbow of others around them. Only the truth will set us all free!
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.