A Call for Millennials to Re-learn History

Photo: Flickr / Robert Couse-Baker

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. This month, each fellow has been charged by fellowship director Reid Cramer to explain why anyone, but especially millennials, should care about the specific policy interests they’re passionate about.

Millennials are often described as a generation addicted to smartphones, destined to remain dependent on screens for information because we never had to memorize anything. Our short attention spans coupled with distraction-induced forgetfulness makes recall of information from our elementary, middle, and high school years elusive. But that might not be such a bad thing.

Too often, the history taught in our early school days was presented through a white, heteropatriarchal lens. Our textbooks did not include accurate depictions of the formative elements of America, and more recently, textbook publishers have come under fire for attempting to soften the darkest elements of American history. There are five major distributors of educational materials for young people in the U.S.— Cengage Learning, Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, and Scholastic— and chances are, you probably did not see a book from outside this list in your entire K-12 experience. Regrettably, most of these textbooks entirely misrepresent minority experiences, where slaves were “immigrant workers,” the first Thanksgiving was a peaceful union between Native Americans and European settlers, and Asian-Americans are often entirely absent.

The inherent racism of American history textbooks is well-documented and has a long history of mis-educating students about the soil on which the country stands. And each year, a push to re-educate ourselves comes along on the third Monday in January, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Perhaps no one individual has been more profoundly misrepresented than Dr. King, who, according to Fox News, is having his memory tarnished by the politicization of his day, which should be about “national unity, not political division.” Dr. King has been converted into a political figure that appeases and comforts white Americans, completely devoid of his criticism of that same group— particularly white moderates— who refuse to truly educate themselves on the depth of racial inequality in this country. Dr. King was much more radical than our history textbooks led us to believe, and we owe him, and all the other misrepresented members of American history, our full and complete attention so as to understand their true legacies. Dr. King is just one example, and there are hundreds more people, events, and movements that we can not fully understand from the textbooks that were given to us.

So here’s my pitch: millennials, and especially white millennials, need to make a real and true effort to re-visit our country’s history— and truthfully this time. We all have a lot to learn. But we also have a great deal of information at our disposal— through podcasts, libraries, and blogs— to access a more accurate history. To jumpstart this process, here’s a reading list to pursue.

  1. Knowing whose land we work, live, and travel on, with the help of Native Land. It is an interactive map of the U.S., Canada, and Australia that tells you the tribes that have claims to this land, as well as links to tribal websites where you can learn more about the history, culture, and current initiatives of the people.

  2. Understanding the invisibility of racism in American textbooks through Lies My Teacher Told Me (especially chapter five), a comprehensive re-write of what you would normally find in history textbooks.

  3. Learning the history of white feminism and white suffragette’s exclusion of black women from their movement through some great Teen Vogue reporting. Their series, OG History, also covers a lot of amazing stories and is mainly written by female journalists of color.

  4. Challenging the model minority myth through reading about the Asian-American stories of America.

  5. Fully grasping the implications of our housing decisions as we move from city to city. Here in D.C., there is a helpful project that is mapping the history of segregation in the city. Initiatives like these exist in a lot of other places as well.

These are just the start of what should be a lifelong dedication to re-educating ourselves, and others around us, about the true history of all Americans. We can not really understand modern policy, discourse, and systemic inequalities if we do not have a firm grasp on history— and that history needs to be fully representative and, above all, accurate.

Author:

Emma Coleman is a Millennial Public Policy Fellow in New America’s Public Interest Technology program. She received a BA from Stanford University in international relations and comparative studies in race and ethnicity.