Why Teaching History Matters: 4 More Professors Weigh In

A group of American Indian college professors weigh in on the controversy over the revision of the AP U.S. History exam and accompanying curriculum.
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ICTMN asked American Indian college professors for their thoughts on the controversy over the revision of the AP U.S. History exam and accompanying curriculum. The rapid responses to our interview requests and educators’ eagerness to talk about this issue indicate that the teaching of U.S. history as it relates to Native Americans is something they believe is of supreme importance not only to the past, but to the future of this country. Here are excerpts from four professors’ comments.

Bryan Brayboy

Brayboy, Lumbee, director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University, also says his students are stunned to find out that the history they were taught in high school was not accurate. “It doesn’t matter what my students look like, where they come from, almost universally what they say to me is, ‘How come we didn’t learn this earlier? Why wasn’t I taught this in high school? This would have been good for me to know.’ For them it’s about information and part of what I would say is the generation of young people who are coming out of high school now and going into college, people who are often called millennials, what they care a lot about is someone telling them the truth.”

Bryan Brayboy

Bryan Brayboy, Lumbee, is director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University.

The current controversy has some frightening implications: “What’s interesting for me in this controversy, particularly what’s happening in Texas and frankly what’s happened in Arizona in some ways about not talking about the bad side, is that we seem as a country to have lost our ability to disagree, to look at multiple sides of the same topic. Our republic is rooted in disagreements and the governmental structure is set up for people to be able to disagree. There are mechanisms in place for that.”

RELATED: ‘My Ancestors Died for a Reason’: Students Protest Censored U.S. History

Philip Deloria

Deloria is a professor of history and American studies at the University of Michigan. He says he was “shocked, horrified and astonished when his daughter took AP history. The class, he says, was about memorizing names, terms and events, with little instruction that would lead to a conceptual framework for understanding American history. The new AP exam, he says, is “geared toward providing a conceptual apparatus for understanding a wide sweep of American history.”

Phil Deloria

Phil Deloria, is a professor of history and American studies at the University of Michigan.

He would like to see AP history taught the way it is taught at the college level. “At the college level, we would say manifest destiny is what we call an ideological construction. So what does that mean? Ideology is a falsehood that has partial truth embedded in it. Those truths are not coming from God. They’re coming from the way that people actually behave on the ground. So we sit down and look at each other in1846 and say what have we done? Well, we’ve moved from East to West. That’s true. This has happened. We’ve developed certain kinds of institutions. Then to put on top of that the apparent truth of certain [inevitability]. Well, this just had to be. God wanted us to do this. And to project that into behavior.”

Deloria has been very aware of what’s gone on in Jefferson County, Colorado, where students have protested a school board member’s taking exception to the new exam, because he went to school there. “It’s an interesting moment when high school students are saying no we don’t want to be fed this kind of stuff, we want the more complicated kinds of stories. We’re willing to embrace those stories. So they know that they need to understand those other stories, not just a kind of simple, jingoistic, patriotic American history that has been sanitized.”

Michael Yellow Bird

Yellow Bird is a professor of sociology and director of indigenous tribal studies at North Dakota State University. “Social work,” he says, “is one of those disciplines where you have to talk about what has happened in the past in order to understand the present and how people end up in the situations they do.”

Michael Yellow Bird

Michael Yellow Bird is a professor of sociology and director of indigenous tribal studies at North Dakota State University.

But teaching an accurate history can be extremely challenging for the teacher. “Many students were put off by that to say the least. They were angry. A lot of the students cried in class. There was all this blowback and of course bad evaluations: ‘Yellow Bird is too pro Native American, hates white people, hates this country.’” Those kinds of comments have been pretty common throughout his 22 years of college-level teaching. “One student even went so far as to say, and I quote: ‘Professor Yellow Bird teaches this class like an act of revenge against white people.’ It was very disturbing. And these were the people in social work who were supposed to go out and help Native people.”

And again, the future of the nation is at stake. “It’s going to be very difficult for this country to live up to its democratic ideas of respect for diversity, justice and equality, and taking responsibility, unless its people have a really clear and full view of the interactions between indigenous people, Native American people, and the American settler government and settler population,” he says.

Jennifer Denetdale

Denetdale, associate professor in the American Studies Department at the University of New Mexico, who was the first Navajo to earn a Ph.D. in history, says the challenge is ongoing. “It’s a struggle to try to get people, students, teachers, to understand the historical relationship that the United States has with its indigenous people. And that relationship is based on the theft of indigenous land and the enslavement of Black people…. A lot of students still don’t have any knowledge of indigenous people and their role in American history. We still have that. We still even have that with our Native students.”

Jennifer Denetdale

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