History 101: The Study of 2020
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 9 months, I assume you are baffled at the amount of monumental change that has occurred in our world in such a short period of time. I am too, and the changes in culture and the everyday lives of the public that have been brought about this year are staggering and will stay relevant for years to come. Between the coronavirus outbreak and the uproar of protests, this is certainly a year that will go in the history books. It’s a fun thought, to be currently living in the times that future generations will study, but with that thought comes a question: what’s going to be taught? It’s no surprise that history class is notorious for providing a somewhat condensed version of what really happened. This may be the fault of our curriculum or the people who wrote the history itself, but many important figures and events are not given the credit that they deserve. This is especially true if the person or event relates to people of colour, LGBTQ+, differently-abled people or other minority groups. So when we look at the revolutionary era we’re in today, I have to ask: What version of 2020 will be taught to students in 50 years?
Of course, there’s no set answer. We can’t predict what will be taught in 50 years any more than the soldiers on D-Day could, but using common trends and the current climate of the world today, we can make some educated guesses. The highlight of this year will unmistakably be the Coronavirus. A worldwide pandemic that forced the world into lockdown for months on end, and possibly more to come. No cure or vaccination has been produced, so this has the potential to impact the world as harshly as the Polio outbreak in America or the Ebola crisis in West Africa. However, I’m not interested in what is sure to be taught: I want to find out what won’t be. There seems to be a multitude of issues impacting the world today that aren’t making headlines. In China, people of the Muslim faith have been getting detained and held in secretive internment camps on the basis of advocating for Uighur Muslim rights. Multiple news outlets are suddenly making environmentally-conscious posts shaming their viewers for everyday things such as watching Netflix, while the news outlets are owned by oil companies themselves. Thousands of indigenous women are being kidnapped, without a trace of their whereabouts. This is all horrible but undoubtedly makes good news, so why have I heard so little? How can we expect these stories to survive 50 years from now if they aren’t even news today?
We seem to have identified a trend in these examples. The trend here is a form of erasure, and there are hefty examples of it when it comes to education. In 2015, a textbook company called McGraw Hill was in hot water when the description of the Atlantic Slave Trade in their high school history textbook was shown to the public. The bubble reads;
“The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”
This description was first brought to light by Coby Burren, a black student from Texas whose mother posted the quote to Facebook, gaining national attention. The clear issue with this quote is in the use of the word “workers”. This paints the Atlantic Slave Trade as a consensual business arrangement rather than what it was: a mass relocation of millions of Africans who were then forced to work and die under the direction of slave owners. They were slaves, and to suggest that any of these people were fair and just employees is a sly but grand effort at erasing of some of America’s greatest wrongdoings. The company apologized immediately and went about revising the caption, but I guarantee that you can flip through any Canadian textbook and find phrases that do the same type of damage, especially with Canada’s shameful treatment of Indigenous peoples’ past and present. These are exactly the type of comments we can expect from history class in 50 years.
It’s so subtle, such a small change of phrasing, and some may argue that it’s inconsequential. This may be true when looking at the phrase by itself, but as we flip through more pages, as history class becomes broader and broader as time goes on, those phrases will add up. We begin to educate a censored, abridged version of our past that covers up years of pain, suffering and prejudice in order to save face. Future generations have a right to know the mistakes of their ancestors. Philosopher George Santayana famously said “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” and this cannot ring more true from the climate we are in today. The class of 50 years from now could be in danger of learning about 2020 without the name Breonna Taylor or without learning that the President barely paid taxes while in office. The future deserves to know the injustices occurring today so they can improve the society of tomorrow.
So how can we avoid this? What do we do? As teenagers, the sad truth about a lot of these realities is we can’t do a whole lot. Not immediately at least. Reformation of the curriculums and institutions that teach it, including publishers and editors, would take a considerable amount of time before any real change was put in place, and even then we can’t guarantee 100% accuracy. However, what we can do right now and for the rest of our lives, is to continue to stay informed. Seek out these stories and keep them relevant. History is written by the victors, but in the age of social media and limitless information at our fingertips, that can, and should, change. All accounts and perspectives of history can now be looked at and brushed with a fine-toothed comb to unlock the secrets of what really happened during these times, but it is only possible when everyone is willing and unafraid to share their stories and the stories of others. Then, and only then, can we assure we did everything we could to prepare these generations for their own future.