Call for Truthful American History Education

By: Melissa Wilson

Education is the foundation for young Americans to learn, grow and become leaders of our country. From an early age, children know the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangled Banner by heart. American history education is designed for students to think America was the hero throughout history. What is not discussed are ugly truths behind American’s “glorious past”. For example, John Kelly, the current White House Chief of Staff, said that the civil war was due to the “inability to compromise”, a false statement. The Civil War was about the South’s attempt to keep slavery and not have the federal government impede their states’ rights. Kelly’s statement is an example of how Americans alter history to suit their agenda. The Confederate soldiers that are idolized through statues and have high schools named after them; are the same people that were racist slaveholders that people of color find offensive and should not be celebrated.  The question becomes does lying about our history really benefit all Americans in the end, or only those who are white?

Let’s pretend we are back in school learning about the Civil War. It was a war of brother versus brother in some cases it blood versus blood.[1] This war was fought on American soil and destroying the homes and livelihood of the Americans that fought or stayed at the home-front. It was difficult for families to find closure and mourning properly their loved ones when they did not know if they died a “good death”. According to Faust in This Republic of Suffering, “the good death proved to be a concern shared by almost all Americans of every religious background” (7). By having funerals and religious ceremonies for the deceased, it helped the families mourn and accept the death of their loved one. It’s important for human beings to remember they are still intact with their humanity (10) and with the war going on all around them, keeping tradition (9) was the only separation they had between the violence and humanity. This explains once the war ended and the Confederacy lost they experienced cognitive dissonance between their cause for the war and the outcome. They fought for a cause they wholeheartedly believed in and lost, and their world was rapidly changing before them.

 John McIntosh headstone in Elmwood Cemetery from 
John McIntosh fought for the Union during the Civil War. He is now buried in the
Elmwood Cemetery in New Brunswick NJ. His brother James fought for the Confederacy,      proving there was actual brother vs. brother on the battlefield. John was injured during the war but survived and lived the rest of his life in New Brunswick. This story is a representation of how the Civil War literally tore families apart.

In relation to the “good death” Americans could not allow the Civil War’s memory to die in vain.  The southerners did not want the world to see them as losers, and in order to keep a social hierarchy in the south, more racism emerged between the white southerners and the newly freed African Americans. Their pride was hurt and they lost the biggest economic strength they had since the colonies were formed; chattel slavery. The precedent these 19th-century figures left lingered into the early twentieth century where many statues were erected to honor those who fought for our country. To combat with their vulnerability, statues were erected to assert their dominance to everyone they saw were lesser than themselves.  The people that were celebrated through these statues like, Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville Virginia represented freedom for white Americans, but not Americans of color. Their education the students learn on the Civil War do not reflect the facts of the Civil War. People should not be arguing to preserve something that expresses racist ideas. The fight for equality between races has been a fight before the Civil War, and going on today. Americans seem to have learned nothing in the last 160 years because education hides the truth to keep America’s positive image alive.

The classroom is where students gain their first impressions of their world and how it came to be what it is today. All the people that were fighting to preserve Lee’s statue in Charlottesville probably did not receive a proper Civil War education because they would have known it offended plenty of Americans. Lee was the general of the Confederacy and was a racist bigot who tried to keep slavery in the south. Anyone in their right mind would not want to celebrate such an individual with those morals. Yet, white Americans felt insecure about their position in society and needed to assert their dominance to the minority groups in America through this statue. Today, people began to question their authority and expressing their rights as Americans to their oppressors. John Oliver showed a clip of two individuals arguing over the statue and the history surrounding the Civil War. People of color are upset and feel misrepresented in society because all their oppressors continue to defend racist monuments and statues that misrepresent what America is all about.

                                              robert e lee
Robert E. Lee Sculpture, Charlottesville, VA, courtesy of Wikipedia. 
This is the statue of Robert E. Lee that was in Charlottesville VA.
This statue has been in the city park for 93 years and the community recently has
been having protests to remove the statue from public view due to the statue’s racial
undertones and background. Lee was the commander of the Confederacy, a slaveholder, and overall racist. He was not a positive representation Charlottesville should have when they have a prominent African-American community that goes to the park. White supremacists protested to have the statue stay in order for them to assert their dominance, not to only preserve history. The way Lee is depicted in this statue where he is above everyone else in the land, which sends the wrong message to anyone that is not white in that area.

This is just one of the many examples in history that students are not exposed to because they are lead to believe America has always been this country of freedom and a melting pot. Yet the issues that were dealt in the 19th century are still relevant today. People of color are still the minority and treated below the bar. Women are still fighting to be treated equally as men in the workplace and in higher education. If history classes were able to teach the mistakes of our ancestors, the lessons the students learn could prevent those mistakes from transpiring again. The statues that commemorate these figures allow the south to continue to push their racial ideologies and not change. These statues and other monuments ensuring the racial hierarchy could be placed in a museum. There, students could learn about these figures and acknowledge their bad traits to dissuade them from pursuing their ancestors’ ideas equality. If people learn from their mistakes in order to grow, America should be learning from their mistakes in order to grow and make positive changes in the world.

[1] John and James McIntosh were brothers who fought on opposing sides of the war. 

Acknowledging Sources:
Astor, Maggie. “John Kelly Pins Civil War on a “Lack of Ability to Compromise” New York Times. Oct 31, 2017.
Associated Press. “Texas Officials Rename Robert E. Lee High School as L.E.E. H.S.” NBC News. Oct 10, 2017.
Duggan, Paul. “Battle Over Robert E. Lee Statue in Hands of Charlottesville Judge”. The Washington Post. Sept 1, 2017.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.
Lopez, German. “The Battle over Confederate Statue’s Explained” Vox Media. Aug 23, 2017.
John Oliver Clip on Statues from class.
The Elmwood Cemetery Tour and their information of the McIntosh Family


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