Skip to content

Betsy DeVos makes statement about how US History is taught

April 27, 2020

On Thursday, US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, released a statement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2018 Civics, Geography, and U.S. History Assessments for 8th Graders: 

“America’s antiquated approach to education is creating a generation of future leaders who will not have a foundational understanding of what makes this country exceptional. We cannot continue to excuse this problem away. Instead, we need to fundamentally rethink education in America. It is the only way our nation’s students will be in a position to lead our nation and the world.

The results are stark and inexcusable. A quarter or more of America’s 8th graders are what NAEP defines as ‘below basic’ in U.S. history, civics and geography. In the real world, this means students don’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about, nor can they discuss the significance of the Bill of Rights, or point out basic locations on a map. And only 15% of them have a reasonable knowledge of U.S. history. All Americans should take a moment to think about the concerning implications for the future of our country.”

While I agree that the way US history is taught in American schools is deeply troubling, what Betsy DeVos thinks is important about US history and what should be taught about US history are vastly different.

Betsy DeVos’ father-in-law, Richard DeVos Sr., had a view of US history, one that has been taught for a long time. The co-founder of Amway, in his book Believe, when talking about freedom and the founding of the US, says:

“that call of freedom went forth from a rugged wilderness, and Europe and Asia and Africa sent their sons of adventure to hew out a new society in a land of forests and savages.”

Is this what Betsy DeVos means by a foundational understanding of what makes this country exceptional? The statement above by Richard DeVos is reflective of one of the foundational aspects of US history, namely the genocide of Indigenous people. The other major foundational aspect of US history is the enslavement of African people, the very same people who created a great deal of the wealth in the US, but did not benefit from their labor.

Indeed, based on the lived experience of Betsy DeVos, growing up as part of the Prince family and then marrying into the DeVos family, the US Secretary of Education would see US history through the lens of someone who is deeply privileged. Betsy DeVos no doubt views US history as something that the capitalist class built, a history that believes the US was founded on Christian principles, and one that is governed by White Supremacy.

US History has primarily been taught through the view of the historical victors, as Howard Zinn used to say. US history is always about the powerful, those with great wealth and very much centered on wars and US global dominance.

This type of US history began to be challenged at the university level in the 1960s, with the introduction of women’s studies and ethnic studies, particularly black studies. Unfortunately, what is being taught at the university level hasn’t always trickled down to the K-12 level. There are some amazing US history teachers across the country, but they are in a minority. Some of these US history teachers have been influenced by Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States or the resources offered through groups like Rethinking Schools

The group Grand Rapids for Education Justice has heard from the black, latinx and Anishinaabe communities that they want to see their communities’ history taught and not just the dominant. white version of history.

US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is right to point out the antiquated way in which US history is taught. However, we cannot and should not allow people like her to determine how US history is taught, nor what version of US History.

“I’m worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel — let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they’re doing. I’m concerned that students not become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that’s handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers.”     Howard Zinn

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: