What History Fails to Teach Us: Teaching Sterilized Versions of History in Schools Is Detrimental

by kwheele4 on April 15, 2021


What History Fails to Teach Us: Teaching Sterilized Versions of History in Schools Is Detrimental

by Joseph Kulesza ’22

Opinion Staff

Participants in the Tuskegee study (some pictured above) did not give informed consent, and their syphilis went untreated. The study is often left out of school curricula. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

The prominent way that people gain knowledge about the world is through the means of testimonial knowledge: knowledge that is obtained from other people. With this said, very little of the world is understood through our direct experience.

In science class, students are not expected to individually discover electron orbitals, as Niels Bohr already did that. In calculus, if it were not for Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, students would not know much about integrals. 

And in history, if it were not for historians who have recorded events of the past, there would be very little to this subject area. Yet, history does not benefit from a thoroughly objective nature that the sciences benefit from, making the testimonial knowledge gained from the sciences reliable knowledge. 

History is vulnerable to subjective accounts of events that have occurred, as people often see the world as it seems, and not as it is. Further, it is possible that events have not even been recorded at all. 

It is because of these potential shortcomings that there is a danger regarding what history lessons students are taught in school, as there is no guarantee that what is taught accurately reflects what actually happened; in this way, history can fail to teach us. 

It might come as a surprise for students to hear about some events that never made it into the standard curriculum taught in schools.

While slavery is a common area in high school curricula, other abuses against Black people, such as the Tuskegee study of syphilis in Black men, have become part of a history that students are entirely unaware of.

In this study, the U.S. Public Health Service, a federal agency funded by taxpayers, conducted research using Black men to study the effects of syphilis without patients’ informed consent. Additionally, participants in this study were lied to about the study, and adequate medical treatment was never given. Today, these circumstances would be classified as medical malpractice. 

This documented event is somehow left unrecognized by virtually all high school curricula.

And while the Manhattan Project is thoroughly cemented into the textbooks of many students, not all of this event is told. It is true that physicists were authorized by President Roosevelt in 1942 to weaponize nuclear energy, but what is lesser known is that medical physicians were also a part of this effort. 

During the Manhattan Project, physicists served to create radiation via nuclear fission, while physicians tested the effects of this radiation on humans. Working for the Manhattan Project exposed the workers to unhealthy amounts of radiation, and it was in the government’s best interest to understand these effects. When animal testing ended in unsatisfactory results, the government then turned to testing the effects of radiation on humans via plutonium injection. 

It is written on the Atomic Heritage Foundation website that “these plutonium injections were given between 1945-1947 at the Manhattan District Hospital at Oak Ridge, the University of California San Francisco, the University of Chicago, and Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.”

A compromising of human health at best, and human rights abuse at worst, these events are not found in the standard curriculum. The theme of these two instances, as well as other instances of this kind, seems to be an attempt to preserve a type of narrative which results in a government that is immune from criticism. 

While it is convenient for a government to have positive public relations, these types of attempts to sterilize American history only do a disservice to the people. In order to properly make decisions regarding the future, an accurate understanding of the past is needed. 

A sterilized history is an inaccurate one, and the image of any organization should not take priority over the truth.