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Are our schools re-writing history?

Original post made by Middle School Parent, JLS Middle School, on Oct 5, 2007

My 7th grader has just finished a report on the Romans, due today. As I read what he wrote, I was quite shocked. To begin with, he was using dates BCE and CE which I had never heard of. He then made the Romans to be nice guys who had given us so much and we were to be grateful to them. He summed up by saying how they were Christians and it was due to them that there are so many Christians in the world today.

I asked him what BCE and CE was counting from and he didn't know. I asked him if he knew about how the Romans lead lives of debauchery, violence to their political leaders, cruelty to an unprecedented level to their slaves and their conquered nations, and this was news to him. I asked him if he knew how the Romans treated the early Christians by burning them and throwing them to the lions to which he said that they were only to focus on the good things about them. I asked him then if he knew about the fact that the Romans only turned to Christianity for political reasons as they saw that that was the way the empire was turning on its own and as they were losing their power, this was their final method of trying to gain control. Once again he knew nothing about this.

Now, I can understand that for younger children some of the unpleasantness of history can be played down, but not for 7th graders. I know that the actual year of the birth of Jesus is in dispute, but the idea of what date we set our calendars from is at least worth teaching as to what event we are counting from. And granted the Romans gave us many of our military, engineering and political foundations, but to suggest that they were the nice guys of history is quite misleading.

Is this an example of how our children are being taught a lopsided view of history. Is this softening up of the past giving them a realistic attitude of history. Are we taking away important facts when we teach history without teaching about the importance of religious events and motivation in the lives of the historical figures we consider important.

If this is really what is being taught, then I am worried.

Comments (29)

Posted by PA Dad
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 5, 2007 at 9:42 am

Interesting -- I agree that we do our kids no favors by cherry picking only the happy side of history. I have to say that it's a refreshing change, though, from the way that I was taught Roman history at the age of twelve at an English boys school. There the teacher dwelled almost exclusively on the glory of conquest, the wonder of Roman methods of execution and the intricacies (and cruelties) of gladiatorial combat. They were engineers, too? Historians? Agricultural innovators? I found all that out later.

Still, I think a balance is best and the things you want covered seem important to me, too. Have you spoken with your child’s teacher to see if he or she is really teaching such a white-washed version of history, or whether it’s your child who has a (rather admirable) inclination to see the best in a people?

Posted by Terry
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 5, 2007 at 9:43 am

You might be expecting a bit much of a 7th grade ancient cultures course. Most middle school history is selective and dabbling at best. My recall from my own schooling over three decades ago is that we learned about the contributions to civilization of the Romans and the Greeks, and didn't into much more than that. We didn't spend much time on the ugly side of Egyptian culture either, for what that's worth.

The BCE/CE thing has been around for a while, though gained more currency in the last 10 years or so (my sense anyway). You can Wiki it up - there is a decent article on it. It is definitely "politically correct" but at this point it is what most kids are taught. BC/AD never made any sense to me anyway.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 5, 2007 at 9:59 am

I must agree that balanced is best. That said, there is so much history of Roman civilization (esp. compared to the U.S., which our children spend eons studying) that it's impossible to teach a balanced view in a 7th grade class. And to reduce it all in the context of Christianity is not quite balanced either.

Yes, Romans contributed tremendously to the world - architecture, history, engineering, art, agriculture, food, wine, ... and like all societies in power, they had some serious flaws as well. But ease up a bit. BTW - the latest I heard from the folks at the Colliseum, they didn't feed Christians to the lions, only the gladiators.

Posted by yet another parent
a resident of Escondido School
on Oct 5, 2007 at 10:00 am

Following PA Dad's suggestion, you might also ask to see your son's textbook. It'll help you determine if the selective filtering is occurring at the curriculum, teacher or student level.

Posted by RS
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 5, 2007 at 11:11 am

You got me curious,

here is a link that explains BCE and CE termonology.

Web Link

Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2007 at 11:43 am

Ok, My daughter is in 7th grade, and just got finished writing almost the same report... It didn't bother me so much for a couple reasons.

The big take away that is probably important for a kid this age to get from a history class is - how is this history relevent today? they should be coming away with something like "Oh isn't that interesting - that style of painting, that style of building, those roman numerals, came from somewhere in the past - and that has a relevence to my life now."

(Because isn't that what kids this age are all about - 'why should I care'")

I don't think its necessary that they get both sides, all sides, or anything really in depth at all - just the ability to answer a few trivia questions, and an interest in possibly learning more in the future.

Secondly, I was sort of astounded on back to school night on how many civilations, how much of a time span, they were going to be covering in this class. It hardly seems possible. They certainly can't be expected to walk away with the whole story on ANY of it. They most certainly won't get more than a few one liners on each subject to take away from this class.

If you want more depth, then you need to ask the district to require less breadth.

We're only like one month in to class, I think they've already covered at least two different historical periods, right? Wasn't there some Greek civilization in there too?

Posted by mom of highschooler also
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 5, 2007 at 12:07 pm

I have to agree that I wouldn't base it all on what my kid told me. I have two children who take can take away COMPLETELY different memories of the lessons in history. One is excellent at seeing the "big picture" and balance..the other will focus on everything that was scary or "bad" about the era.

so, I agree..look at the book and talk to your kid.

Also, ..these kids get SO MUCH negativity and focus on the evil of pretty much every civilization and human era that it is refreshing to hear that there are some coming away with SOME appreciation of the good side of people. Don't worry, they won't get an overly rosy view as they grow. In fact, I find I have to balance out the incredible one-sided view they get of mankind through the ages a lot.

Posted by yet another parent
a resident of Escondido School
on Oct 5, 2007 at 12:46 pm

“If you want more depth, then you need to ask the district to require less breadth.”
The district doesn’t have much say in the matter – it’s the state that sets the standards. Out of curiosity, I visited the CDE website (CA Dept of Ed) to see what they include in 7th grade history. History standards for all grades are at Web Link and the 7th grade standards are listed in this pdf Web Link Interesting that many of the topics that PA Dad, Resident and Parent mentioned are part of the required curriculum.

I agree with you about trying to cover too much breadth. This is a real problem in elementary math education, too. Although I can envision how to tweak the math curriculum so we don’t teach an incremental baby-step more about the same 20 concepts year after year, the answer for history education isn’t as obvious. Why do most Americans know comparatively little about world history and geography? Blaming it on too much breadth seems counter-intuitive, yet it does seem like we try to pack in too much at the cost of depth and retention. Is this another subject where we could learn from others how to teach it more effectively? Or is it a simple fix like spending less time on state and U.S. history and more on world history?

Posted by Palo alto mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 5, 2007 at 2:37 pm

I think the history curriculum and testing could benefit from less memorization of exact dates (easy to look up) and more concentration why things happened. I think kids need to know relative dates, the order that things happen in, etc. But too much time is spent on easy to find facts... The teaching of history is often too war based without the enough focus on the advances and people of a time period. Wars tend to blur together

A friend's daughter described history beyond elementary school as "this guy came to power, he got greedy, people got mad, someone over threw his government, the next guy came to power, he got greedy, people got mad...and throw in my religion is better than yours, memorize these names and dates and that covers most of what I've been taught"

Posted by Checked out the web site
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 5, 2007 at 10:09 pm

There is something surreal about this History Standards Map.
(web link above).

No first grader I know, including first graders who think at fifth grade level in some areas, are ready to learn what is apparently the standard for first grade. This is really mind boggling. Why would anyone inflate expectations so drastically?

For example (remember, this for first graders - six year olds!),

"Students understand basic economic concepts and the role of individual choice in a free-market economy."

I believe most graduate level economics professors would be happy if their entering students understood this.

"Students judge the significance of the relative location of a place (e.g. proximity to a harbor, on trade routes) and analyze how relative advantages or disadvantages can change over time."

Would that more adults could do this. Discussions of global warming would be more rational.

"Students identify and interpret the multiple causes and effects of historical events." True, Hegel could do this before he was an adult.

"Students conduct cost-benefit analyses of historical and current events." Finally, a use (explanation?) for the 23 studies.

How can anyone take this seriously, and what does it mean to have these standards? Is it eduspeak for something the rest of us don't naturally grasp?

Posted by Rome Rules
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 6, 2007 at 9:04 am

Yes, Rome had some negatives, but nothing that eclipses the vast Roman empire, their art (especially painting), and their breathtaking architecture.

You have to wonder if there is another culture to match Rome's glory.

Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 6, 2007 at 10:15 am

Re the above comment, "Discussions of global warming would be more rational."
What could be more irrational? Global warming is propaganda, politically biased and contains scientific inaccuracies and mush. Children are not equipped to judge this.

Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 6, 2007 at 11:05 am

R. Wray,

Pretty damn big consensus for something that's "propaganda". The science behind global warning has been understood since the 19th century. Like it or not, it seems to be happening. The only quibbling seems to be as to whether it's "natural" or not. In a sense, that doesn't matter because we still have to deal with it.

Though given that we have machines that emit lots of carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide's role in global warning (see Venus), I'm not sure why "debate" per se, exists.

Well, I am, but there isn't a scientific debate, there's a political/policy one.

Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 6, 2007 at 11:28 am


I don't want to get into a big discussion about athropogenic gases contributing to global warming, but if they are, and if global warming is as dire as some claim, wouldn't it make sense to do everything we can to reduce those gases?

Conservation measures and solar and wind energy are good, but only a pin prick. Nuclear power is the single best thing that is currently available. Therefore, if global warming is to be discussed, shouldn't we also be teaching the kids the truth about it's possible solution...which is to build as many nuclear power plants as possible, as fast as possible?

Posted by how about the Greeks
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2007 at 11:41 am

The Romans were great engineers, soldiers and strategists as well as town planners.... However culturally? They mostly copied the Greeks or found their inspiration in the Greek culture.

I would venture to say that the Greek civilization surpasses Rome's glory.

PS: What the heck is global warming doing in this thread ?

Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 6, 2007 at 12:31 pm

"I would venture to say that the Greek civilization surpasses Rome's glory."

Which one, Athens or Sparta?

Posted by how about the Greeks
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2007 at 6:52 pm

"My" answer to your question, John, is at:

Web Link

Posted by Parent of a Middle School student
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Oct 10, 2007 at 3:00 am

Hey, my double-digit age starts with a "4" (ignore it as I may on occasion), and yet I have been quite familiar with BCE/CE for many, many years. This "Anno Domini" AKA "Year of our Lord" designation rings a bit annoying to those who are not Christian, and "CE/Common Era" works fine for many of us, thank you. BCE/CE were in already use when I was enrolled in a progressive top-rated high school in a large Midwestern Metropolitan Area, and that was rather a while ago now. ^^

Goodness knows where everyone else grew up or what they were taught, but I make a point to track my 7th-grader's history studies, and I certainly add to them from my own store of learning gleaned over years ensued.

Middle School introductional simplicity of historical subjects is often supplanted by more in-depth "grey shades" in High School and beyond.

And let's not forget the great contributions to global advances in Science etc. by non-Western cultures...

Posted by history lover
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 10, 2007 at 6:58 am

Interesting comment, and I would really like to know..which non-Western cultures have contributed to science in the last 600 years?

I am not trying to start anything, I am truly, really curious..Any recommended books? Links?

Posted by Non US Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2007 at 8:21 am

Interesting to note how the US has once again confused dates the rest of the world uses without any problem. It is so confusing that the dates are written backwards here, (eg month before year on all but documents that the rest of the world needs to read like passports) and now there is the introduction of something other than the familiar BC and AD. Once again, different from the rest of the world.

Not only is this confusing for those coming here, it is also very confusing for Americans going anywhere else in the world. Why can't you use the same system as the rest of the world.

PS how about going metric too?

Posted by Frankie
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 10, 2007 at 8:25 am

Yeah, it's good being the world leader, we get to confuse the feriners. How's that left side of the road thing working for you?

Posted by Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 12, 2007 at 6:08 pm

I think you did the right thing in reviewing the material and sharing your point of view with your child. I don't think any curriculum is ever going to be perfect and I think parents always need to be watching the school messages for ways that they support or differ from your family's beliefs.

Posted by amazing to watch the "rude American" stereotype turn into
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 13, 2007 at 7:16 am

Frankie..Yes, it is hilarious that people from other countries feel free to come here, and then completely diss our country. I think next time I am in someone's house I will criticize them and how they do things, and see how long I get to stay!

I asked my family in a European country if they ever "blog" and do they ever see Americans who live in their country dissing their country, and they said that OF COURSE they never see that!

Anybody else blog watch blogs in other countries?

Posted by Non US Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2007 at 11:08 am

I can understand why Frankie and Amazing think this way.

It is part of the American culture to feel superior to other nationals. It is actually very difficult to come here and integrate as the American system is very difficult to adjust to.

However, some of the worst aspects have been from those who come into my home, walk up the refrigerator and help themselves, burp and find it amusing and forget to say thank you.

Hopefully, I am a better guest in your home. Perhaps you behave better when you are abroad?

Posted by US Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 13, 2007 at 11:26 am

Non US Parent,
That is the strangest thing I have read. What is your point? Kind of a gratuitous offensive comment. I would not dream of walking up to your refrigerator, helping myself, you wrote. Would some American do this? How would I know.
I am married to someone from another country, and we don't do this in that country either.

Posted by Non US Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2007 at 12:25 pm

Apologies, to one and all. I should not have made my last post. If I can't take criticism, then I shouldn't give it.

Anyway, the comment about driving on the right/left is interesting and can be taken up.

Back in the days of yore in Europe, everyone riding horseback or passing in horse and carts kept to the left. It made sense, if you passed your friend you could greet him or shake hands with your right hand (since most people are right handed) and if you passed your enemy, you could keep your right hand near your sword or dagger at your left side, ready to fight. When Napoleon came along, he decided to confuse the British by changing the custom and got his troops to pass on the right which must have resulted in everyone getting confused. His confusion tactics appeared to work and it became the norm in all areas where the French had dominion. The places it didn't become the norm were the areas of the World where the French didn't aspire. Therefore, places like Australia, Japan, India, etc. are the main places outside Britain that do not follow this new fangled idea of Napoleons of driving on the right.

Posted by Frankie
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 13, 2007 at 4:23 pm

I was just kidding of course - gosh, we all need a chill pill.

Non US Parent - that's an interesting explanation of a question I'm sure we've all pondered at one point or another. Here's a link to another explanation Web Link
which is somewhat consistent with yours (though some more detail on why France adopted the right) and also a passing reference to why the US is like France despite being a British colony.

Posted by Parenthetically
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2007 at 12:06 pm

I find it really interesting that we are switching to BCE/CE, yet we cannot seem to switch to metric. One could make some of the same arguments not to for both, but the arguments TO switch go way beyond political correctness for going metric.

Please someone find something politically incorrect about using the english system! Not even the english use it anymore... (BTW, I grew up using metric in school - was astounded to have to switch to the laborious and nonsensical english system in college.)

Posted by PA Mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2007 at 12:17 pm

Eighth/seventh grade was when my school taught WWII and -among other things- showed Nazi-era footage of atrocities to help students really understand.

When faced with people later in life who deny the holocaust, which lesson do you think brings about the more learned and just response: a few lessons for breadth about how Nazis helped salvage Germany after defeats in WWI and maybe why the swastika is no longer a symbol of peace; or lessons and films that tell a truth that cannot be forgotten or glossed over? The value of learning history goes way beyond a few facts and dates or cultural remnants in the present.

Seventh graders are not little children. Teaching honest history is not a conflict between depth and breadth.

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