In the essay “The Purpose of Education,” written in 1947 for Morehouse College’s student newspaper, the Maroon Tiger, Martin Luther King Jr. argues that education has a “two-fold function” in society. Education should enable a person to “become more efficient” to achieve their goals in life and, more importantly, “teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” King contends that “education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”
King’s essay does not use the phrase “honest history,” but the premise of teaching honest history is found throughout King’s argument: “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” Teaching honest history is not only sharing the facts of the past but also thinking through how those facts might imply a moral obligation to not repeat injustices.
The Learning for Justice guide Advocating for Teaching Honest History defines honest history as “history that is accurate, comprehensive and inclusive of perspectives beyond traditional, dominant narratives.” As the guide contends, “[l]earning honest history … helps students to understand the forces that shape our world and to make connections between the past and the present.”
An intellectual journey through honest history begins with inquiry, which pushes beyond rote memorization to get learners asking questions about causes, effects, systems and structures. The curriculum framework Teaching Hard History: American Slavery scaffolds teaching honest history through a lens of inquiry. The framework is a kindred spirit to King’s essay because it helps students analyze history “not merely as a collection of facts.”
Challenges to Honest History and Inclusive Education
Fueled by politically motivated and discriminatory agendas, some state legislators have banded together to censor the teaching of honest history. To counter these policies, parents and caregivers can serve as crucial partners in advocating for schools and curricula that are inclusive—representing the histories and lived experiences of historically marginalized communities—and that create safer and more affirming spaces for all students.
Families and community leaders face many barriers when engaging in these efforts, however.
Working-class parents and caregivers, preoccupied with grueling schedules and rising costs of living, often find it difficult to participate in school governance and obtain seats of power on local school boards. This lack of diversity in our nation’s school boards has far-reaching effects, as these boards are the grounds for implementing changes in education that affect student learning and well-being and shape the future of the United States.
As The Dallas Morning News outlined in 2022, after a surge in the number of candidates elected to school boards actively seeking to implement discriminatory policies, the concerns of “white conservatives have often been at the forefront, helping to influence a spate of legislation.” In a 2020 survey of school board members conducted by the EdWeek Research Center, among “respondents who indicated that their board makeup doesn’t fully reflect student demographics,” a mere 15% said that the lack of diversity was a “major problem.” This is alarming because a 2017 study showed that diverse school boards have smaller disparities between the suspension rates of white students and students of color. To ensure the well-being of all students, diverse school boards that respect the rights of all community members are essential.
The rise in discriminatory ideologies among school board members has led to attempts to censor and weaken public education and disregard the well-being of young people. These boards often promote efforts to deliberately conceal or misrepresent U.S. history, especially the histories of Black people and communities that have long been underrepresented in curricula.
Beyond these attempts to erase honest history from classrooms, numerous other concerns affect students and families, including the funding (and defunding) of education, harsh disciplinary practices, bias and bullying, and more. Because education policies vary from state to state, parents and caregivers can find it daunting to organize and engage in the process of creating sustainable changes that benefit students. Many parents and caregivers who are disenfranchised are left to wonder, how can we disrupt injustice at our children’s schools?
Advocating for Honest History in Schools: Recommendations for Parents and Caregivers
Realizing power begins with knowing what can be changed. This is central to Martin Luther King Jr.’s notion that education will “transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.” As King wrote, “complete education gives one not only the power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” Advocating for teaching honest history is not only a worthy objective to pursue within schools but also a useful tool to understand how the experiences of students and families can be used to improve the lives in our society.
We offer the following tips as a starting point for advocating for young people’s right to accurate, comprehensive and inclusive history education.
Some of these recommendations are adapted from the Advocating for Teaching Honest History guide for educators, which reminds us, “Honest and inclusive history education is fundamental to ensuring that students learn from our past, understand how it influences the present and work together to build a better future.”
- Build strong relationships with educators. Discuss with teachers and administrators the best ways to communicate. Let educators know that you support age-appropriate honest and complete histories in the classroom.
- Advocate for young people and educators with administrators and district staff and in your community. State your public support for teaching accurate history. By sharing your stance on teaching honest history, you are expressing solidarity with young people and educators.
- Participate in parent organizations such as your school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA). This will provide an opportunity to work with other families and to build a coalition of allies.
- Identify and engage allies in the school and community. Work with educators to build coalitions and support students who are advocating for honest history and more inclusive schools.
- Support young people by encouraging school administrators and educators to honor students’ identities. Encourage symbols of equity and allyship in classrooms and throughout the school to create physical reminders that school should be a safe and affirming space for all students.
- Show up and speak up at school board meetings. Encourage and support educators who are advocating for honest history at board meetings.
- Understand educators’ rights regarding teaching honest history. The National Education Association has state guides on knowing your rights, which cover a range of information for educators, from what they are allowed to teach about racism or sexism to how educators can speak up and challenge bills or policies that limit the teaching of these topics. Support educators in your schools to know their rights.
- Know your basic rights as a parent with regard to schools and students’ education. Research some basic information on your rights, such as these articles from GreatSchools and Colorín Colorado.
- Contact your state legislators. Whether asking to meet with legislators one on one or contacting them via email, letter, phone or social media, parents and caregivers should express the importance of children learning honest history with state legislators. The Intercultural Development Research Association’s (IDRA) guide “How To Meet With Your Elected Official” is a helpful starting point for preparing to talk to a legislator. IDRA also has helpful tips on how to navigate the policymaking process.