Addressing our inaccurate history textbook

March, 2024

The United States has a history riddled with oppressive institutions and unethical war practices. However, as much as we like to believe that Americans are becoming more aware of our country’s faults, our view on history ignores details from the United States’ complex history that are essential to properly understand broader historical themes.

Some of the most obvious examples from the classroom exist in the PHS’s AP United States History textbook, The American Pageant. In a particular section, it addresses the government-supported internment camps for Japanese Americans as well as the Holocaust. However, Pageant notably omits America’s pardoning of Unit 731, a unit of the Japanese Imperial Army that conducted lethal human experiments during World War II and the Second Sino-Japanese war. The United States government, which oversaw the rebuilding of Japan post-World War II, granted political immunity to high-ranking officials who were instrumental in perpetrating war crimes in exchange for the data pertaining to the human experiments conducted in China. Instead of disclosing this critical part of the American occupation of Japan, Pageant instead chooses to only focus on praising the American-reformed Japan, championing General Douglas MacArthur’s “stunning success” in introducing “Western-style democratic government” and rebuilding the Japanese economy. Ultimately, the textbook’s negligent approach frames this critical historic event in a way which only showcases the successes of Western paternalism by ignoring the United States’ involvement in condoning atrocious war crimes.

Alongside disregard for international affairs, our textbook consistently misrepresents the United States’ domestic conflicts as well, often at the expense of marginalized groups. For example, Pageant discredits the self-sustaining spirit of Black Americans. Instead of celebrating their feat of self-liberation during the Civil War by abandoning Confederate plantations and fleeing to Union lines, Pageant instead claims that “Blacks found themselves emancipated and then re-enslaved” by Union troop movements, as if they had no agency themselves, and emphasized that many enslaved people “initially responded to news of their emancipation with suspicion and uncertainty.” Through Pageant’s lens, the Emancipation Proclamation caused slaves to rise up, when in reality it was the other way around.

Additionally, Pageant consistently utilizes the term “mulatto” to describe biracial people of Black and white descent. The term originated from the word “mule,” and was used to compare biracial people to hybrid livestock. Today, it is considered a racial slur, and has no place in being used to describe a demographic of people.

Pageant misrepresents important parts of history, making it harder for millions of students to resonate with current social justice movements. Even if most textbooks fail to provide this critical information, our understanding of American history should not halt at the AP curriculum. Instead, PHS should strive to universally include supplemental materials to make up for this disparity.

A true understanding of American history should be the primary objective of participating in a history course, not conforming to a narrow minded AP curriculum. Action needs to be taken — Princeton, a community constantly advocating for the spread of progressive ideas, should not continue to support the American Pageant’s inaccurate, cherry-picked, and whitewashed version of American history.