Holistic history: What Virginia’s top educator says needs to be changed in the classroom

Virginia’s education secretary says it’s time to re-think the way we teach history.

Recently, Virginia was in the spotlight after its Commission on African American History Education, created by Gov. Ralph Northam last year, recommended several items, including becoming the first state in the country to require teachers to have African American history training and certification.

Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni, who agrees that certification is a good idea, said there is a larger issue at hand: the way history is taught and represented in the classroom.

“When we teach our history, it’s done through a lens of exceptionalism and patriotism, and then there’s an other-ism,” said Qarni,

“Values are great. We have great foundational principals; we’re fighting for freedom and democracy. Then there’s these other people who are not.”

Instead, Qarni said we need to teach history holistically.

“If you imagine if somebody is from another planet, has no idea about America and are learning our history without biases,” Qarni said. “It should be done in a way we’re teaching a complete history.”

He cites the example of the Fourth of July, saying while the public conversations revolve around the country’s independence and freedom, we don’t talk about how it didn’t work out for everyone.

“Even at the onset, you only had white men — who were landowning men — who could vote,” Qarni said, saying that the subject was something that wasn’t taught until revisions of the past decade.

“Now we’re becoming more in our revisionist, where we gave the bigger picture.”

He also says history often teaches about significant events, like wars. However, lessons don’t discuss events happening in-between and leading up to those events, including the roles that were played by Black Americans in those times.

“There were limitations to these founding fathers as well. Many of them were slave owners,” Qarni said.

“They debated, but didn’t free everyone. They didn’t give women the right to vote. That’s been done in recent years, but we need to continue down that road.”

After the Commission on African American History Education’s full report is released in September, work will begin in earnest to make changes to the state’s standards of learning and implemented in 2022, according to Qarni.

Further down the road, Qarni said he expects changes to go beyond African American History because, in addition to the commission, the governor had a bill to create a cultural advisory committee.

“That committee is going to focus on other isms – anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other isms,” Qarni said.

“We passed that legislation to kind of build on the African American History Commission work and kind of close up the loop on some things to bring in other marginalized groups.”

Michelle Murillo

Michelle Murillo has been a part of the WTOP family since 2014. She started her career in Central Florida before working in radio in New York City and Philadelphia.

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