Educated Ignorance

I know people like to believe in their high school history education as being accurate, but unfortunately, generally, it’s not. Either things are glossed over because of time constraints or blatantly misrepresented because the curriculum is set by governments who have a vested interest in presenting things a certain way. (My undergrad thesis is based on this idea. To learn more stop by my Ignite Talk on Tuesday or my poster session on Saturday at the Active History conference!)

Now this leads to people saying things out of ignorance which are at best fun to laugh at and at worst, legitimately hurtful and dangerous. The example I always turn to is in a first year course, “Early Modern Atlantic Worlds,” when we were learning about the slave trade, a (white) student raised her hand and objected to the professor’s portrayal of slavery as a universally bad thing. “But professor,” she said, “slavery was a mutually beneficial relationship!”

I feel that it’s important to note that she was not a product of the American public education system, but rather was educated at a Manhattan private school. So ignorance is apparently unavoidable, no matter how much you pay for your child’s education. The professor responded by asking for examples of how slavery benefited slaves and the student couldn’t think of any, so that idea got shut down pretty fast (though she later said she felt like it was unfair for the professor to tell her that everything she’d learned in high school was wrong).

Anyways, this historical ignorance can be turned into comedy as well as education. I like to point people to the YouTube series “Ask A Slave,” in which the presenter, an actress who plays a slave at George Washington’s plantation, responds honestly to questions she gets asked while in character at work. From the description on YouTube, “Ask A Slave is a comedy web series directed by Jordan Black, based on the actress’ time working as a living history character at the popular historic site, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. All questions and interactions are based on true life events.”

It is mostly entertaining but it is also educational as well.

Anyways, for your viewing pleasure, please enjoy Ask A Slave, Episode 1.


One thought on “Educated Ignorance

  1. I would want to add into the mix here, that historical ignorance has much more utility than we might think. In fact, historical ignorance in a lot of cases is a political tool to promote certain agendas. I can give two quick examples. Currently the WWII curriculum is being fought over in Japan. It is not so much a fight over accuracy, as it is about Japan’s role in the world, and whether the history of WWII can justify Japan’s movement away from pacifism. The second would be the debate in Texas, when a purchased textbook intentionally downplayed racism, attempted to redeem Joseph McCarthy, and wrote at length about the dark side of Martin Luther King. I would argue that ignorance is rarely innocent, and the educational gaps are either a sign of austerity, or deceit.


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