A Colonial Legacy: The Importance Of Education About U.S. Colonialism

Graphic by Grace Tawatao/Graphics Center

Americans’ ignorance about world history and geography is a common stereotype, but it has a basis in reality. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the largest nationally representative assessment of what K-12 students in the United States know, American students are getting worse at history, geography, and civics.

In the U.S., education standards are determined by each state; no national standard exists for how much any topic is covered. In a time when state governments are restricting what students are able to learn about U.S. history, it is crucial to properly teach about the U.S.’ colonialism. We need American students to learn this history.

For example, Californians learn about the British empire by fifth grade — only later in their education do they learn about U.S. colonization of other territories. For example, in the California Department of Education’s outline for social studies curriculum, the Monroe Doctrine, a 19th century policy which warned European countries to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, does not appear until eighth grade. U.S. colonization of the Philippines isn’t analyzed until 10th grade. The colonization of Puerto Rico, Cuba, or the U.S. Virgin Islands do not appear by name in the California Department of Education outlines, and the only appearance of Hawaiian history is about Pearl Harbor, with no mention of the brutal process of its colonization. 

According to a 2017 Morning Consult poll, 46% of Americans don’t know Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Puerto Ricans essentially live as second-class citizens, given they don’t have a voting representative in the federal government or vote in presidential elections, but many Americans may not know this. It’s impossible to be an informed U.S. citizen without knowledge of America’s past and present. 

The Philippines are a prime example of why Americans should learn about U.S. colonialism. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, two million Filipinx immigrants currently live in the U.S., the fourth-largest nationality of immigrants in the nation. Despite the presence of Filipinx people in the U.S., the history of American presence in the Philippines isn’t given adequate coverage in public schools. 

Many Americans are not taught about the Philippine–American War, which lasted from 1899 to 1902, when Filipinx people rose up to demand democracy. According to the U.S. State Department, there were an estimated 20,000 Filipinx civilian casualties in the war. Often untaught are the U.S. Army’s “reconcentration” camps in the Philippines, where hundreds of thousands of noncombatant Filipinx people were imprisoned, according to University of Melbourne professor Christina Twomey in her book “Detention Camps in Asia.” The Philippines wouldn’t achieve their goal of independence until nearly 50 years later, in 1946. The country still struggles with the lasting impacts of U.S. military presence. According to the World Health Organization, toxic waste dumping at former U.S. military bases in the Philippines have exacerbated current environmental struggles. According to the Bayanihan Foundation Worldwide, “the US continues to unfairly deny its responsibility of toxic wastes in their former military installations.” 

Another example is Guam. In 1898, Guam became a U.S. territory and remains under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior today. Guam’s legislature created a Commission on Decolonization with the stated purpose of “resolving and ending Guam’s current unincorporated Territory status” and “achieving a full measure of self-governance for Guam.” 

Guam is one of 17 non-self-governing territories in the world today. According to the Office of the Attorney General of Guam, its governance system has tried since 2000 to conduct a non-binding vote on the colony’s future, but has faced significant legal challenges. It is also working with the United Nations’ Special Committee on Decolonization, attempting to gain independence. But under the California educational guidelines, students don’t have the opportunity to learn about Guam, or the current Guamanian self–governance struggles in school.

Many states are creating legislation that limits the exposure to history. The Texas Tribune reports that Texas’ 2021 anti-critical race theory bill restricts teachers from discussing any “widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” Any restriction of knowledge in education promotes the same ultra-nationalist sentiments that can spawn fascist movements. It’s important for the citizens of an active colonial empire to know they live in a colonial empire. 

Americans will never live up to our ideals of freedom and democracy while we still deny the right of self-determination to others. Patriotism cannot be blind. To truly love one’s country includes wanting to see it correct and learn from the harms of the past. We need to teach about the injustices of global U.S. conduct. 

Teaching about the atrocities of the U.S.’ past is the first step to changing our country’s future for the better. If we nationally mandate the teaching of U.S. colonialism, we will develop informed American citizens who fully grasp the nuances of history.


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