How do our expectations and what we teach affect our students?  What are we teaching about African history in the different curricular subjects? The dominance of Western philosophy is an issue in...

How do our expectations and what we teach affect our students?  What are we teaching about African history in the different curricular subjects?

The dominance of Western philosophy is an issue in our systems, including our schools. History is not necessarily fact. It depends on the perspective of who is telling the story. We need to hear more than one story. If Africa is left out of telling the story then we are all affected. I am surrently linking with a professor of philosophy in Africa who is writing up about African philosophers who were around at the same time, and before, the European philosophers, but are not currently in our books. Ths is not a focus on blame;it is opening doors to wider thinking to benefit all of us.

Expert Answers
Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is a shame how ethnocentric education is, but it reflects the ethnocentric nature of mankind.  It is not simply African philosophy and culture that is neglected, but also many others, including Asian and Indian.  This contributes to our abysmal ignorance in international diplomacy and business, and the key to solving this problem clearly does lie in education, the earlier the better.

However, there are many forces that work against this.  For example, textbook publishers create social studies textbooks based upon the needs and politics of the largest states, usually Texas and California, because this maximizes their sales.  Those textbooks are often then distributed nationally, which means that the greatly ethnocentric and even racist politics of Texas are presented as "history" across the country.  Another force that makes it difficult to solve the problem is that of the local nature of education.  The state may set curriculum, but each local school board pours content into that curriculum, thus assuring that its own prejudices are perpetuated. 

It is up to teachers, and maybe even up to students, to see to it that other cultures are attended to, not simply in social studies, but across the curriculum.  How many students even know that some of our greatest concepts in math are from an Arabic culture?  Should we not be reading literature from other cultures in our English classes?  Are not the ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism of value to us?  As busy as we are and as much ground as we have to cover, there is no excuse for our neglect of the rest of the world.

larrygates eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You are correct that history for many years was Euro-centric; in fact many colleges teach History 101 as "Western Civilization." The reason for this is for so many years, western civilization was considered "the" civilization. The perception that European culture was superior to all others was predominant. This has begun to change over the past decade or so; in fact ETS now offers a course in World History which is no more than 25 % European history. Even so, change occurs only slowly. In time, I think the study of history will become less Euro-centric, but this will occur only with the passage of time.

You are also correct about the influence of point of view on historical interpretation. I teach my students to consider point of view in evaluating historical documents in an attempt to determine the accuracy of historical narratives. However, for those who consider history to still be memorization of facts, the potential for error and misinterpretation will remain.  

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As someone who is professionally interested in the history of Southeastern Indians, I certainly see where you're coming from. 

As for your broader philosophical point about history, no serious historian claims anymore that there is a real story. The problem is that many history curricula are still so focused on content over the epistemological aspects of history as a discipline that it is difficult to make students understand what history is. The problem is only exacerbated when dealing with peoples who left fewer written records. A highly skilled researcher using ethnohistorical methodologies can learn much about, say, Tuscarora Indians or Igbo in Africa by reading what a 17th century trader had to say about them, because they can cross-reference these sources with oral tradition, archaeological records, and so on. A high school student reading the same document will probably just take it at face value. 

shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I can't disagree with anything that has been posted, but I have to concur with post #5 for the practical reason that there is a limit to how many topics you can cover in a typical person's education. It makes sense that you are going to focus on histories and philosophies that have most directly affected your own society.

However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't make some effort to introduce material that would lead to a greater understanding of different cultures. We just wouldn't be able to go into much depth.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I do not really think that it is such a huge problem that we do not learn about African philosophers.  The main reason for this is that, regardless of how brilliant they were, they did not have the same impact on our modern world that European philosophers did.  We can't study everything, so we have to prioritize those subjects that have a greater influence on our society.  Some things, like African philosophy, get lost because they simply haven't been as central to the creation of our society.

megan-bright eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Well actually many historians may point out that many of the European philosophers stole ideas from the Africans, so in a sense African philosophers have contributed to modern society, but they will never get the credit because as colonization came along, their culture was robbed and destroyed. Same thing can be said for other groups. It can also be said that many women pioneers will never get their credit either.


etotheeyepi | Student

In reply to #10

You might want to read about Father Greg, a Jesuit priest, who helps gang members earn an honest living. This article does not mention teaching them abour their heritage.  On the other hand, it does not say he doesn't.  It does say that he teaches them math and how to talk without slang.

marynel | Student

We have to have a balance of what we are presenting in our schools. What concerned me was when I was called into a school in the UK where they were aware that some behavior issues were arising in a class of 8 year olds. I did a creative presentation to the class to bring out what they wanted to do with their lives when they grew up. One boy of African Caribbean heritage, raised his hand, but would not talk in front of the class. He just said, 'Miss, can I talk to you by myself after?' When we had a break he came up and said,'Miss, I don't have no history, except ssssss,' ( he whispered 'slavery' very quietly to me.) Then he said, 'So I don't have a choice, I have to be a gangster! These are the gangs I am going to choose from.' Then he gave me a list of the local gangs. I checked it out and he was accurate with the names!  

My work with the school then focused on helping them to balance their curriculum subjects to include positive messages to all the children, reflecting the different ecconomic, social and racial groups represented in the school. This included links with local proactive community groups. Most of the staff were not from the local area and had limited awareness in these areas.

etotheeyepi | Student

I think that American students study many things that are African, but they don't think of them as African. They are more likely called Carthagenian, Christian, Egyptian, Greek, Muslim or Roman?

I can think of five exclusively African things: cola beans, coffee, slavery, the most vulgar word in American English, and rice cultivation.

marynel | Student

Thank you for your reply. I am actually in Houston, Texas now. I was a teacher in the UK and Jamaica. My role in the UK was as a school support coordinator in the Equality and Diversity Education Service. Now we are back in Texas I am noting we have the whole world in many of our neighborhoods. We need to build an awareness and  valuing of each other from the foundation stages of our learning. Following the completion of a survey that I am developing re. perspectives of Africa in each curricula area in the UK and USA, I am submitting a summary back to Africa. The link person will feed this to different organizations with the misson of collecting the real stories we are not hearing. Feeding this into our systems is not going to be easy, and we are going to have to be as creative as people were in the past when they had no voice during the time of the African holocaust. We are not even hearing all those stories.

In November I am doing a presentation at a story telling conference.

Storytelling : Reclaiming Memory, Repairing Lives


The term History comes from the Greek word historia meaning “inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation.” ( Unabridged) However, the way events are retrieved, investigated and documented depends on the perspective of the historian. HIStory may therefore not be the REALstory, or the WHOLEstory, and many stories may not have been told. Oral tradition was the I.T. of the past, a way to keep the history or culture of the people alive.  Africa and the diaspora are still suffering from the holocaust  of the slave period of history, because we are using history as a foundation for understanding the present and preparing for tomorrow and many stories are absent, or written from the bias of Western thinking. This paper plans to summarize the messages that are coming to us through our systems, utilizing I.T., and the effect it is having on our societies. Then it will highlight effective processes that will help us to gather the knowledge we need to refresh our minds so we can understand the past in order to reclaim the present and the future. It will incorporate the role of storytelling in this process as people used their creativity effectively in the past when they had no voice. For this to be effective a link will be made with those in the countries of the origins of these tales, research the mnemonic  techniques that were effective in the passing on of stories and discuss how they can be utilized in the renewal process.

history. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved December 30, 2011, from website: