Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, comes from a story we all know by heart. Or do we? Howard Zinn, the iconic American historian, playwright, social activist, and Boston University political science professor wrote, by my estimation, one of the most impactful history books of the twentieth century: A People’s History of the United States. Just referring to the book may make some readers cringe at the thought of a Superintendent highlighting the work of a sometimes self-described anarchist and socialist. I assure you that I am neither (not that either are bad); moreover, I assure you that we all have something to learn from Zinn’s body of work and the work of many historians encouraging us to consider, and at times confront, the role bias plays in our understanding and retelling of history.
The celebration of Thanksgiving is a time each year when I am reminded of the biased lens through which I understand history. As an educator, it’s not enough for me simply to examine my own relationship to history; I am forced to also contemplate how historical topics are represented, retold, and reflected upon in our classrooms. Why? Because educators have a responsibility to teach students how to become critical and thoughtful consumers of information, even - and especially - the historical stories and perspectives they are told.
The limited perspective and inaccuracies of the “First Thanksgiving” extend to my experience in elementary school when we were encouraged to dress up during Thanksgiving season. The class was divided in half with half of the boys and girls dressing in what we assume to be “pilgrims” outfits and the other half of the class in face paint, moccasins, and feathers on the head. The truth is that the most widely recognized paintings of the “First Thanksgiving” are not historically accurate in the dress of either the colonists or the native peoples. The 1899 oil painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris titled “The First Thanksgiving 1621” depicts both the Plymouth Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans in clothing that is historically inaccurate.(1) If this is the case, what is our responsibility as educators to debunk misrepresentations of historical truth?
What I learned about Thanksgiving when I was in school was only one sanitized part of a story. Sure, after surviving a difficult first year in Plymouth and taking in an abundant first harvest, a group of colonists did share food with a group of local native peoples known as the Wampanoag. Their leader, King Massasoit, and 90 of his men came bearing their own bounty (of dear) and shared a meal with the colonists in celebration of the harvest (which, by the way, was successful due to the native peoples’ agricultural mentoring of the colonists).(1) This event, not referred to by them as “Thanksgiving,” was a one-time experience. Shortly after the harvest celebration, colonists throughout and beyond the region continued mass slaughter of native peoples as the European settlers overtook more and more land.
Beyond the first harvest celebration, as a holiday Thanksgiving began in 1637 when it was proclaimed by governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to celebrate the safe return of the men who had left to fight against the Pequot in Mystic, Connecticut. The fighting led to the enslavement and massacre of over 700 men, women, and children from the New England-based tribe, a bloody precursor to what would be centuries of strife for native peoples in North America.(2)
Thanksgiving’s journey from its colonial origins in the mid seventeenth century to a national holiday in the United States of today took many turns. Reasons for recognizing the holiday ranged from celebration of battle victory to boosting the young nation’s economy. Following George Washington’s “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” after the American Revolution, it was up to each president to declare a national day of thanksgiving - or not - and so it was an on-again, off-again holiday. Abraham Lincoln thanked the Union Army and God for a pivotal victory at Gettysberg and on October 3, 1863 announced the official Thanksgiving holiday to be celebrated November 26, 1863. The fourth Thursday of November remained the national day of Thanksgiving from 1863 until 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it to the third Thursday to give Christmas shoppers a few extra days. In 1941, Congress reinstated the fourth Thursday of November as the official Thanksgiving holiday, and there it remains today.(3)
So what? The point of my musing is not just to teach a lesson on Thanksgiving, but to use this holiday season as a reminder of the importance of considering multiple points of view and confronting bias in the telling of history. If our students are to become critical and thoughtful consumers of information--a necessary life and career skill made even more important in today’s political environment--we must not shy away from encouraging students to explore truth even if that truth is uncomfortable or shameful. Children have broad capacity to think critically, often much more capacity than we give them credit for. In my mind, educators and parents have a shared responsibility to gradually release our children to greater and greater access to information in conjunction with powerful and thought-provoking questions that require children to examine, reflect, challenge, and draw conclusions.
Most certainly, adults must respect intellectual and emotional readiness when approaching truth and bias. However, telling skewed versions of history out of fear that children can’t handle the truth creates more insidious problems later on. In my opinion, it is better to not say anything than to tell an inaccurate or misleading version of the truth simply because the truth of history is too hard to bear. Further, telling history from only one point of view similarly debilitates a child’s developmental ability to draw their own conclusions.
As a Superintendent, I hope that teachers in the district I serve feel empowered to develop the critical thinking skills of our budding historians, by including the following in their practice:
For families and teachers who are interested in learning more about bias and its influence on how history is told, there are excellent resources out there, and my district’s middle school library’s web page is a good place to start. Howard Zinn, in fact, published a version of his bestseller for younger readers entitled, A Young People’s History of the United States.
Before anyone accuses me of being the anti-Thanksgiving Superintendent, I also want to suggest that new meaning can be created out of darker parts of our history. Children are often more skilled than adults at finding opportunities for forgiveness and healing and creating a new reality. They are uniquely able to both acknowledge the painful parts of history and positively redefine cultural symbols. For me, Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity for us to “celebrate the harvest” in our own lives. It’s a time to consider who in our lives has become “the other” and to commit to reaching out beyond our comfort zone to build bridges toward seeing them as “us.” It’s a season of gratitude and humility. It is most certainly a time to fellowship with those we love. And ultimately, it is through recognizing its dark origins that the blessings we celebrate during Thanksgiving today are most meaningfully appreciated.
Sources and further reading on the origins of Thanksgiving:
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.