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Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Looks at How U.S. History Classes Fail to Teach Students About Racism

'Ignoring the history you don't like isn't a victimless act'

Allison Picurro

On Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver continued to expand on his coverage of racism in America. After ripping into TV personalities Joy Behar and Tucker Carlson over their televised misunderstandings of history, Oliver did a deep dive into the way slavery and white supremacy are taught (or, in many cases, not taught) in U.S. history classes. As he said at the top of the segment, "George Floyd's murder has forced a hard national conversation about this nation's present, which is impossible to do effectively without re-examining its past."

While he acknowledged that learning the truth about history involves people reckoning with the atrocities committed by their ancestors, Oliver also made note of some pretty startling facts: There are no national standards for what topics are covered in history classes, and the curriculum tends to completely vary by state. (Seven states, he pointed out, simply don't mention slavery in their state standards, and only two mention white supremacy.) Oliver also brought up how the fact that the overwhelming majority of school teachers in the U.S. are white plays a significant part in the "incomplete" and "harmful" history educations being given to kids. "Many [teachers] may have grown up learning the same skewed version of history that they are now passing on," Oliver said.

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The host went on to look at three glaring faults in the teaching of American history, the first being the refusal to fully acknowledge white supremacy. The second, according to Oliver, is the way progress in America is often framed as "as if it was constantly and inevitably upward," which is part of the reason many people believe racism no longer exists. The third is many white Americans' inability to connect the dots from the past to the present and recognize how white supremacy has "adapted" to modern times.

After discussing the way Martin Luther King Jr. is often cited as evidence that America has become fully equal, Oliver said, "While I know it's easy to distort King's full legacy down to that one soaring speech, point to the cast ofThis Is Us, and say, 'See? We did it, everyone! Everything is fixed now,' the truth is that the civil rights movement was longer, messier, and more radical, and crucially, was thwarted in many of its aims, than any of us were taught in school."

Oliver concluded the segment by stressing the importance of changing the way students learn about racism early on. As Oliver put it, "Ignoring the history you don't like isn't a victimless act."

Last Week Tonight airs Sundays at 11/10c on HBO.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver