Representation Matters: Hidden Figures in American Education

In January a movie called Hidden Figures was released and it it brought to light many key issues of representation in our history education. The film tells the story of the ‘Space Race’ between the United States and Russia, highlighting a group of African-American female mathematicians that played a major role in ultimately getting an American into space. An important discussion on representation surrounded the film as many initially thought it was not a true story. This spoke to me, because I had never heard this story myself. It led me to reflect on the dry, white history education that I had received and led me to wonder why that was.

In the ‘Education’ keywords essay, there is a discussion in the the purpose of an education throughout history. A function that stood out to me was described in an analysis of literature in a curriculum. “Literature’s role in the curriculum mirrors education’s duel function… Selections for a curriculum deliver pat morals, behavioral models, or nationalist sentiment.” In reflecting on the literature that we are working through, and my own history education, I still see the last function, nationalist sentiment, everywhere I looked. In my own history education, we did not learn that the white settlers wiped out the native population upon arriving in America, we learned that the white settlers discovered a fascinating new land with new people. When we learn about segregation, we do not learn about all of the horrific police brutality, hate crimes from Caucasians, or government supported segregation. We breeze through the years of horror and focus on Abraham Lincoln winning the Civil War, we learn about ‘nice white people’ who believed that segregation was wrong. All of this is nationalist sentiment. We learn that America is the great land of the free, and that we righted all of our wrongs and set the standard of greatness in the world. Minority stories are underrepresented, though this country was built on their backs, because the stories of minorities frequently come with the baggage of facing racism every day in their lives. We see Zitkala-Sa being subjected to this when she attends the Indian boarding school, and throughout the rest of her education. However, I believe that we frequently do not recognize this within our own educations.

Stories like Hidden Figures, should not be reduced to a one-time success story only recognized by Hollywood. America is a diverse nation, full of the incredible stories of a lot of people who had to overcome odds like those represented in Hidden Figures. This movie is incredibly important, and I’m glad it was produced and is receiving so much attention, but we need to do better. Representation is a key component of American girlhood in shaping the future generation.

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