John Oliver Laments Lack of Historical Knowledge in U.S.: "We Don't Fully Acknowledge White Supremacy"

"History, when taught well, shows us how to improve the world. But history, when taught poorly, falsely claims there is nothing to improve," the 'Last Week Tonight' host said on Sunday's show.

John Oliver argued on Sunday's Last Week Tonight that U.S. schools need to do a better job of teaching the nation's history and that state standards need to be uniform.

To support this, Oliver showed clips from The View where Joy Behar erroneously spoke about George Washington freeing his slaves during his lifetime (in actuality, per his will, they weren't to be freed until after his wife died) and another where Fox News' Tucker Carlson admonished former President Barack Obama for speaking about abolishing the filibuster, if necessary, to expand voting rights while delivering the eulogy at former Congressman and civil-rights leader John Lewis' funeral.

"With so many people misunderstanding our history, either by accident or very much on purpose, we thought tonight it might be a good idea to talk about how the history of race in America is currently taught in schools — what some of the gaps are, why they're there, and how we can fill them," he said.

First, he cited a CBS report showing that there are no national standards when it comes to teaching history and that state standards all vary; for example, seven U.S. states do not directly mention "slavery" in their standards, only two mention white supremacy, and 17 list "states' rights," and not slavery, as a cause of the Civil War.

He also argued that, for those who think rewriting textbooks would get too political, the teaching of history has, in fact, "always been political." After the Civil War, there was much debate over how history books would be written, with one group, dubbed the United Daughters of the Confederacy, campaigning to ensure that textbooks would "accord full justice to the South." And, if they didn't, the group wanted librarians to label the books as being "Unjust to the South," which Oliver said would be akin to labeling the Harry Potter books "Unjust to Voldemort" or labeling Moby Dick as "Unjust to Whale."

Oliver also showed video of a teacher reading a passage from an Alabama school textbook used decades ago that painted a shockingly rosy view of slavery, noting that some slaves were "good workers and very obedient. Many took pride in what they did and loved their cabins and plantation. … Others were lazy, disobedient and sometimes vicious." The teacher, who is Black, then said, "I wonder what kind of slave I would have been. I wonder if I would have been one of those lazy slaves who just were not willing to work for nothing. Or disobedient because I just didn't want to be a slave."

"That contempt is fully merited there," Oliver responded, noting that the passages the teacher had read were part of Alabama's  standard history textbook as recently as the '70s, meaning there are now people in their 50s whose views were shaped by that content and may be influential figures today — e.g., running businesses or holding elected office.

Oliver also showed a CBS News report citing a current Texas history book that reads: "Some U.S. settlers brought slaves to Texas to help work the fields and do chores." In the clip, historian Ibram X. Kendi noted, "I don't think we should describe slave labor as 'chores.'"

Replied Oliver: "Calling slave labor 'chores' is a euphemism on par with calling Hitler 'a best-selling author with a side hustle' or JFK's assassination 'a bad hair day' or [Last Week Tonight] a 'comedy show.'"

Oliver also showed a report on how the teaching of slavery in one school was being done via a "Monopoly-style" game where the students had to escape slavery by using a "freedom punch card," or they were asked to imagine they were a slave owner and set "prices" for their slaves. 

"Just imagine what it would feel like to be a Black kid in that classroom, or, if you don't have to imagine, remember," Oliver said. "Because it's not just the history that hurts here, it's how you're being made to feel while you learn it."

Oliver said part of the problem may be that, according to a survey, 79 percent of teachers in public schools were white in 2017-18, and they may be passing on "the same skewed version of history" they grew up learning.

Oliver then outlined "three big mistakes" that historians have argued need to be corrected "in schools and beyond."

First, "we don't fully acknowledge white supremacy" in the U.S., both from its founding to present day. For example, the U.S. Constitution should be taught as both "revolutionary and racist," because it includes such provisions as the "three-fifths clause," stating that slaves were counted as "three-fifths" of a free person.

Second, "we view history's progress as if it was constant and inevitable." For example, he argued, history books gloss over the timeline between Reconstruction and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, wherein Black men earned the right to vote in the 1860s and '70s and then 100 years later had to fight to get those rights back. Because "in response to that [earlier] progress, white people pushed back, and they pushed back hard," Oliver noted.

Third, "we don't connect the dots to the present." As an example, Oliver cited how the teaching of U.S. history often "trails off" after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. "When you skip over the past half-century, you don't get to see the process by which white supremacy, instead of disappearing, merely adapted," Oliver said, noting the systemic racism in the U.S. that exists today.

Oliver then showed a clip of a man saying he wanted his children to grow up inspired and thinking of America as a great place to live. But Oliver, said, "Ignoring the history that you don't like is not a victimless act, and a history of America that ignores white supremacy is a white supremacist history of America, which matters. Because while it might seem obvious, history isn't over yet. It's still being written."

Oliver ended his segment by showing a clip in which Morgan Freeman read part of an op-ed written by Lewis that was published posthumously in The New York Times on July 30. 

Summed up Oliver after the clip played: "History, when taught well, shows us how to improve the world. But history, when taught poorly, falsely claims there is nothing to improve. So we have to teach it well and continue to learn it."