John Oliver skewers US history curriculum in ‘Last Week Tonight’

John Oliver, host of 'Last Week Tonight,' discussed education gaps in US history.
John Oliver, host of 'Last Week Tonight,' discussed education gaps in US history.HBO

As school districts around the country scramble to make plans about whether to reopen amid the coronavius pandemic, HBO host John Oliver on Sunday took a fresh look at the US education system, criticizing it for “embarrassing gaps” in many people’s knowledge of US history.

The host of “Last Week Tonight” used the example of President Trump’s June announcement to hold a rally in Tulsa on June 19, also known as Juneteenth — an annual holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the US. The location also marked the site of a race massacre that left hundreds of Black residents dead at the hands of white mobs 99 years ago. Oliver called Trump’s rally, which he later rescheduled, “astonishingly tone deaf,” and pointed out that its backlash introduced many Americans to the Tulsa massacre as well as to the very concept of Juneteenth.


“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.

Oliver cited a CBS report showing there are no national standards when it comes to teaching history. Seven US states do not directly mention “slavery” in their teaching standards, only two mention white supremacy, and 16 list “state rights” as a cause of the Civil War.

Oliver also showed a CBS report citing a current Texas history book that reads: “Some US settlers brought slaves to Texas to help work the fields and do chores.” In the clip, Boston University scholar Ibram X. Kendi said, “I don’t think we should describe slave labor as ‘chores.‘”


Part of the problem, according to a 2017-18 study, is that 79 percent of teachers in public schools are white, and may be passing on “the same skewed version of history” that they grew up learning, Oliver said. “We need to upgrade the way we teach our history,” he said.

Oliver said there are several “big mistakes” historians have argued need to be corrected “in schools and beyond,” including an acknowledgement of white supremacy in history curricula.

Watch the full episode below:

Brittany Bowker can be reached at brittany.bowker@globe.com. Follower her on Twitter @brittbowker.