Calla Walsh, a high school senior, grew outraged Tuesday morning when she saw the history assignment her younger sister, a freshman at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, was working on. The worksheet asked students to read a text about the colonization of Africa and complete a table with two columns — one for the “Positive Effects of Imperialism” and one for the “Negative Effects of Imperialism.”
Walsh snapped a photo of the assignment and uploaded it to Twitter, saying: “forcing students into the mental exercise of justifying/rationalizing genocide because of its supposed ‘positive effects’ itself perpetuates genocide and indoctrinates them into supporting an imperial war machine.” Walsh added: “this is a public high school in one of the most ‘progressive’ cities in the US — Cambridge, MA. it’s not just Republicans banning [critical race theory] that are revising history — racist, imperialist revisionism it is a key objective of the *entire* US education system.”
The tweet quickly went viral, drawing within hours more than 3,300 retweets, 36,000 likes, and hundreds of responses from people, including some recalling being instructed to rationalize historic tragedies such as the enslavement of Black people in America.
“Gotta love the U.S. education system,” one person replied. Another wrote they remembered “being asked to list positives to the atom bombs being dropped.”
Some said they didn’t see a problem with the assignment. “It isn’t mean to be harsh but to understand why it happened in the first [place], and why people chose it at that time,” another replied.
Walsh’s sister, Cece, 15, wrote on the worksheet: “I think that asking us to identify positives of imperialism, something that killed thousands and contributed to slavery, is extremely undermining and disrespectful to people whose ancestors were murdered because of colonization.”
In a statement late Tuesday, Cambridge Public Schools said it strives to teach in a “holistic” manner and “analyze historical events from as many perspectives as possible in order to better understand the impact and implications of world events on affected people.” Spokeswoman Sujata Wycoff said the textbook being used in the class predates the 2018 state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s History and Social Science standards, but is aligned with the state’s standards and is part of a broad range of materials students receive, including from Facing History and Ourselves, a group that focuses on genocides.
“The activity was a note taking exercise as students read through a chapter in the Age of Imperialism unit designed to spark a conversation and to teach students how to critically think about how imperialism is written about,” Wycoff said. “It is important that our students learn about varying perspectives so that they can form their own opinions.”
She added that the person who shared the tweet lacked firsthand knowledge about the context of the lesson and the class discussion.
Cece Walsh said she grew upset doing her homework assignment because the reading seemed to sugarcoat the killing of African people and stealing of their lands and resources, using phrases like the Europeans “obtained land” or “took control” of the colonies.
She said she raised her concerns about the assignment to her teacher during class Tuesday, after discussing them with her sister earlier. She said her teacher agreed and said he was teaching the text because it was part of the state’s curriculum, but he planned to introduce other texts with different perspectives soon.
“It was very biased and it didn’t really give us the truth,” she said. “The positive effects are often only positive for the oppressors.”
Had it not been for her access to other ways of thinking, Cece Walsh said, “I would’ve believed it and that is really scary to think about — teachers need to be aware of what texts they’re choosing to present to students.”
This story has been updated with comments from Cambridge Public Schools.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.