Pro Scientia Atque Sapientia: On Stuyvesant’s American History Curriculum

An exploration of how Stuyvesant teaches history and how it reckons with its past.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Cover Image
By Nelli Rojas-Cessa

Suspended in a bronze contrapposto, he towers proudly above the decaying greenery, juxtaposed by the sickly-sweet smell of cannabis smoke and taxi exhaust. The arch of his torso rises from his good leg, the other lost to a cannonball in the siege of St. Martin. South of this statue is our school, tucked in the bank of the Hudson River. There’s the Bowery near Wall Street, the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, and Stuy Town, full of some of the largest apartment complexes.

And the commonality? These names traces back to Peter Stuyvesant, the director-general of New Netherland, who helped establish the first municipal government of New Amsterdam in 1653. He also authorized the construction of a canal, a market, and a defense wall, much of which is still standing near Wall Street.

Yet the grandeur of these founding stories is deceptive. Peter Stuyvesant was one of the largest slave owners in New Amsterdam—in the roots of our city are the enslaved blacksmiths, bricklayers, and masons who are responsible for his “achievements.” He also vehemently opposed religious pluralism, referring to Jews as “the deceitful race… enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ” and denying Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Quakers the right to build places of worship and practice their respective faiths.

The history of our school, city, and country is irreversible; that is undeniable. However, the question of how we remember it remains—is the morality of our history objective or subjective? How do we study the history of those who have committed heinous acts and those who have endured the worst of it?

“First off, there’s no ‘objective’ way to teach history,” social studies teacher David Wang explained in an e-mail interview. “All people have biases, and therefore, all sources will naturally have biases as well. It doesn’t necessarily mean anyone’s actively trying to push an agenda ([though] it could), but it exists naturally. The only way to try to achieve a more complete understanding of history is to look at many different sources and perspectives and use them to form your own interpretation of history.”

Wang’s statement is a central principle for many history teachers, who teach from a variety of sources and perspectives. “When we studied the American Revolution, we looked at the role[s] of Native Americans, Blacks, and women,” social studies teacher Robert Sandler said. “We specifically looked at Chief Joseph Brant, Ona Judge [one of George Washington’s slaves], and Mercy Otis Warren, a patriot who worked as a pamphleteer and playwright. But we also listened to lectures on the impact of Founding Fathers like Ben Franklin, watched clips from HBO’s ‘John Adams,’ and studied the heroism of the Culper Spy Ring and the American soldiers at Valley Forge.”

The importance of diverse perspectives is particularly important in a school that primarily leans to the left. “I think that it is clear that teachers in the school, especially in the English and Social Studies Departments, have biases toward the left,” senior and president of the Stuyvesant Patriots Club Rudolph Merlin said. “It does not impact my learning in a significant way—they are very respectful of ideas on the other side of the political aisle.”

The Spectator’s staff editorial “Adapting to the New Political Norm,” published following the victory of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., takes note of Stuyvesant’s liberal bubble. “We often make generalizations about the political makeup of our student body, not realizing that more conservatives exist at Stuyvesant than some students think,” the editorial states. “According to the mock election conducted by the Social Studies Department, 10 percent of 1,762 students said they would vote for Trump if they could.”

Perhaps this liberal bubble exists in our study of history because we live in New York. “Up until sixth grade, I lived in St. Louis,” sophomore Sophie Jin said. “The city itself isn’t necessarily left or right [leaning], but Missouri’s mostly conservative. Part of the curriculum or the textbook was mandated by its [state] education board. The teacher we had taught by the book, and so we pretty much learned all the facts that it said. I think [at Stuyvesant] right now, it’s gotten a lot better, as many of my teachers try to use alternative sources like articles and documents from different sources. It's not just all the facts but something for us to think about and interpret.”

Jin introduces a crucial point. Through Stuyvesant, students are introduced to a variety of courses, cultures, and people; smaller schools might not have a similar basis of variety. “Something that concerns me is that teachers, especially [toward] younger students, try to sugarcoat or alter the perception of how we see America,” sophomore Anisha Singhal said. “I think it’s pretty impossible to teach an American history that doesn’t touch on its barbaric roots. This [teaching] is pretty disturbing too since when you’re younger, your beliefs are more malleable. You don’t know enough on your own to form your own opinions, and so you learn from the people around you.”

Singhal describes a type of social mythology. In younger years, teachers tend to emphasize elements from dramatic literature rather than documented history. Think of the poem “In fourteen hundred ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue. / He had three ships and left from Spain; / He sailed through sunshine, wind, and rain,” or the picture books depicting the largely idyllic, peaceful roots of Thanksgiving. Furthermore, the pages in atlases or large graphic posters have the Founding Fathers and U.S. Presidents lined up almost like superheroes. This glamorized, rose-tinted retelling is more in line with how monarchies and dictatorships describe their leaders in historical texts than how democracies would.

Once students enter high school, history texts often get much more realistic. “The APUSH [Advanced Placement United States History] textbook explains the events and explanations behind them and doesn’t get political about things,” Merlin said. “However, teachers often do not use the textbook to teach. The fact that [some] students don’t read textbooks is very bad because you do not understand a trusted source of information (compiled with facts, statistics, and primary sources) to learn about history. You base your opinion off what the teacher says, what your parents say, and what your classmates say.”

The foundations of history can go on to affect one's perceptions in the future, most notably adding to a type of confirmation bias in which new ideas or evidence are interpreted to validate one’s existing beliefs. “My dad grew up in communist China,” an anonymous freshman said. “A lot of the curriculum was based on the teachings of that party. It was pretty strict; they weren’t allowed to question the teacher [or] Mao Zedong’s rule or ideology, and if they did, they would get disciplined. My dad would call this ‘xi-nao,’ which essentially means a form of brainwashing when translated to English. When he moved here, it was pretty difficult for him to adjust. I think it was because of this [experience] that my dad used to teach me a lot of history [on] his own when I was younger, and the teachers liked to brush over stuff.”

In early November, President Donald J. Trump signed the “1776 Commission” Executive Order to 1) promote patriotic education to understand the history and principles of our Nation’s founding, 2) restore national unity through an understanding and commitment to America’s shared founding principles, and 3) preserve our history by defending the legacy of our Nation’s founding along with its Founders. “On the one hand, I believe patriotism is necessary for this country to survive,” Merlin said. “However, I do not like nationalized education because these initiatives are prone to factual inconsistencies and propaganda; I do not want the government to dictate to me what I need to be learning.”

Our curriculum is modeled on a state-wide standard, but Stuyvesant largely encourages a multiplicity of ideas through a variety of sources. “Outside the standard Regents or AP curriculum and textbooks, [we] introduce newspaper/magazine articles with extensive research such as [The New York Times], The Atlantic, The Economist, [the] Smithsonian, etc., primary sources, and excerpts of books and even academic journals on the subject which go beyond just saying ‘this is what happened’ and challenge students to use these sources to come up with their own interpretations of history,” Wang said.

This intellectual diversity is something that is perhaps missing in Stuyvesant’s student body, where organizations and clubs grow increasingly polarized. “I believe that schools are meant to be places for intellectual diversity,” Merlin said. “Diversity of thought is the most important aspect [of] any school. Kids tore down flyers [and] vandalized them—the administration has not done anything. It is awful for a school that wants to promote equality and equity; it should be applied for all things then, namely freedom of speech.”

Yet classrooms have the opportunity to provide a safe, controlled ground for different opinions. In the majority of Stuyvesant’s history classes, we’re given the chance to analyze history from multiple sources so we can come to our own conclusions. Take Thanksgiving, for example. “We examine the traditional image of Indians and the Pilgrims sharing a festive meal and contrast that with the brutal warfare of King Philip’s War which took place in 1675, an incredibly violent conflict,” Sandler said. “At the same time, we examine the Puritan emphasis on literacy, tight-knit families, and the Mayflower Compact, their contribution to representative government.”

But the pat on the back ends when we come back to the very name we are branded under and continue to benefit from. Our name comes from an anti-Semitic, slave-owning bigot, and our admissions exam continues to piggyback off a system of institutionalized racism that undermines the historically oppressed.

Since Stuyvesant’s establishment in 1904, our motto has been “Pro Scientia Atque Sapientia,” meaning “for knowledge and wisdom.” The question is, do we live up to it?