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Educators are using TikTok to teach history you might not learn in school


By Harmeet Kaur, CNN

(CNN) — Scroll mindlessly through TikTok and you’re likely to come across someone doing a fit check, sharing a day in the life or performing the latest trending dance.

You might also learn something you weren’t taught in school.

Scholars and educators are increasingly using TikTok to share history that’s seldom found in textbooks — and their content is finding an audience. A 2022 survey from the online learning platform found that one in four TikTok users in the US use the platform for educational purposes, with history being one of the most popular subjects.

One of these educators is Kahlil Greene, also known on TikTok as Gen Z Historian.

In 2021, while he was a senior at Yale University, Greene posted several videos around “the intense amount of whitewashing that happens” during Martin Luther King Jr. Day, highlighting quotes from the civil rights leader that reflected his radical views on race and class.

Seeing an enthusiastic response, Greene launched a series called “hidden history,” covering lesser-known moments in the nation’s past — from the nativist origins of the Pledge of Allegiance to the “human zoos” that put people of color on display for the entertainment of White people. Greene has since amassed more than 600,000 TikTok followers, while his “hidden history” videos, as well as his other educational content around current events and popular culture, routinely rack up tens of thousands of views each.

“I always saw my work as filling in the gaps of the US education system,” Greene told CNN.

TikTok can fill in educational gaps

How history is taught in US public schools can vary significantly from state to state. While most curricula cover such foundational moments in US history as slavery, the Civil War and the civil rights movement, their approach to these topics is often influenced by partisan politics and community demographics. California textbooks, for example, tend to emphasize the experiences of marginalized groups, while Texas textbooks generally downplay them, as one New York Times analysis found.

Right-wing attacks on “critical race theory” have also taken a toll on history education. Between September 2020 and July 2023, officials at the local, state and federal levels introduced nearly 700 measures to restrict teaching around race and racism, according to a tracker from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.

While some lawmakers and officials try to limit such instruction, that knowledge can be vital for students, said Ernest Crim III, a former high school history teacher who now makes educational content for TikTok.

Crim said he grew up in a segregated neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago and was bussed to a majority-White neighborhood for much of his schooling. While he noticed the differences between the two neighborhoods as a child, it wasn’t until he took a Black history course in college that he began to understand the systemic issues at the root of his experience.

The course inspired Crim to become an educator and for years, he taught high school US history and an elective on African and Latin history. Then in 2016, after a woman hurled the n-word at him and his wife at an outdoor festival, and after a string of high-profile police killings of Black people nationwide, he started posting educational content to Facebook and Instagram.

“I felt like the curriculum wasn’t really doing enough to teach (students) about the systemic issues that they’re born into,” he said.

When TikTok became popular in the US several years later, Crim began posting snippets from his curriculum on the platform — only this time, more people were paying attention. His videos educate audiences about lesser-known Black historical figures such as historian Carter G. Woodson and the abolitionist lecturer Henry Box Brown, as well as White allies such as Red Lobster founder Bill Darden, who refused to comply with segregation in his restaurant, and civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo, who helped transport protesters to the Selma to Montgomery marches.

Crim also keeps his content relevant by adding historical context around news and current events. When the Major League Baseball season was in full swing, for example, he highlighted the oft-overlooked story of Moses Fleetwood Walker, dispelling the notion that Jackie Robinson was the first Black player to play in the MLB.

Crim’s videos have turned him into a mini-celebrity — he said people recognize him while out and about, while his followers across social media platforms include Ava DuVernay, Mo’Nique and D.L. Hughley. In fact, his educational content has resonated so widely that he left classroom teaching to make social media content full-time. He also now works as a public speaker and consultant.

“For me, it’s about sharing this information to empower, to educate and most importantly, to strategize how we can create equitable systems starting at the grassroots level,” Crim said.

TikTok educational content can empower communities

Educational content on TikTok can also provide avenues for exploring one’s identity.

Aslan Pahari, a Sydney-based creator who graduated from the Australian National University with a degree in anthropology and international relations, makes videos on the platform about ancient history, dead religions, mythology and other subjects, often with an emphasis on South Asia and Central Asia. In recent posts, he’s discussed tribal communities in India, the last pagans of Afghanistan and the real-life inspiration for “The Jungle Book.”

Pahari said his interest in these topics stemmed from wanting to know more about his own ethnicity and origins. Though he was born and raised in Australia, his family is from the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab in Pakistan, and several of his videos delve into the histories, languages and cultures of the wider region.

What started as a project to cure his boredom during the pandemic has since turned into a full-time career — Pahari’s TikTok page has more than 5 million followers, and he’s cultivated a loyal and engaged community on platforms such as YouTube and Discord.

“Being in the West, a lot of our history gets overshadowed so we don’t really gain that understanding,” he said. “I think my content can assist South Asian youth in having a little more pride in who they are or just having a better idea of where they come from.”

Crim said he shares stories about trailblazing people of color with a similar intent.

“I’m trying to retrain our subconscious,” he said. “Implicitly, we’re all biased to some things, even our own groups. I want people to see themselves in a positive light.”

Don’t trust everything you see on TikTok

While there’s a wealth of information to be found on TikTok, the platform comes with its fair share of challenges, too.

Educational content from historians and scholars lives alongside videos from creators without those credentials, which can make it difficult for the average user to discern what is credible and what isn’t. Some educators share citations and sources in the background of their videos or provide viewers with more context in the comments, but even still, Pahari and others caution that educational content on TikTok shouldn’t be taken as absolute truth.

“Because a lot of the people viewing educational content aren’t really used to these fields of academia, they’re not aware that there are different perspectives on certain topics,” he said. “They’re not aware that what they’re viewing isn’t necessarily fact, but often a heavily debated point of view.”

As many scholars and educators on the platform see it, TikTok isn’t a magical substitute for reading widely or consuming longer-form content like documentaries. But it can be a useful starting point for further inquiry.

“To anyone looking to learn from TikTok, definitely widen your consumption and engage,” Greene said. “Don’t just be a passive viewer. Ask questions. Be in the comments.”

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