We must take a new look at our curriculum as we reimagine our public schools. And, as the events of recent days make abundantly clear, we must honor the lens of race in our revisions. We need to posses the courage to be honest, to tell the true and complete tale, rather than the version that continues to offer an assumed “high ground’ to the dominant population.
I was told of a recent post on a local social media platform by a young woman of color. She is a student of our local school district. I’m paraphrasing, the sentiment of her remark was: Learning your history is part of the required curriculum. Learning about my history is an elective. As we consider race in this country, what we are teaching our kids does not represent the experience and the perspective of the majority of children in our classrooms. According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, between fall 2000 and fall 2017, the percentage of public school students who were White decreased from 61 to 48 percent, and the percentage of students who were Black decreased from 17 to 15 percent. In contrast, the percentage of public school students who were Hispanic increased from 16 to 27 percent during the same period. Yet, we persist in our offering of a privileged interpretation of history and its influence on our current circumstances.
Prompted by this young woman’s remark, I located the US History textbook that is used in the high schools in our local district. Scanning the Table of Contents was enough to affirm her position. There are roughly eight pages in the text devoted to our indigenous people and a small section, twenty pages or so, dedicated to slavery. The balance of the book, with pages numbering in the hundreds, is devoted to topics that, while they are relevant and important, are discussed through a Euro-centric lens. Imagine being a black or brown student, required to study and demonstrate proficiency of this content, while not being able to see yourself, or people like you, in these stories. In the absence of any malicious intent, they will likely feel marginalized, set aside and unimportant.
In 2018, the organization Teaching Tolerance issued a report titled “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.” A multiple-choice survey was given to 1,000 high school seniors. Among the responses they found that only one-third correctly answered that the 13th amendment abolished slavery, while 48% of the respondents believed the Civil War started over taxes. The organization declared the results to be “dismal” and wrote: “Teachers are serious about teaching slavery, but there’s a lack of deep coverage of the subject in the classroom. Popular textbooks fail to provide comprehensive coverage of slavery and enslaved peoples. We can and must do better.”
Black History Month, or the recognition of Cinco de Mayo or Day of the Dead, may seem like the right thing to do. But, it is definitely not enough. In fact, these token celebrations may actually be causing harm. They suggest that our communities of color only really matter for a particular month or specific dates on the calendar. This is what a middle schooler told the Montgomery County school board about Black History Month. “This month of learning talks about racial injustice like it’s something in the past. As we are now aware, racial injustice is current. ... Black history is America’s history.” The truth is that these communities have played a vital, intertwined and ongoing role in the development of our nation. We need to be explicit and teach that truth. Instead, we are perpetuating, or ignoring, our country’s disappointing and disgraceful score card on race relations.
The organization Change.org writes: “Most of the time when learning about our history, we get watered down versions that barely scratch the surface of the real struggles in our past. Because of this, ignorance and bigotry persists; people do not know why people are the way they are and live the lives they live.”
U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge has introduced the “Black History Is American History Act.” She wrote this in Fortune. “America’s history is diminished and diluted when it does not include all our stories. As we honor Juneteenth and the Texans who were the last to learn they were ‘forever free,’ we should take pride in the fact that black History is American history — and work to make sure all states teach it to their students.”
(Apparently, this lack of teaching history that is inclusive of all communities in our country is not new. Apologetically, I learned only last week what Juneteenth was and what it signifies. And, I am 70 years old. Both the education system, and I, have a lot of work to do.)
To Rep. Fudge’s comment, I would add this. Black history, Hispanic history, Native history and Caucasian history are all American history. We have an obligation as a system of education to honor these communities by telling the honest, full-throated, truth about the role each played in the development, and the future, of our shared America. It is the only way that we can break the cycle of ignorance and bigotry that, sadly, still exists.
Further, it’s the only way we can assure that my young neighbor doesn’t have to search for opportunities that may, or may not, exist to learn the history of her own community.