We Teach Racism, Sexism and Discrimination in School

 

Nicholas Ferroni wants us to look at “what” we teach along with “how”.

It seems that every year another educational prophet or academic messiah comes along with the solution to all of our education and public school woes that we are supposedly facing in America. With policy after policy, then the same policy again, it is obvious that, if there are any failures in the school systems, they are not from the teachers who receive all the blame, but from the policy makers and politicians. With all the focus on “how” we teach, we rarely consider or reevaluate “what” we teach. During my first year as a high school history teacher, teaching predominantly urban and minority students, I came to one profound epiphany: I teach white history to black kids. In addition, along with teaching racism, I teach sexism and discrimination. I do not mean for one second that I personally indoctrinate students with such vicious and hateful values, but the text book that I use (and that nearly every public school in every state uses) indirectly leads teachers into teaching students to be racist, sexist and discriminatory to their peers and other people, which is why I no longer use the text book as the main reference for my classes.

Our text books do not blatantly encourage students to be racist, sexist or discriminatory, but it’s the lack of figures and truths which give students the impression that certain groups didn’t nearly have as large of role as others and, in some cases, groups are completely nonexistent. When broken down statistically, our textbook mentions eight white males for every one African American, women, Jew, and one figure from other various minority groups. The term “gay” is only mentioned twice, and there is only a single paragraph with any description of the “gay rights movement.”

Now, I return to my original reflection that “I teach white history to black kids.” As a white male myself, I can honestly say I felt very little attachment to our founding fathers while being taught about them in school; so, how can we expect an African American student to feel any commonality with them? Most African American students learn about the same handful of African American figures year after year: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X . Their presence in the textbook tends to feel more obligatory in order to satisfy a group, and not because of their contributions.

I know what some of you are thinking: Well, that’s why we have elective courses such as African American Studies and even Black History Month, but that’s not true. The only reason we celebrate Black History Month is due to the fact that African Americans, in the past, were nearly invisible in American history for the most part, and that is also the reason African American Studies courses were created: to focus specifically on African American figures and their history which is left out of our general texts. Also, consider that it is mostly African Americans who take those courses.

Therefore, in a regular history class, to who are my African American students left to look up to, when they are given the impression that their people were slaves and only a handful have done anything worth mentioning? It’s fair to assume that many turn towards athletes and entertainers because they feel those are their only legitimate and possible options. As far as white students, given that they learn very little about the contributions of African Americans, they then may assume that African Americans contributed very little, when that couldn’t be any further from the truth. So, we are indirectly and unknowingly teaching racism. If we were to include more African American figures, who are more than deserving, into our text books, I have no doubt that the need for specific courses and holidays geared towards African Americans would no longer be necessary.

African Americans aren’t the only forgotten group in the history textbook. Now what have women done to deserve to be mentioned with all the great men in history? They made the men great. Like African Americans, women have played such a pivotal role in our nation, even before its conception. Yet, our textbook makes it appear that female figures have been strategically placed, and are not incorporated as often as they deserve and have surely earned. Girls learn about a predominantly male history, and this absolutely and indirectly lays the foundation of sexism. By downplaying the role of women in history, we are downplaying women in general and, therefore, are giving the impression that they are the weaker gender. With the exception of one section of a chapter about suffrage and a few mentions of female figures and first ladies, it is obvious that women not only struggled for equal treatment throughout history, but they are still not receiving it in the present.

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When boys are not taught of the many contributions that women have made, they are being taught that women have NOT made that many contributions. I’m starting to believe that, as men, our egos are so fragile that we believe that by giving women the credit they deserve, we are also admitting their equal footing in this country. I, myself, have always been a feminist for many reasons but mainly because I owe my life and virtues to a woman. I have to believe that if we incorporated more women into our textbooks, boys would have less sexist tendencies and girls would have more ambition and optimism in their future career choices.

Other minority groups, which include gays and lesbians, Jews, Muslims, Latinos, as well as others, are also slighted. There is no question about it: prejudice and hatred are taught. I have never seen a child not play with another child because of race, religion or sexuality… until a parent comes over and tells the child not to play with him or her. By omitting various minority groups from our textbooks, we are giving the impression that these groups not only didn’t contribute anything to our current America, but that they literally didn’t exist. By teaching all students about gay (which has roots much deeper than current events), Muslim, Asian and Latino history in America, we will NOT “make” students gay, Muslim, or even Latino; we will make them tolerant and understanding. Consider that we spend a considerable amount of time teaching about the Holocaust and America’s role in freeing the prisoners from the concentration camps, but we don’t mention or even reference one account of the discrimination that Jews met in America when they immigrated here in large numbers during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

I am by no means attempting to undermine the role of our founders or other figures who are featured so regularly in our current textbooks. I am just suggesting that, if we did incorporate more figures from various groups who have also struggled, contributed and helped shape America, it would lead to a generation of students who are accepting and compassionate towards all races and religions, as well as of women, gays and lesbians. If we don’t “teach the truth,” we will continue to raise students who are racist, sexist and prejudiced towards certain people and groups. We have come to a point in education where we should not only reconsider how we teach but, more importantly, what we teach. I strongly believe that this would empower so many and, at the same time, help others see the true contributions of many groups who are not fairly and justly acknowledged in the present textbooks.

Originally published on Huffington Post.

Image: tom1231 / flickr

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About Nicholas Ferroni

Nicholas Ferroni is a host, writer, blogger, historistan, educator and activist, and proud Rutgers alum. Find him at Huffington Post, or on Twitter @NicholasFerroni

Comments

  1. Bay Area Guy says:

    As long as this proposed method of teaching doesn’t go completely in the other direction (ie. revisionist, victimocentric, white males are a bunch of evil oppressors, etc), then I can tolerate it.

    Actually, I think that relative to most countries in the world, the U.S. does an excellent job at coming to terms with its oppressive past.

    (compare how the U.S. deals with slavery to how Turkey deals with the history of the Armenian genocide, or how Japan deals with the Rape of Nanking)

    Also, I find it interesting that you mention Jews as somehow being a victimized and underrepresented minority group. They are anything but.

    • If you are referring to the Holocaust? I’m not. I m referring to the Jewish mistreatment in America, which is not even mentioned in any text books, and considering your comment, I know you are not aware of that history as well. So please do a little research before commenting. Cheers.

      • Bay Area Guy says:

        I m referring to the Jewish mistreatment in America, which is not even mentioned in any text books, and considering your comment, I know you are not aware of that history as well

        And I think you need a lesson in reading comprehension.

        I am aware of the past history. I know that famous people such as Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Ford, Richard Nixon, Billy Graham, etc, etc, were anti-Semites. I know about the old quotas at universities designed to keep Jewish numbers down, how the U.S’s stringent immigration policies prevented Jewish holocaust refugees from entering, etc.

        My comment regarding Jews had nothing to do with the past.

        What I am saying is that today Jews are not, in any way, shape, or form, an oppressed minority group, and it’s a bit silly to lump them in with blacks, Muslims, and Latinos.

        • Shmuel Yonah says:

          Jews are most certainly an oppressed minority group. Problems arising from religious holidays and the Sabbath remain an issue in the workplace. On university campuses worldwide, the automatic assumption is made that all Jews are Zionists and all Zionists are evil oppressors and all that goes along with it. Anti-semitism hasn’t gone away, it’s just changed. After all, it’s not racism if it’s against a political (though more often religious) ideology, right?

    • wellokaythen says:

      “Revisionist” is actually a neutral term that’s become a politically charged word.

      Revisionism just means writing or teaching history in a different way. History has ALWAYS had revisionism. It just means rewriting what has already been written. That old-fashioned history book pictured in the photograph was itself a revisionist text at some point in the past. Every textbook espouses a view that was at one point a revised interpretation.

      Revisionism can happen for good reasons and bad. It can be an attempt to come to a more accurate account of the truth, or it could be for sinister ulterior motives. Revisionism may be more grounded in reality than the pre-existing story, or it could be less grounded in reality.

      If there is no room for any kind of revision, then what you are left with is orthodoxy, which is frequently the enemy of truth. Ironically, the word “revisionist” was first use as a slur within communist movements, as a reference to people who were not sufficiently or correctly revolutionary. On the far left, to be revisionist is NOT to be PC.

  2. “As a white male myself, I can honestly say I felt very little attachment to our founding fathers while being taught about them in school; so, how can we expect an African American student to feel any commonality with them?”
    Why can’t a black girl identify with a white man?
    “Our text books do not blatantly encourage students to be racist, sexist or discriminatory, but it’s the lack of figures and truths which give students the impression that certain groups didn’t nearly have as large of role as others and, in some cases, groups are completely nonexistent.”
    How do you determine how big of a role certain groups played in the history? What if we find that in certain areas some groups of people were of little importance? Do we skew the reality so that no kid feels alienated?
    “Girls learn about a predominantly male history, and this absolutely and indirectly lays the foundation of sexism.”
    I don’t believe this. For example when you learn to play chess you predominantly learn Soviet or now ex-Soviet chess, and this usually does not lead to disregarding other nations and players from other nations have caught up with the players from the former Soviet Union.
    “By downplaying the role of women in history, we are downplaying women in general and, therefore, are giving the impression that they are the weaker gender.”
    How do you know that a fai evaluation of facts would not lead to the conclusion that women are indeed the weaker gender (whatever that means)?
    “I am just suggesting that, if we did incorporate more figures from various groups who have also struggled, contributed and helped shape America, it would lead to a generation of students who are accepting and compassionate towards all races and religions, as well as of women, gays and lesbians.”
    Is this goal more important than portraying the reality as truthfully as we can?

  3. Bay Area Guy says:

    Is this goal more important than portraying the reality as truthfully as we can?

    That’s essentially what the author is advocating.

    If actual history is politically incorrect, then it must be revised in order to be more “inclusive.”

  4. I was a girl learning that ‘male’ history you refer to, and it didn’t lay any kind of foundation for sexism, I can tell you that. And I was a die-hard history nerd! (still am). In fact, I distinctly remember an occasion when we were about 14 (can’t remember which year it was, because the teacher was one we had for two consecutive years at that age) where the teacher asked which of us considered ourselves a feminist – I was one of the minority that raised a hand (since then, especially after high school, my relationship with the feminist movement as it stands today has been a lot more fraught lol, but at the time, I thought much more simplistically and was okay with identifying as a feminist). And I recall at least one choose-your-own-topic essay prior to that on the suffrage movement :-)

    I think it really IS all about HOW you teach things – except, not about the faddy specifics of it like it always seems to be whenever somebody’s clamoring for reforms, but in deeper terms of what you think educating youngsters is about and what the purpose of the entire exercise actually IS. When it comes down to it, there is a lot of confusion about both of these and while on the surface these questions seem like the answers would be obvious, they are anything but – not least because you will get different answers depending on whom you ask! And that’s the case in any society I’ve heard of, btw, not just American society like you are discussing here.

    Beyond that, I think bending the truth is a slippery slope. Focussing extensively on one or the other historical player to a degree that is disproportionate with that figure’s role in the events and situations under discussion JUST because the figure shares some common trait with some or all of your student body IS bending the truth. You owe your kids better than that.

    Additionally, I know you may not think of it this way, but I really feel it’s a teaching cop-out: if you can’t make your kids interested in a topic as absorbing as history unless you box everything into the narrowest or the most externally obvious particulars of their own experience (like sex or skin color), then you’re not much to write home about teaching-wise. You may be perfectly adequate and capable of managing the curriculum, which is good enough to be sure, and of course you in particular also have the great advantage of the best possible intentions and a willingness to try, which god knows cannot be said for ALL teachers (sadly). But as a student who had the great fortune of having come across not one, but SEVERAL great teachers in her high school career – the kind of teachers that are more like mentors – I can tell you that the way to be one of those is NOT to try to mold the material to fit a young person’s current reality. Frankly, kids have their noses rubbed into reality every day – and the more ‘disadvantaged’ the kid, the more of it they’re having to put up with.

    I can also tell you that it can be at least a relief, if not an outright life-changer, to be able to identify with someone who is on the surface very different from you (because you are a girl in the present and he was a young man in the eighteenth century, for example). More, this actually teaches one of the most valuable lessons when it comes to fighting every kind of discrimination: that it is stupid and pointless because only the packaging is different – on the inside, which is what counts, we are all much the same: human.

  5. John Schtoll says:

    So I guess making the present Politically Correct wasn’t enough, It’s time to go after history and alter it so that it too is PC.

    Folks, George Orwells book “1984” was a work of fiction not a “HOW TO” manual

    • wellokaythen says:

      If the form of “consensus history” created in the 1950’s was the most accurate, most realistic, and most well-researched form that could ever be included in a textbook, then of course, any change in it would be for the worst. If the old-fashioned view of history was perfect and orthodox and high school history teachers are supposed to be fundamentalists, then, yes, don’t change one word.

      But:

      Might there be problems and blind spots in the way that past generations wrote about U.S. History? If so, then how could there not be some revision?

      • wellokaythen says:

        P.S. Actually, in _1984_, it was the totalitarian state that would have been against revisionism, so being against new textbook would be very much like Big Brother.

  6. wellokaythen says:

    Instead of replacing one color of hero with another color of hero, perhaps we should be questioning the whole focus on heroes or heroines in the first place. Let’s also scuttle the whole myth of the “steady march of progress” that we see in so many high school history texts. The students wisely don’t believe it, and it’s not really true anyway, so what’s the point in that?

    Also, be careful with an unconscious assumption that the book refers to white men when the language is not specific. For example, when the book says “colonial society,” don’t assume that it only means white men because it doesn’t mention African Americans or women specifically. The “antebellum South” refers to men and women of many races and ethnicities. Don’t let students get away with saying “Southerner” when what they mean is “white Southerner.”

    Another way to put it: don’t define ethnic minorities or women strictly in terms of ethnicity or gender. That’s just another form of segregation, really. The contributions of European Americans and African Americans are interconnected, not along separate tracks from each other.

    While we’re at it, we should bring up to students as early as possible the fact that “race” and “gender” are historically contingent categories and change over time. People today don’t mean “white” the same way people 200 years ago meant “white.”

    As a college history instructor, sometimes I think it’s worse to have a poor high school history education than it is to have none at all. Maybe the best approach is to not even try to teach 16-year olds U.S. History.

  7. wellokaythen says:

    Another irony here that creates an even bigger disconnect:

    The poorer the school district, the older the textbooks tend to be. As a result, some of the most old-fashioned, most anglo-centric textbooks tend to be in inner city schools, some of the most ethnically and racially diverse school districts. Meanwhile, more affluent schools tend to use more recent textbooks that tend to be a little more inclusive. In some middle-class suburban public schools and some private schools, there may be more people of color in the history textbook than in the school itself….

  8. wellokaythen says:

    Good news wrapped in bad news: no reason to worry too much, because most of them don’t listen very much in history class anyway, and the ones that do care tend to see right through the biases.

    Yes, let’s look at what we’re teaching, but that may be totally different from what they’re actually learning.

    • I’m not so sure that most students line up so neatly with either of these attitudes. These attitudes sound like extremes to me, and so I reckon most people fall somewhere in the middle. For one, just because you’re not actively paying attention doesn’t mean you’re not catching enough. Maybe it’s not enough to get you a good mark come exam time, but it may well be enough to form your opinions. So I think asking oneself the question that OP is asking is not without merit. I may not be totally on board with the _answers_ he gives to those questions, but I think he’s got a point in asking them.

      Plus, if kids either don’t listen at all, or are already intellectually/emotionally mature enough to ‘see right through the biases’, what’s the point in teaching them? Just let them go get a job – or better yet, give them back some of the free time that today’s western teenager is so badly in need of :-)

  9. As a Latina female from a very diverse neighborhood who had NO idea about how diverse, often brutal, and yet incredible & inspiring our American History REALLY is until coming across “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn at the end of my college years…I thank you so much for this article, for saying what so many of us find out far too late!! It’s extremely true and so terribly unfortunate. I still am in awe of how much History seems to be purposely left out. Every race, every social class, every gender and sex has had it’s hand in creating and progressing our country in some way…to not recognize us all equally is to let down each new generation. We are limiting them so much, narrowing their world views at an impressionable age, indoctrinating them. This MUST change!! I would have LOVED to learn about all the real history of this country and of other countries when I was growing up…I feel like I am catching up on so many lost lessons when reading Zinn’s books or Noam Chomsky’s writings on world politics and history, about wars, etc. The truth is so much more exciting and incredible and touching than the sliver of white-washed history we all learn growing up. I think we all need to be more aware of what our country’s and world’s history truly was.

    I hope to see school curriculum and text books progress for the better in my lifetime. When I have children, I will teach them all about the History that their schools won’t bother to teach. I hope more articles like this push more awareness on this issue. Again – Nicholas, THANK YOU!!!

    • My pleasure Natalie and, as a white male, I to found history so much more fascinating when in was more inclusive of various groups. I was shocked by the history I wasn’t taught in high school, and it truly changed my whole perspective. It’s funny how some of the comments were suggesting I’m trying to be too politically correct, when I am only suggesting we teach the truth. No more, no less. Just the truth. Thank you again, have a great week.
      Nick

      • Thanks, you too!! I wish there were more people as aware and willing to talk about it as you are. Thanks so much! I really appreciate your article and The Good Men Project overall. Some people are too closed minded to really understand what you’re getting at….but don’t let it stop you! A lot of us need more articles like this! Please keep it up!! :)

  10. Another thing regarding some of the comments above. The few special teachers throughout my life who did teach outside of the curriculum to give us a taste of some real history – those were the best teachers, the ones I intently listened to! I hope we all were lucky enough to have some of those inspiring teachers in our childhoods…but if you teach the truth, kids will respond! It’s so different when you learn about all of these amazing historical moments that DO matter to little girls, to children of minority races, children with physical challenges, children questioning their sexuality….we all need those role models. We all need to know someone like us went through it before us and made it, or didn’t make it and why. We need the tough stories, the ones that make you feel something and challenge what you blindly believe about the world. We need to know how our ancestors helped pave the way, whether our family is Black, White, Latino, Jewish, whatever the case may be. It’s incredibly narrow and unfair (not to mention disgustingly prejudiced) to give the white males all the credit for how far this country has come. OF COURSE kids don’t listen in History class with how boring and limited the curriculum is. White leading men did this, white leading men did that, it all ended with the US winning every time, the US never did any wrong because we are the good guys, other countries are bad people but not us, not here, not ever….white males are just more dominant so they did everything without much help from the rest of us. Think about it, that’s how our history is taught! That’s the impression I got growing up, and I was a good kid, an honors student, and a female of a minority race. It’s completely unreal, not at all true to life and the world and how it really is. It’s about damn time we change these textbooks that haven’t changed a single word in decades!!

  11. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about kartal’s. Regards

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