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.
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