This is a series of posts designed to help people approach diversity and inclusion. These are questions and scenarios we’ve actually heard or seen in the wild. This is part of our corporate programming for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. For more information, click here.
Question: Should our schools be teaching “woke” history?
This may surprise you, but . . .No. We should not teach woke history.
Of course, going by the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of woke, teaching students to be “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)” is fundamentally important. Beyond Merriam Webster, though, especially in social media, the term “woke” has taken on a political meaning. It has come to connote a sense of “either being with us or against us,” being enlightened or not, and being progressive versus conservative.
This political co-opting of the word “woke” is emblematic of many problems we encounter in education today. Instead of allowing educators to help students navigate complex issues through research and discussion, special interest groups and politicians insert themselves into the classroom. This distracts from the educational goal of building critical thinking skills and developing students’ ability to discuss complex topics and information. Instead, the focus becomes on who is right and who is wrong.
Whether it is Donald Trump denouncing Critical Race Theory (an academic study of law and systemic racism that has been around for more than 50 years) and forming a commission to develop “patriotic education,” or Joe Biden weighing in with incorrect information, neither is helpful. In a speech in September of 2020, Presidential candidate Joe Biden said that Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb – that Lewis Howard Latimer, a Black inventor, had. Biden was addressing the fact that the history we have been taught is not always accurate, and that it frequently erases Black people’s contributions to society. Unfortunately, Biden himself was incorrectly rewriting history to appear woke (Latimer modified the light bulb but did not invent it). By giving an example that was meant to play to the crowd, rather than being correct, the point got lost in the post-speech coverage that noted Biden’s mistake.
Education cannot be performative as politicians’ speeches often are. I say this as both a parent and an elected official. I guess that makes me a politician. But as a locally elected board of education member, I volunteer my time and like to see myself as spanning both the world of politics and that of a citizen.
Biden’s larger point, though, is well-taken and his gaffe is far less consequential than is the harm that has been done by centuries of teaching an American history that is told primarily from the perspective of white men. We must evaluate the history we have been taught to ensure that it represents the perspectives and contributions of all people involved, not just those of the majority. And then, going forward, students need to have all of those perspectives available to them.
In 2020, the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice published a report based on a survey of the literature used in New York City public schools. They found that 83% of the authors of books on booklists read by students in PK-8th grade were white. This is in contrast to the number of students in the United States who are white (48% in 2017) and the number of students in NYC public schools who are white (15%). Literature used in language arts classes can be re-evaluated and replaced with any number of diverse great authors both past and present.
In contrast, history textbooks and resources, especially American history, are far more challenging. The American history that we learned was built over centuries and is based on the stories told and documented by those in power. “History is written by the victors,” a phrase commonly attributed Winston Churchill expresses this sentiment. What this statement does not acknowledge is that history is dynamic, and as we learn more, gain the perspective of time, and hear more voices, the narrative can and should change.
The recognition that minority voices have been largely absent in the telling of American history is something with which we must come to terms. This is uncomfortable because it challenges our assumptions and definitions of who we are. But recognizing that we have been educated in a way that does not disturb our own prejudices is an important first step.
One of these distorted views is the myth of the lost cause, that is, the idea that the American Civil War was heroic, just, and based solely on economic prosperity. This perspective lives not only in US classrooms but also in the longtime acceptance of the Confederate flag as a symbol of pride. The notion that enslaved people were “workers,” “immigrants,” happy, and even grateful is part of this myth. That is not to say that these narratives cannot be found in historic documents, but the sources must be put in context and presented critically.
For centuries, much of the history we learned in the US has been taught from a Eurocentric point of view, often with a white savior being a central character. For example, the authenticity of the writings of Captain John Smith about his heroic interactions with the Powhatan Tribe and Pocohantas have been questioned in recent years. The revered Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, famously wrote that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, yet later he wrote that Blacks were inherently inferior to whites (Query XIV of Notes on the State of Virginia). We celebrate Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, and often forget the people whose hard labor built this nation – migrant Chinese workers who built the transcontinental railroad, slaves whose work built a fledgling nation’s economy, and the Native Americans who were displaced, dispersed and killed so that the land could be taken.
Of course, having accurate curriculum is only a piece of the puzzle. Without teachers who are well-equipped to engage students in difficult conversations about America’s history of racism, educators will often avoid these topics. And the more politically charged the discourse in the community, state or country, the harder it is for our teachers. Who among us is comfortable leading discussions on race?
New legislation in many states stymies the robust conversations that we want our students to have about American history and how our past relates to our future. Texas legislators recently considered a bill that would have limited classroom discussions on race and injustice, going so far as to specifically prevent The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project from being taught in public schools. In Oklahoma, as the state approached the 100th year commemoration of the Tulsa Race Massacre – an attack by mobs of White residents on Black residents and businesses in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma that left Black businesses destroyed and thousands of Black residents dead, interned, homeless and/or injured – the Governor signed legislation that would prevent teachers from using lessons that make an individual “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” Politicians seem to unironically be demonstrating the need for a better education in critical thinking skills by trying to limit classroom discussions about racism through legislation.
The best curriculum engages students and develops their critical thinking skills. It is inclusive and gives students the tools and perspectives to live in a multicultural world. In the US, in 2017, the percentage of students who were White was 48 percent, Black was 15 percent, Hispanic was 27 percent, Asian/Pacific Islander was 6 percent, and two or more races was 4 percent. These students do not see themselves reflected in a curriculum that focuses on the perspective of colonizers and mostly white authors. As young students develop their identity and sense of self, the academic challenge of connecting the curriculum to their identities and experiences is critical.
People who oppose teaching the history of racism argue that highlighting racism in our nation’s past will lead to division. The reality is that our black and brown students report experiencing racism daily. The division is present, and as one Wisconsin teacher points out, if they are experiencing it, their peers must be old enough to learn about it.
Some argue that teaching the complexities of a blemished past leads students to feel shame about their country. On the contrary, by teaching students an inclusive history that recognizes the contributions and hardships of people with who they can relate, the pride in the strengths afforded by a diverse nation can be better recognized. If America is to be a nation that thrives because of its democratic promise, the history of slavery and white supremacy must be acknowledged and taught in schools across the country.
As culture wars intensify and politicians and legislatures wade into curriculum, I worry. The way that we teach history needs to change with newfound knowledge. It needs to be re-examined through the lens of those who have been previously excluded. My hope is that it can be done thoughtfully and deliberately by the educators – not politicians.
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This post is republished on Medium.
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