By Catherine Christensen Gwin
In recent weeks, Americans have awakened to the reality of racism and police brutality in the United States. The white public displayed shock, bewilderment and even growing contrition about their ignorance of both the nation’s past and present social conditions.
In response, social media accounts lit up with a flurry of didactic memes, videos and vocabulary lists to catch folks up on “white privilege,” “systemic racism” and “Jim Crow.” This statement of solidarity and collective grappling with racism is good; however, the brevity and immediacy of the platform can’t quite explain the depth and complexity of race in American history.
These lessons cannot be gleaned from the broader social, economic and political context — they require sustained attention, study and engagement. Today, Americans need to take responsibility for knowing this history, especially since our schools have failed in this regard.
To help redress this deficiency, the California Legislature is proposing that ethnic studies be made a graduation requirement for students in the California State University system. Ethnic studies courses focus on historically marginalized groups, dismantle stereotypes, and inspire activism and social consciousness among students who finally “see themselves” in the national story. While I support this, and believe it benefits both individuals and society as a whole, a broader academic and civic problem remains.
Relegating select histories to separate narratives only reaffirms the story of white America as the standard or “real” history. Unfortunately, racial oppression is not a side show of American history — it’s at the center. The triumphant accounts of economic growth and mobility are inextricably linked to the horrors of slavery, the fact of Indian genocide, and the exploitation of immigrant workers.
This tendency to sublimate racism goes back to the myth of America is a “City on a Hill,” the perfect society envisioned by the devout Pilgrims. As it turns out, Plymouth was not the first colony, and it was hardly a beacon to the world. Jamestown, preceded the Pilgrims’ settlement and can claim credit for the first representative government and the introduction of American slavery (not to mention tobacco, Indian wars and even cannibalism.)
Unfortunately, this American inclination to mythologize undermines our truth-telling and casts the unpalatable and painful chapters to the periphery of the American epic. Just five years ago textbook publisher McGraw-Hill identified African slaves as “immigrants” and “workers” in their high school text— a subtle and egregious disavowal of the nation’s market in human chattel bondage. After two hundred years, it’s time to confront these truths.
Shifting school initiatives are partly responsible for this misleading approach. For years, teachers faced immense pressure under No Child Left Behind Act—an educational policy from 2002 to 2015 that emphasized standardized tests and penalized schools failing to demonstrate “proficiency.” The testing regime encouraged memorization, superficial comprehension, and arguably widened the achievement gap. The system also promoted history instruction as a linear march of progress that collapsed the complexity of the past into a litany of names and dates.
In response to diminished student performance, the creation of the Common Core State Standards established national, and more rigorous benchmarks for critical thinking, reading and writing. And while the Common Core emphasized both analytic skills and the disciplinary practices of historical scholarship, the content of history curriculum remains determined by individual states. As you can imagine, history lessons vary greatly between Alabama, New York and the other forty-eight states.
Despite the regional inflection and emphasis, American history instruction pretty much falters all around in contending with the story of racial oppression. Race plays a minor role in the narrative, showing up at expected times and places— primarily the Civil War and the 1960s. It is embodied in villainous figures like Orval Faubus and the Ku Klux Klan. Yet the undercurrent of white supremacy goes unseen—in housing policy, in science, and in the Constitution.
To be fair, states like California have revised their instructional standards to account for a broader, multi-racial history that includes experiences of LGBT Americans, the struggles of Latinos, and the long history of Asian exclusion the in the United States. However, the word “slavery” shows up only once in Louisiana’s Student Standards for Social Studies.
Despite the importance of history, the discipline ranks conspicuously low in the realm of academic achievement, and STEM continues to receive the disproportionate amount of school funding. One of the casualties of the Great Recession was the defunding of liberal arts programs at many American colleges. In the years since, disregard (and in some cases disdain) for such programs has only increased, while money and incentives for STEM majors continues to rise.
The marketing of science and engineering degrees as means to increase earning potential only exacerbates the decline of college enrollment in the humanities, which has fallen by 14% in recent years. History majors have declined by 33% since 2011. Perhaps that explains why the majority of history teachers do not have a degree in the field. The fact that 34% of history teachers coach an athletic team, only confirms beliefs that the field demands less time, and little disciplinary knowledge or pedagogical expertise.
Today we have an opportunity to rethink the value of history. It is important as an academic subject and a necessity for an informed citizenry and a vital democracy. We can celebrate the heroic and even indulge our sense of exceptionalism, but we must still reckon with the oppression and injustice of the past. In doing that, history cultivates awareness, promotes understanding and expands our vision for change. It is only when we face and contend with the entirety of our national story that we can fulfill the promise of equality and justice celebrated in our history books.
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