Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

July 15, 2009

Monkey Trials, Redux

Filed under: School in the News — christinag503 @ 7:36 pm

My mother passed on to me a very interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal.  I’ll quote the first line of Stephanie Simon’s article, because it just sums it up so well (but I do encourage you to check out the article):

“The fight over school curriculum in Texas, recently focused on biology, has entered a new arena, with a brewing debate over how much faith belongs in American history classrooms.”

This school board would like to use U.S. History class to inculcate their students with the idea that Christian religion is fundamentally part of the American nation.  They want to use history to encourage conservative values and patriotism in their students, even to the point of replacing references to America’s “democratic” values to their “republican” values.  To me, that verges on advertising, but that’s an essay for another day.

What I’m really interested in is how they propose to teach history as if they were writing an essay: pick a theme or thesis, and cherry-pick your arguments to support it.  I am quite bothered by the many of the suggested changes to the curriculum in the ‘A Closer Look’ box: “delete” Cesar Chavez, Anne Hutchinson, and Thurgood Marshall?  But those people lived and impacted our country!  You can’t just pretend that what they did never happened.  (But then again, maybe you can—history is the story the winner gets to write, after all.)   They do have some good ideas as well, like “rewording references to minorities’ ‘contributions’ to society,” changing it to the less-condescending ‘role’ in society.  Also, I think learning about the Arabic world and Islam is extremely relevant and important.  Maybe we should have the students pick up a newspaper, or one of the many books that have recently been published on the subject.  Why wait for a pablum version in a textbook?  Children have brains, too—they can grasp very difficult material if they’re interested enough.

My main concern, however, is who is going to tell them about the important people and events that have been ‘deleted’ from History?

When I read an essay on a subject I am ignorant of, I come away without recollections of facts or specific interpretations of evidence.  I tend to retain the thesis and a vague impression of the tone of the writing.  If, as I am reading the essay, I am aware that there are other pieces of evidence that do not support the writer’s case or that only half of the story is being told to make a certain point, I can be appropriately critical of their position and make a more informed judgment of the argument.  If, however, I am completely ignorant of the topic, and the essay was written well and authoritatively, the writer could have invented his own evidence out of whole cloth and I would probably believe and trust him fully—until someone came along with a different set of evidence that directly challenged this belief.

In the current educational system, children are only aware of what we tell them.  Granted, it is easier that way.  An educational system that has a goal of standardization produces standardized people.  If they admitted that there were dissenting views and conflicting pieces of information or how much they don’t know—why, there would be chaos in the classroom.

I don’t expect teachers to have absorbed and integrated every bit of information available on a subject.  Even if such a thing were possible, we all have our own personal biases, and eventually that becomes apparent in the kinds of materials we find ourselves fascinated by and therefore seek.  (See?  It’s happening right now: I believe that schools are fundamentally unable to produce the kinds of human beings our economy and society now needs, so I seek out and present to you pieces of evidence that “demonstrate” how schools are failing us and our children.)  Most adults know that it is impossible to be completely well-informed and well-rounded in every area.  That is why the marketplace is gearing more and more towards specialization.  When your Chinese grandmother has a brain tumor, would you rather turn to the neurosurgeon who is the hands-down expert on Asian geriatric patients, or the doctor who’s pretty good at everything?  From doctors to high-tech start-ups, from bloggers to deep-sea welders, the most successful people in today’s economy are those who become the best at one particular thing.  I’ll wrap up this little tangent with a quote from Harry Crews: “So far as I can see, nothing good in this world has ever been done by well-rounded people.  The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, but those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a design.”

Now for constructive ideas: Why not let the students in on this discussion?  I think this would be far more beneficial.  It is valuable for a person to know exactly how all those dead people impact his or her life today.  Because what we know about the past—as an individual, as a nation, as a species—can help to create a path to the future.  It is exciting to be able to engage with history in its only meaningful context: the present.  It would be a better learning experience for the children to hear this debate—if not participate in the discussion—rather than just sitting in the other room and waiting for the grown-ups to decide what information they’ll be consuming.

I think they should tell the students that they are having this debate about what to teach them in history class.  They should tell them that they want the students to know about the roots America, and they personally believe that it was founded in Christianity, but there are other people out there who believe otherwise.  They should tell them how they want them to be proud of their culture and heritage as Americans, but not if it comes at the expense of making others seem “inferior.”  And then, I think they should buy one copy of every book (a real book, not a textbook) on American history, and assign each student to read a different one.  Let them talk it out amongst themselves.

Oh, but a girl can dream…

(If you are interested in reading more on alternative histories, readers provide lots of ideas for resources in the comments section here.)

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