American Education Is Founded on White Race TheoryHistorians in the News
tags: curriculum, Woodrow Wilson, culture war, teaching history, White Supremacy, critical race theory
American education in the 1800s was pure chaos. Universities prescribed their own requirements for entry, and high schools curated their own curriculum maps, creating anarchy for university entrance procedures. The diversity in admission requirements made it difficult for high schools to prepare their students for college admissions. In 1885, Dr. Cecil Bancroft, principal of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, complained that “in out of over forty boys preparing for college next year at Andover we have more than twenty senior classes getting students ready for twenty separate colleges.” In 1870, reading English was required for Harvard, while Princeton required English grammar and orthography. Yale required Sallust; Harvard did not.
So in July 1892, the National Education Association tried to bring method and uniformity to America’s education system. It commissioned a “Committee of Ten” to recommend an orderly nationwide system of education. Members of the committee included one representative of public secondary schools, one professor, one headmaster of a girl’s high school, one private school headmaster, one public secondary school principal, and five college presidents. All of them were white.
The Committee of Ten organized nine “conferences” based on subjects the Committee of Ten found to be common in schools: Latin; Greek; English; other modern languages; mathematics; physics, astronomy, and chemistry; natural history (biology, including botany, zoology, and physiology); history, civil government, and political economy; geography (physical geography, geology, and meteorology). Each conference—made up of 10 white men—convened for three days to answer questions such as: At what age should certain subjects and topics be introduced? How many years and hours per week should each course be studied? Should subjects be taught differently for pupils who are going to college?
This project provided the foundation of the K-12 American educational system today. At the end of the nine conferences, the Committee of Ten delivered a report to the NEA with the following recommendations: eight years of elementary education, four years of secondary education, an assortment of electives; all courses should last the same number of minutes, and the recommended programs of study resemble an education with which most Americans are familiar. The power to determine the purpose of education and codify what is worthy of study was wielded by white men, who viewed education through a white aperture.
The Conference of History reported that “general European history has the advantages of offering subjects capable of detailed and intensive study, and of furnishing a contrast to that development of the Anglo-Saxon race which is the main thought of English and American history.” The topics that the Conference of History suggested for a program of study were American history and American civil government; European history (French, Greek, Roman, and English history, specifically).
Only 29 years after America abolished chattel slavery, the committee members could not fathom that their Black countrymen had a culture worthy of preservation and study. The lack of Black history or study of the evils of slavery or white supremacy was not an oversight. One 36-year-old member of the Conference of History, a professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton, was a Ku Klux Klan enthusiast and chattel-slavery apologist who believed Blacks were an “inferior” race: future President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s interpretation of history was so sympathetic to slavery and the KKK that quotes from his book, History of the American People, were featured in the film Birth of a Nation, which Wilson screened at the White House.
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