Ethnic Studies Can't Make Up for Whitewashed History in ClassroomsRoundup
tags: multiculturalism, ethnic studies, teaching history
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author (with Emily Robertson) of The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.
In 1968, James Baldwin testified before Congress in support of a proposed National Commission on Negro History and Culture. Baldwin heartily endorsed the commission’s goal of promoting more knowledge and awareness of Black history, especially in public schools. But Baldwin insisted that this study take place as part of American history instruction, not in a separate course.
“It is our common history,” Baldwin declared. “My history is also yours.” If Black history was segregated in a special class, Baldwin warned, “regular” history courses would continue to ignore it.
Baldwin’s comments resonate anew amid President Trump’s elimination of federally sponsored diversity training and conservative demands for “patriotic” history instruction in schools, focused heavily on the heroic deeds of the country’s White founders. But last month also witnessed an internal battle on the left over history, triggered by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s veto of a measure requiring an ethnic studies course in California schools. The veto unleashed an avalanche of vitriol among educators and politicians in the heavily Democratic state, who worried that non-White figures will continue to be neglected or ignored in its classrooms. “All of our students need to learn the real history of America — and that history includes the diverse experiences and perspectives of people of color,” said the bill’s disappointed sponsor, Assemblyman Jose Medina (D).
He’s right, of course. But so too was Baldwin. No single class can teach students about our country’s irreducible diversity. It might even make things worse, by letting the rest of the curriculum off the hook.
The campaign for Black history is instructive here. Starting in the mid-1960s, African American students around the country boycotted classes and protested in front of school boards to demand instruction about their own culture and achievements. For too long, Black students said, school curriculums had neglected or denigrated them. So they needed new classes that focused directly on their distinct experience.
The strategy worked. Two years after a 1967 African American student strike in Philadelphia, nearly half the city’s middle and high schools offered electives on Black-themed courses. By 1970, Los Angeles public schools offered courses in Black history, Black literature, African studies and Swahili. And one high school in Berkeley, Calif., created eight different “Black-oriented” courses, including African dance and the history of jazz.
But many of the classes fizzled quickly, in part because students found them boring. Schools struggled to locate qualified teachers for these subjects, which were rarely addressed in their pre-service training. And course materials were hastily prepared, as districts strained to meet the sudden demand. The classes often devolved into a litany of heroes and holidays, dutifully repeated each year. “Who’s this Crispus Attucks that keeps getting killed off every semester?” Black students in California quipped, referring to the African American who was widely regarded as the first person to die in the American Revolution.
Meanwhile, as one African American historian warned at the time, the new Black-themed classes provided schools with an excuse for “doing little or nothing” to alter the regular curriculum. If anyone complained that the schools still neglected African American history, officials had a handy reply. Sure, we teach Black history! Look at our new courses!