Fighting Over Narrative in Curriculum: Who gets to decide United States American history?

Recently, my students had an insightful discussion after viewing a clip of Schoolhouse Rock “Elbow Room”. I guided them through some key questions:

Where were the people of color during these time periods?
Why did they minimize the removal of land from Native and Latin populations?
Who actually built most of the railroads?
Why are Native Americans viewed as the primary aggressors?
Why did manifest destiny justify violence?
Why were the White Americans viewed as hard-working peaceful settlers?
What if you didn’t have any bootstraps to use?
What about people who were brought to the U.S. against their will?

Our students were learning to analyze what is being communicated and what is also inferred, with factual support and thorough research. These are skills that most colleges and universities claim they like to see in applicants and graduates.

However,  one school district in Colorado and one legislator in Oklahoma are making attempts to remove this sort of critical thinking process from advanced placement history courses. There have been quite a few protests over the past year, mostly over tension related to racial inequity with law enforcement. A recent pattern has emerged most visibly in public high school settings where some school board members and some legislators desire to remove certain aspects from history.

These events have been ongoing from September 2014 to the present, and some say it’s always been a struggle over the narrative. As an avid historian, my lens is socialized to view past events along racial lines because the narrative of people of color has been disregarded, dismissed and/or distorted. In essence, it’s as if people of color are invisible and do not have a story unless it’s a certain month of the year or told from the perspective of people who do not represent the population.

Is it ironic or coincidental that one of the states  caught in this curriculum battle recently had a fraternity signing a chant, ‘There Will Never Be A N***** In SAE’? The discussions around this situation show conflicting understandings of the place of narrative in teaching history. One proposal suggests

“ giv[ing] the committee the authority to identify materials in the curriculum that “may reasonably be deemed” objectionable, and another that could give the committee discretion to choose instructional materials to “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system, respect for authority, and respect for individual rights.”

Some parents, teachers and students, addressing board member Julie Williams’ proposal, asserted :

Williams’ proposal is a politically motivated attempt to push through a revisionist version of American history that glosses over the uglier parts of the country’s past. One district high school teacher posted on the “Support Jeffco Kids” Facebook page that the proposal would “require teachers to completely ignore certain aspects of American history rather than teach the entirety of American history.”

Supposedly this proposal wants to ensure  patriotism and downplay civil disobedience. Do predominately White colleges and universities also risk offering curriculum that omits or avoids the historical narratives of people of color? Removing these narratives, and the topics they present, means deleting most of United States history, as well as international occurrences. Proponents of the Oklahoma proposals feel as though students are just learning about mistakes and teaching them to hate their country. But whether information makes us feel good or sad, who are we to manipulate factual information?

Last month, the proposal to review the curriculum was stopped in Colorado. In Oklahoma, Rep. Dan Fisher is pushing a similar proposal to remove funding for AP history. To Fisher, it currently has a framework that emphasizes “what is bad about America” and doesn’t teach “American exceptionalism.” Can we have one without the other in any context: marriage, friendships, faith, challenges, opportunities, new ventures, exercising, aging, etc.? How would Minnesotans know how to appreciate the summer without the winter? A better question is who defines what’s good or bad, as opposed to, what just is? There are things I appreciate about the winter that summer could not teach me.

Whose story is it anyway? Who has the right to tell the story, or in these specific scenarios change the story? Can a person change facts? Maybe a person can if they omit some very important details that are relevant to the context. Contextual teaching is one of the most effective approaches because it highlights and provides meaning for not only the learners but also the facilitator.

Personally, I told my students, who are future teachers, last week, “If you don’t love to teach, you won’t teach with love.” Without a context to explain the statement, you as the reader can take that in a number of inaccurate directions.

The context was getting them to reflect on being called to teach. Furthermore, the students are more important than anything I am trying to teach them. It’s not about me as the professor (as some make it), but more so about what is generated and created through the journey together as teacher and student/s: the discovery that takes place, the rapport that is developed, the intellectual inquiry increased, and the growth (teacher and student alike) that hopefully is evident are residual effects. That was the context, that teaching is the people-loving business, and that if I don’t have some level of understanding of the social, political, cultural and lived realities of my students I run the risk of not being as effective as I could be.

I don’t enjoy talking about racial issues. I also do not ascribe to the approach of race-bating and reverse racism does not exist. However, I feel compelled to address these issues because of the level of impact they have on our daily lives collectively. Whether one admits it or not, where we choose to live, shop, who our kids play with, where we worship, attend(ed) school, work, volunteer, or associations we join have a subconscious or conscious racial factor involved.

For example, author Rich Benjamin who writes about whitopias claims that White Americans view cleanliness, high property values and friendliness of all-White communities as indicators of a “good healthy community”. Many people take these things for granted without thinking about how our communities from east and west coasts, north and south have been strategically through policy and practices became and still are racially segregated. The effective teachers dive deeper to explain these phenomena– not as a weapon to make on population look bad for past decision-making– but to help students understand how we have arrived to this current status. The effective teacher explains redlining, blockbusting, housing covenants and sundown towns. To omit these terms and consequential actions is to have a puzzle with missing pieces. As a result, we don’t have an opportunity to see the complete picture.

When most of my students exit my class they usually have a desire to continue the dialogue, but they re-enter a campus and larger society that doesn’t embrace reflection individually and collectively at this level on cultural and racial issues. I teach my sons that a half-truth is a whole lie. I wonder what we tell our students.

Keith Brooks
Keith is an associate professor of education whose areas of interest include adding experiential learning dimensions to courses, intercultural effectiveness and competency, and enhancing a faculty platform for scholarship.

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