Don’t Know Much About History

Is anyone else thinking that we should get over our obsession with job readiness and coding and start teaching civics, history and critical thinking again?

It is ironic that in an election year full to the brim with historical myth, deceit, ignorance and intolerance all anyone can say about education is “coding! More coding!” Remember when education used to be viewed as essential to democracy?

In the most elite private schools and liberal arts colleges students do more than math drills, ELA exercises and an hour of code. They learn how to think. They are empowered to express informed opinions. They are empowered to see themselves as agents of change, to think critically and engage in democracy.  But we continue to manage public schools like factories- with economic rather than human, democratic goals. Beneath this reality is an insidious assumption that only our elites should learn how to think and engage critically in the democratic process, and that all everyone else needs is vocational training.

But education should be about more than job readiness for everyone, not just the already privileged. If I’ve gained anything from watching this circus of an election cycle, its a powerful reminder of the importance of history, critical thinking and empowerment in education.

The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think — rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.- John Dewey

A democratic form of government, a democratic way of life, presupposes free public education over the long period; it presupposes also an education for personal responsibility that too often is neglected. -Eleanor Roosevelt

The Stories We Tell

As an educator, as a white person, as a New Yorker, I need to say again, black lives matter. We all do. Because the voices of educators shape the stories we tell ourselves about race, about our history and about how our fractured, violent society came to be.

There is  much to say and do within ourselves and in our communities. What educators need to say is this: until we address segregation in schools and adopt curricula that teaches truth about our history, there will always be people convinced that they are not privileged by their whiteness and that we can in fact “make america great again.” (Let’s translate that: Make white people great again- America was never great for anyone else)

In schools all across the country, we continue to teach American history through the lens of great white men, too often in monocultural classrooms. The narrative has widened slightly to acknowledge the existence of slavery, but it remains an aside- an regrettable afterthought that is often not really addressed until college level history courses or not even then. In my own elementary school, we adhere to the New York state scope and sequence and teach about New Amsterdam, the Colonial period, the Revolutionary war, and industrialization with only cursory attention to the enslaved and then oppressed peoples who enriched the white men who founded and ran this country.  I have written about this before but in this moment- with so many shootings, with Trumps’s blatant empowerment of white supremacy, with tragedy and protests flooding the news I want to say it one more time.

This is what we should be teaching our children.

New York was founded on slavery. America was founded on slavery. America is a nation that owes its wealth and power directly to the brutal oppression of African peoples. Slavery drove colonization, it built Wall Street and paved the way for American independence and wealth.   For 400  years,  America exploited, murdered, abused and silenced black people to make itself great.  And now it is clear how deeply we are still broken- how many systems and institutions continue  to segregate and oppress- from police to prisons to our increasingly segregated schools. We cannot pretend to anything else- to any greatness, to any innocence.  American history can never be undone.

And if as an educator, I tell the same old story to my students, if I don’t fight for equity and integration, if I don’t add my voice and say black lives matter, we will remain mired in the consequences of our history without insight or compassion. Black lives matter. Black children matter. Black history matters. Its time to bring truth to our curriculum in every state and to desegregate our schools. It’s time to stand up as educators, fight for our students and change the stories we tell. Especially now.