"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, January 15, 2007

Losing Black History, All History

A nice piece by SusanG at Daily Kos:

One of the few things I’ve always assumed united conservatives and liberals in this country is a desire to pass on the American story to the next generation. Of course, there are often different reasons for this desire. Conservatives tend to view the founding of this country and the glorification of its heroes as a priori evidence of American exceptionalism and carte blanche to act without owing the world an explanation . I think liberals are more prone to point out American ideals – and what people have risked to attain them – as remarkable goals for which to strive. We tend to take these rigorous standards seriously and be vocal whenever we see them violated.

Given this shared goal of ensuring our past is known to future generations, the following Washington Post article is discouraging, to say the least, particularly so because the students in question are at college level:

In a recent survey of college students on U.S. civic literacy, more than 81 percent knew that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was expressing hope for "racial justice and brotherhood" in his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.

That's the good news.

Most of the rest surveyed thought King was advocating the abolition of slavery.

It’s not just a critical understanding of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy that is suffering. In fact, educators interviewed in the article say that because the civil rights battle falls into the range of more recent history, it’s actually easier to teach. No, young Americans are woefully ignorant on a number of fronts.

Many of the 10 federal holidays have become little more than days off school or work, even if they are dedicated to significant Americans, such as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Many people have no idea what Labor Day commemorates, educators say.

"Honestly, I never knew what Veterans Day was until last year," said Taneisha Rodney, 14, a ninth-grader at William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts in Northeast Washington.

Given the right-wing’s insistence on demonizing multi-culturalism and advocating a smooth transition for immigrants (and one would hope our American-born youth) into the "melting pot" of shared values, you’d think the Bush administration would advocate doing everything within its power to promote knowledge of this country’s history, the basis for its federal holidays and the personal stories of the heroes – even collectively, as workers or veterans – that are so honored. You would be wrong.

In many schools across the country, teachers say social studies has taken a back seat under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which stresses math and reading. Squeezing history into the curriculum can be difficult, educators say, and taking time out of a scheduled lesson to use a federal holiday -- even King's -- as a teaching moment can be tough.

The constraints imposed by NCLB, according to educators interviewed by the Post, are leading to rote teaching, with little depth and no substance. Experts point out, for example, that most students are familiar with the "I Have a Dream" speech of King’s from years and years of repetition, while the seminal "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is rarely taught.

"One of the raps on elementary social studies is that it is all about heroes and holidays, and with standardized testing, it often becomes that," said Andrea S. Libresco, an education professor at Hofstra University in New York who teaches prospective teachers how to use the holidays as teaching opportunities. "People tend to concentrate on English and math."

So on this day when we honor King, it’s important to also review the legacy of George Bush and his punitive education policies, which seem to be leading to historical ignorance on a disquieting scale. How can we continue to honor and model our own citizenship to our higher ideals if social studies is left behind? Are the accounts of risks taken, courage displayed, tyranny resisted, injustice challenged – all complex events embedded in the contemporary cultures of their times, difficult to test beyond dates and names – are we willing to jettison all this in the name of "standardization?"

Is the story of America and its heroes doomed to become The Greatest Story Never Told?

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