Many people have asked why we need a Women’s History Month. Or a Latino history month. Or a Black history month. And why don’t white men get their own month?
Usually I blow these questions off. If people are too stupid or privileged to see that every single month, day, hour of the year is white male history time (how many Chicano leaders are school kids forced to memorize, ala the Presidents of the United States?), then I really don’t feel too much of a need to explain it.
But then I saw the news that Texas has taken the drastic step of almost completely rewriting history in their high schools. Not just the normal stuff–like the Pilgrims were awesome and the Native peoples welcomed them–but things like free market capitalism is not actually all that bad! And “when you’re suicidal, you should take heed that it is a personal choice!”
Or, as the New York Times tells us:
The conservative members maintain that they are trying to correct what they see as a liberal bias among the teachers who proposed the curriculum. To that end, they made dozens of minor changes aimed at calling into question, among other things, concepts like the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the American Revolution.
“I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state,” said David Bradley, a conservative from Beaumont who works in real estate. “I have $1,000 for the charity of your choice if you can find it in the Constitution.”
They also included a plank to ensure that students learn about “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.”
Dr. McLeroy, a dentist by training, pushed through a change to the teaching of the civil rights movement to ensure that students study the violent philosophy of the Black Panthers in addition to the nonviolent approach of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also made sure that textbooks would mention the votes in Congress on civil rights legislation, which Republicans supported.
“Republicans need a little credit for that,” he said. “I think it’s going to surprise some students.”
Mr. Bradley won approval for an amendment saying students should study “the unintended consequences” of the Great Society legislation, affirmative action and Title IX legislation. He also won approval for an amendment stressing that Germans and Italians as well as Japanese were interned in the United States during World War II, to counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism.
Other changes seem aimed at tamping down criticism of the right. Conservatives passed one amendment, for instance, requiring that the history of McCarthyism include “how the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government.” The Venona papers were transcripts of some 3,000 communications between the Soviet Union and its agents in the United States.
Mavis B. Knight, a Democrat from Dallas, introduced an amendment requiring that students study the reasons “the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.”
It was defeated on a party-line vote.
After the vote, Ms. Knight said, “The social conservatives have perverted accurate history to fulfill their own agenda.”
In economics, the revisions add Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, two champions of free-market economic theory, among the usual list of economists to be studied, like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. They also replaced the word “capitalism” throughout their texts with the “free-enterprise system.”
“Let’s face it, capitalism does have a negative connotation,” said one conservative member, Terri Leo. “You know, ‘capitalist pig!’ ”
In the field of sociology, another conservative member, Barbara Cargill, won passage of an amendment requiring the teaching of “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices” in a section on teenage suicide, dating violence, sexuality, drug use and eating disorders.
“The topic of sociology tends to blame society for everything,” Ms. Cargill said.
I read all this and my jaw dropped, and stayed in that position for a few hours. THIS is why the various history months are so desperately needed. It points to the fundamental question about history–who gets to “remember” history about a certain group of people? Do a bunch of white folks on a school board get to define the Black Panthers as violent? Do a bunch of adults *really* get to tell teens that they need to stop “blaming” society when they are suicidal or dealing with any other mental health issue? Do a bunch of white folks really get to tell Latinos that they had no influence on the state of Texas politics, culture or society?
Contrary to what I am sure most of my libertarian friends are thinking right now, I am not of the belief that we need to go in the other direction either–that is, I do not think that we should blast the kids with a bunch of liberal crap either. Rather instead, I think that we should be teaching all of the students who go through public schools *how to question, critique and challenge* evidence sitting in front of them. That is: there should be some critical theory taught about how to interpret evidence–and kids should required to interpret the evidence on their own. For example: Fred Hampton was one of those “violent” Black Panthers. Kids should be given specific original source material (FBI files, Hampton’s speeches, interviews with co-organizers, etc), and asked to write up a paper on it supporting their own opinions on the evidence.
The opinion being secondary to the ability to creatively, concretely and academically *support* their opinion–or: to show that they know *how* to use the skills generations of historians have used to interpret and represent documents that they find.
But of course–we deem giving our kids thinking tools like critiques and theories as dangerous and wrong. So, that’s not going to happen any time soon, at least not in public schools. So until then, I will have to make do with the various history months. Where the community that the history is about gets to control the production of their own history. Gets to create their own commentary and theory about their history.
It may not be any more accurate or self-reflective than what the Texas school board is doing to history right now–but at least there is a reason for that. And that reason has nothing to do with racism, sexism or any other type of hateration.