Tom Neumark makes an important distinction in his Nov. 1 commentary (A history curriculum worth considering). Wading past obtuse readings of American history and German philosophy, we get to “the primary purpose of public schools.” It’s not “to make students ‘college and career ready,’” but to develop “students with the character and knowledge to self-govern as free citizens in a democracy.” Curriculum is always about what we want for our kids. They can become employees; they are growing human beings first.
But when thinking about non-white peoples, teachers face a history that has been brutal as often as inspiring — a history alive in the present. Neumark’s column does something sadly commonplace these days: he makes it disappear.
He finds something “concerning” in FCPS plans to introduce a Black and African-American Studies elective in high school (mis-identified in the column). He also needs to change the discussion from the history-based concerns of African Americans, to something about the Founding Fathers. (No women, Blacks, Indians or poor people need apply). Wonderful, he says of the new course, “but is it unreasonable to expect that our core curriculum would also cover minorities’ history well?”
Great colorblind thought. Some of us are not colorblind, and some of us cannot afford to be. Yes, it is unreasonable, a peculiar kind of innocence (privilege?) to expect it. Academics might call it “ahistorical” — but then we don’t have to think about lynching, legal redlinining, Jim Crow — or countless daily indignities that continue to this day.
The same bigotry that is missing, underplayed or misrepresented in most U.S. history textbooks. (Take a look at the deeply-researched Lies My Teacher Told Me. It won the American Book Award in 1996; subsequent editions haven’t needed much revision.) The same dogwhistle that has been flogged into a culture-war campaign against “critical race theory.”
No surprise, then, that Neumark’s curriculum argument savages the “falsehoods” and “distorted worldview” of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which “encourage students to become activists.” How horrible. He fantasizes that the question, What ideas, words and deeds… formed the world into which students were born? will be answered instead starting with study of ... the U.S. citizenship test.
I was born into a world shaped by World War II and the Holocaust. All of us live in a world shaped by the murder of George Floyd. That world has always been with us, but used to be easier to keep out of (some people’s) view.
At heart, some citizens do not believe we can learn from our mistakes. They minimize them instead.
They, like Neumark, bewail “trends in education that exaggerate America’s failings and gloss over its virtues.” They do not need a course in white history, because we all have had that curriculum forever. It is colorblind and history-blind. Except for a nostalgic, patriarchal pseudo-patriotism — one that knows exactly how to make America great again.