Yesterday I read two articles covering complaints about the revised Advanced Placement U.S. History exam. The National Association of Scholars and the Republican National Committee both attacked the revisions for promoting a negative vision of United States history, such as an emphasis on the racial hierarchy established in colonial times.
Last night and well into this morning, I was constantly refreshing Twitter to see what was happening in Ferguson, MO. If you’re not up to speed on the events, there’s a very good primer on Vox. Since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer, residents have been gathering to protest, and the Ferguson and St. Louis County police have been very aggressive in their tactics – using tear gas, arresting reporters, and bringing out a lot of guns and armor.
There are a lot of lessons we need to learn from what’s going on in Ferguson, but one of them is that although we should not do so exclusively, we need to emphasize the negative aspects of America’s history, because they are influencing our present and so many people in positions of power do not see this. I have read the AP framework, and it does not ignore the idea that America’s leaders helped create a government that helped move justice and a government of rights forward. But neither does it ignore that they built that nation on territory occupied by other people, or that there has been an ongoing struggle to extend that nation’s protections and privileges to all its people. We need both sides of the story, and we need to understand that for all the positive legacy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the negative legacy of slavery, racism, inequality, and exclusion also lives on today. Injustice compounds and festers, even after its most obvious signs have been swept away. It creates situations where many people feel ostracized and under threat from the very society that they live in. Then others, who are more comfortable with the status quo, are unable to see where that pain comes from because they believed the problems were all (or mostly) solved in the past and so everyone should just be able to carry on now without having to respond to what went on before.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on the case for reparations earlier this year tried to bring that point home, and a lot of people tried to push it away. Ongoing discussions across social media and activist networks about privilege demonstrate a lack of understanding and empathy. Statistics about the unequal treatment that our criminal justice system gives to Caucasians and minorities pile up until we are numb. And then we see the powder keg explode in a town like Ferguson, where a mostly-white police force is alienated from the largely-black community that it is supposed to serve.
I’ve made no secret of my fondness for John Dewey, and one of his ideas that sticks with me is that education is the process through which society decides what part of itself to pass on to the next generation. Implicit in that is the idea that there are some parts that we do not want to pass on, that the generation to come will build a better society than the one we have today. That means we need to be able to challenge our students’ assumptions and preconceived notions, while we help them develop the skills to critically examine the messages that society sends.
For students who come from a position of privilege (as a lot of AP students are), that is tricky. We will often be challenging things they have learned from their families and their communities. Students may feel like we are trying to make them feel guilty, or accusing them of being biased or cruel themselves because of the biased and cruel actions of others. The idea of a social responsibility may seem at odds with the ethic of individual responsibility that we often want them to assume. This kind of teaching requires us to be challenging and supportive simultaneously, which means we need to create a good rapport and safe environment with our students, and help them establish it with each other.
Students from disempowered groups may not need a history class to help them understand inequality in America, but they need support too. If the classroom can be a supportive and pluralistic environment, then that helps create a model that the students can work to recreate in society. The history of injustice must be married with the stories of resistance to that injustice, and the story of imperfect progress should be brought forward to the present day so that students have a reason to believe not only that present injustice is unacceptable but that something can be done about it. And then we need to help empower students to demand that change. Many of our students are already learning how to harness social media to empower citizens, but that needs to expand to understanding our electoral system, identifying who has political influence, seeing how they use it, and so on.
Together, these students can become the citizenry that demands accountability from their elected officials, that exercises power with empathy and wisdom, and that brings more justice to an ever more perfect union. And as they do, I hope that they will teach us how to do so as well.
(This post was revised several hours after initial posting to add some links and clarifying details.)