Monday, October 06, 2014

Fighting Back

So the latest education kerfuffle comes to us via the College Board's new AP History curriculum . . . or the backlash, depending on your point of view. The LA Times provides a relatively balanced account: 

The idea was to replace traditional memorization with more emphasis on critical thinking and some key periods in American history, such as the 1980s.

It all seemed innocuous enough. Maybe even a tad dry.

Then it exploded.

Just weeks before the school year began, the change sparked a political feud over how children should be taught about American history — and whose version.

From the tea party to talk radio, conservatives have taken aim at the new curriculum, describing it as liberally biased and anti-American.

In August, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution condemning the course, decrying it as a "radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation's history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects."

Here is my account from a while back of my experience with the social science / humanities curriculum in lily-white Phi-ville. Not much has changed.

The board has released a sample test, which is given at the end of the class to determine whether a student receives college credit. The test includes a section on interpreting documents and charts, multiple-choice questions and essays.

Here are a few sample questions. "Briefly explain ONE example of how contact between Native American and Europeans brought changes to Native American societies in the period 1492 to 1700."

An essay question: "Analyze major changes and continuities in the social and economic experiences of African Americans who migrated from the rural South to urban areas in the North in the period 1910-1920."

Another: "Some historians have argued that the American Revolution was not revolutionary in nature. Support, modify or refute this interpretation."

So, of the three questions quoted in the article, two directly support the protestor's point. Those questions address two native-settler conflicts: the European colonization of the New World, and the southern Black colonization of northern cities during the Great Migration. However, notice how that first question only asks about the impact on the American Indian "natives" when discussing the colonial period, but only about the Black "settlers" when discussing their movement to northern cities during the 20th Century? Why aren't both settler and native perspectives important in both cases?  (Φ asks rhetorically.)

Stephanie Rossi, a 35-year teacher who has taught AP U.S. history at Wheat Ridge High School in Jefferson County for more than a decade, is stunned by "the assumption that teachers of U.S. history are leading kids astray, teaching them to be un-American and we're not honoring the history of this country."

She said critics did not understand the new curriculum. Most students come to the accelerated class already understanding well-known historical characters and events.

Her job, she said, is to challenge them to dig deeper into the role of religion, geography and ideology surrounding history and adding other voices or perspectives that might not be as familiar.

But the problem is that every history teacher the students have ever had approaches them the same way, as if the students had a full primary and secondary history curriculum as it was taught in, let's say, 1950, and it was her job to teach those "other voices or perspectives". The result is students unaware of any narrative except the minority one.

"This notion that we would leave these pivotal figures in American history out is just ludicrous," said Rossi, who serves as vice president of the Jefferson County teachers union.

"I don't think of history as positive or negative. I think of it as a story. And within that story there are successes and failures, tragedies and moments of great brilliance," she said. "I feel very strongly that I have to let my students come to their own understanding, their own conclusions."

Yeah, let me give an example of how "coming to their own understanding" works in practice. Early this semester, Aquila was asked to choose among three narratives describing the War Between the States, discussing it from a "slavery", "states' rights" or a third one I can't remember. Aquila, in a fit of contrariness (God bless her!) chose "states' rights". After submitting the assignment, Aquila received it back with instructions to do it again from a "slavery" perspective. So much for "their own conclusions"; this was apparently the only acceptable perspective.

In Colorado, the effort to oppose the new curriculum lost control of the narrative, which went from being about “propaganda” to being about “censorship”:

Since Sept. 22, thousands of Jefferson County high school students have walked out of classes in a protest against a conservative school board member's plan to scrutinize the AP history curriculum after she also found it too negative in its depiction of America.

Julie Williams, elected last year to the Jeffco Public Schools board as part of a conservative slate now in the majority, asked that teachers instead use a curriculum that promotes a respect for authority, patriotism and "essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system."

She said teachers should avoid materials that "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard the law."

Notice that these protests were triggered, not by conservative changes to the new curriculum, nor to a plan to change the curriculum, but merely by one school board member’s “plan to scrutinize” it.  Really?  Students are paying that kind of attention to school board meetings?

On the other hand, Julie’s particular phrasing (if indeed it is hers; my suspicion is that this is taken out of context if not wholly fabricated) was exceedingly poor optics.  Whatever the virtue of “respect for authority” as a character trait, it’s a tall order for a history curriculum even without considering how . . . bad it would go over with teenagers.  And “avoiding materials that ‘encourage or condone civil disorder,’” etc. means . . . what exactly?  That we can’t be in favor of the America’s War for Independence?

Here is a picture that the Daily Mail ran to accompany its article on the Jefferson County protests:

Unrest: Students line a busy intersection protesting against a Jefferson County School Board proposal to emphasize patriotism and downplay civil unrest in the teaching of U.S. history, in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Thursday. Several hundred students walked out of class Thursday in the fourth straight day of protests in Jefferson County

The other pictures were in the same vein. There are three schools mentioned in the articles as being part of the protest:

Jefferson County High School

Pomona High School

Bear Creek High School

Only two of these schools are majority white, and those just barely. They are rated 5/10 by Great Schools; Jefferson, the 71% black school, is rated 3/10.

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