When public schools don't teach our kids the whole truth it hurts their success rate.

As we move through another campaign year for the U.S. presidency, there’s bound to be a lot of talk about our ailing public education system. The question “should we set aside more money for education or defund it?” will certainly bubble up. While I know it’s important that our education lobbyists’ struggle for a larger piece of the general budget, money is not the only thing we should be discussing.  

What we teach our children is a national level conversation to explore. I’m referring specifically to history, sociology, geography and literature curricula. Depending upon how and what is taught in these subjects, will influence and shape the minds of the next generation. These choices also make the difference between a student engaging in the learning process or not. It’s easy to shift blame to the child for not paying attention, or the family for not prioritizing learning, or even minority groups for not valuing education. But is that what’s really going on when we see large numbers of children failing?

Students Need to See their History Being Represented Not Just One Month Out of the Year

Too often I’ve heard school district administrators and teachers profess that their curricula is not racist or sexist because they include Black History Month and Women’s History Month into each school year. Unfortunately, dismantling institutionalized racism, gender bias, or classism for that matter, is far more complex and must be more systematic than including a holiday that mentions famous Afro-American inventors only one month out of the year. In fact, the rule of thumb for dismantling racist curricula is to consistently teach anti-racist curricula. That means, curriculum which challenges the dominant historical narrative by insisting its students ask such questions as:

Why are most of the characters in our history books white, landowning males of European descent? Why does the dominant historical narrative of this land only begin when Europeans arrived here? Why do we not place more emphasis on the European American’s genocide of First Nation People of this land? Why are both genders not equally represented in our history? Why is the work that women did not given equal due as part of the economic advancement in this country? Why do we know the names and the histories of the families who owned the railroads and the steel companies, and not the history of the multi-ethnic groups who worked to build those railroads and work in the steel industry? Why? Why? Why? 

We need to shake down the core of public and private education to see what falls out.  But, Individually we need to reflect on a few things first. For instance, if you are a woman, you have to consider the fact that you have not been equally and accurately represented in our history, if you are African-American, you haven’t been equally and accurately represented in our history, If you are Central or Southeast Asian or Latino you haven’t been equally and accurately represented in our history. And if you are of Arabic descent, not only has your history been misrepresented in the dominant historical narrative of our globe, but your present-day culture continues to be misrepresented. And finally, if you are of a middle class or working class background, your family history is perpetually out of focus, frequently mentioned only in the last paragraph of the narrative to strengthen the status quo, and to underscore the American myth that anyone willing to work hard enough can “make it.”

It’s also crucial to reflect on how damaging this is to individual children who are under-represented and misrepresented in our dominant historical narrative. How might that impact a child’s engagement for learning? How might that impact an entire racial group’s desire to learn if what they’re learning doesn’t include them as something more than a bit player; or worse, an enemy of our American values? If the message is expressed that poverty is the fault of the lazy, than what does that mean to a child living in poverty?

So what is the litmus test for a curriculum that is racist and classist versus anti-racist and anti-classist?  

Consider these questions:

First, does the curriculum teach the history of the people who worked to build the country? Or does it predominantly teach the history of the people who owned the land of the country and the corporate wealth of the country?

Second, does it only teach the history of the policy makers of this country, or does it also teach the history of those who challenged the policy makers?

Third, what does the map of the world look like? Does it accurately reflect North America’s size? Or is it skewed with North America as the dominant continent? (Yes, there are different maps that make the U.S. look larger than it is.)

Fourth, how does it teach the history of the world? Is the Western world the main actor in this narrative? Or does it give equal value to Eastern and African civilizations?

Finally, what literature does the state curriculum standards suggest for student readings? Is it predominantly literature from a white, European male perspective with just a few multi-cultural pieces thrown in for color?

By now, you must have tired from all the questions I‘ve asked. And why wouldn’t you? The U.S. public education system rarely encouraged it’s students to ask the “why” questions. Therefore, most people aren’t naturally inclined to do it. After all, “why” questions develop critical thinking. And that’s not something our education system has historically promoted.  

So once again, I’ll pose the question “Why is that?”

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