Sunday, April 15, 2012

Legislating History?


I read Dan Walters’ harangue against Senate Bill 993, authored by Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, with some interest given that it deals with the teaching of social science in schools.  Basically, SB 993 “authoriz[es] instruction in social sciences for grades 7 to 12, inclusive, to include instruction on the Bracero program [a mid-twentieth century work program which brought migrants from Mexico] and would authorize that instruction to include a component drawn from personal testimony, as provided.  The bill would specify that this instruction shall be carried out in a manner that does not result in new duties or programs being imposed on school districts”. 

Walters’ beef is that such legislation has the effect of “brainwashing children with politically correct versions of history”, which “is something that occurs in oppressive dictatorships”.  He objects to the “mandated lists” which require that certain ethnic groups (“subgroups”, he calls them, rather insultingly) be covered in social science curriculum, and to the necessity of banning “anything in textbooks or classrooms ‘which reflects adversely upon persons because of their race, sex, color, creed, handicap, national origin or ancestry’” (Walters does not cite the legislation that contains this last quote, but as it does not appear in SB 993, I assume it is a component of extant legislation).

Section 51221.3 of the Education code, into which the language of SB 993 would be folded, deals with the need to include curriculum on the role of Filipinos in the Second World War, and A) in that Section encourages teachers to “exemplify [sic] the personal sacrifice and courage of the wide range of ordinary citizens who were called upon to participate and to provide intelligence for the United States”.  The veterans are those, the Section reads, “who fought courageously in the United States Army for freedom and democracy in World War II...”

In reading through the bill, and the Section into which it is inserted, I find myself agreeing with Walters in some respects and disagreeing in others.

Firstly, as I read the SB 993, there is no mandate.  It reads as a suggestion.  If this is actually all it is, then the whole business is little more than a storm in a teacup.  If however, “authorization” signifies a mandate in legislative terms, I can see some problems with it.  First, there’s the language that characterises how Filipino veterans should be treated.  Did everyone sacrifice personally?  Did everyone demonstrate courage?  Was World War II entirely about “freedom and democracy”?  Did people have other motivations for fighting?  If, as the Section requires, you’re going to use oral testimony to explore the veterans’ role, isn’t all this valourisation rather putting the cart before the horse?  Isn’t the point of studying history to reserve judgment based on the evidence?  So yes, I think Walters is right in seeing the potential for too much propaganda here, and for the squashing of critical thinking.

I also wonder what the ramifications of not permitting anything “which reflects adversely” in the curriculum.  When applied to the role of traditionally underserved ethnic minorities, this looks somewhat reasonable, although I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that should be written into law.  But turn it around, and it could become the same type of legislation which in Texas is re-writing U.S. history to omit things like the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the role race played in the Civil War.  Could such language, in the hands of the litigious-minded also bar the reading of novels which, for example, contained ethnic slurs or reflected (due to the time and place of their writing) “adversely” on ethnic or cultural groups?  I’d worry that this kind of approach has the potential to write controversy out of history.

I’ve spent time in a couple of countries that have extraordinarily bizarre “official histories”, and neither is a dictatorship (although Kenya was until somewhat recently, and Tanzania was long a one-party state).  In Tanzania, the portrait of the country’s first President, Julius Nyerere, adorns every school, office, or business wall.  It usually reads something like Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Baba wa Taifa (that is, Teacher Julius Nyerere, Father of the Nation).  It’s a bit creepy, and most Tanzanians brook not an iota of criticism of Nyerere.  It’s virtually impossible to discuss his lengthy tenure of office critically, to evaluate the merits and pitfalls of his era or policies, simply because his memory is sacrosanct.

In Kenya on the other hand, histories tend to become reified within ethnic groups.  If you discuss the same set of events with people from different ethnic groups you’ll often get two completely different and generally contradictory narratives (and often neither of the two bears much resemblance to reality).  This is by no means true of all Kenyans, but too many people still ascribe to overly simplistic narratives that see their ethnic group as deserving victims and every other group in the nation as undeserving exploiters.  This often impacts people’s understanding of global affairs as well.  I had a Kikuyu friend say that President Obama was obviously funnelling money to all the Luo candidates during elections, and using his office to enrich his Luo patronage network.  I had to break it to him that I don’t think Obama could care less about Kenyan politics, as he has a few other matters of substance on his plate. 

In neither of these cases is the deliberately skewed rendering of history pretty.  So I think there is some danger in creating anything resembling “official history”, and although this legislation falls short of that, I do think that it is a move in the wrong direction.  Legislation enjoining instructors to take California’s diversity into account, and then structuring assessments such that they require an open ended demonstration of such knowledge (thus encouraging teachers to take the injunction on-board) seems more appropriate.

I don’t, however, agree with Walters that the aim of such legislation is to “[fill kids’] minds with feel-good pap”.  I understand where the author of this legislation is coming from.  I remember U.S. history in high school—that was “feel-good pap”.  There were times when our textbook read like something written in the most hubristic kind of dictatorship, and I remember finding it, with classmates regardless of their political persuasion, hilarious in its uncritical promotion of U.S. “greatness” and “freedom” and “democracy”.  You’d have thought from reading it that Americans led blameless lives and you’d never have guessed that we were an ethnically plural nation.  We learned exactly zilch about labour movements, the Progressive movement, migration from Mexico, or the suffrage movement.

So there’s a gap that needs filling.  But I’m not sure the way to fill it is by a state legislature micromanaging curriculum.  I don’t like it when it’s done in Texas to whitewash U.S. history and I don’t like it when it’s done in California to create some kind of all-encompassing inclusiveness, because when the legislature mandates that kind of extraordinary comprehensiveness, we’re in danger of turning history into exactly what it shouldn’t be: a litany of names and dates and accomplishments that tick off a few individuals in a range of boxes—ethnic, religious, social, political, or otherwise. 

Like so many detractors of “politically correct” legislation, Walters himself rather oversimplifies things.  He enjoys legislators to lay off handling curriculum so that we can give our kids “well-rounded, accurate instruction that prepares them for life beyond childhood”.  Well, that sounds nice.  But who decides what’s well-rounded?  You could have a version of history that was, strictly speaking, quite “accurate” but which left out some important facets of our past. 

Walters’ tirade comes a little too soon after Peter Berkowitz’ fanatical and inaccurate diatribe against the University of California for my liking.  It fails to take into account what should be self-evident: there is no ‘neutral’ version of history...by picking and choosing certain events to emphasise, by deciding what to call them, and how to organise them, you shape a narrative that invariably has political implications.  I don’t think that the legislature should be in the business of laying down such specific curriculum guidelines, and I’d agree with Walters that SB 993 is bad legislation, though for somewhat different reasons.  But there are good reasons for people’s concern about gaps in history as it is taught in our schools.  It’s all a little more complex than the hyperventilating columnist would have us believe. 

1 comment:

  1. The state of public education in California is far worse than Mr. Schauer indicates. It is not a well-orchestrated, Orwellian nightmare, however, but a result of a dreadful set of competing and conflicting forces which are reducing students' ability to think critically. The principle factors are as follows:

    1. Well-financed and well-organized (these are different things) special interests both place their markers and eliminate (preventively) elements in the state standards. Eg.: Dwight L. Moody, the Armenian genocide and the Rape of Nanking are included in the standards; Freud, Marx, and Darwin are not named, environmental issues are ignored, and the struggles of labor unionization in the late 19th century are trivialized to the point of non-existence.

    2. Textbooks are based on Texas state standards, not CA standards. (This is due to the uniform adoption approach taken in Texas which leads textbook producers to base their products on the Texan standards.) Each year, I spend three days with my students analyzing the approved text adopted by my district - the Texan orientation is irrefutable. The state tests (CST's) are equally oriented towards that which intersects with Texan standards, as determined by the for-profit corporations which produce the texts and tests.

    3. No Child Left Behind has forced a conformity of content-instruction. Teachers are held accountable to the content standards - as tested by the industry-produced CST's. Teachers are actively discouraged from teaching anything outside the tested standards.

    The End Result: We no longer have students taught by teachers who emphasize a particular approach to history: military, ethnic, class, aesthetic, environmental, etc. - Students principally receive only that instruction which both fits the state standards and is incorporated in the Texas-based texts and tests. This reduces the diversity of perspectives to be carried into higher education (college), as all public school students are (theoretically) taught the exact same materials, including the same exclusions. Public school Social Sciences have devolved into a memorization game in which critical thinking and analysis receive lip-service and nothing more.

    After 25 years of teaching, and a once-passionate commitment to public education (as a means of raising not only the national standard of living, but providing for opportunities for personal enlightenment or enrichment) I now heartily encourage all my friends to send their children to private schools if they can afford it.

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