The Civic Negligence of Schools: Reckoning With Race and History

I have been thinking lately about the civic responsibility – and negligence – of schools.  Specifically, I have been thinking about the disservice schools (and the people who make decisions about curriculum in schools) have done to young people when it comes to our collective failure to confront the darker and more sinister corners of our history, that persistent undercurrent of racism and institutional oppression that has recently sprung to the surface in Ferguson, Missouri.  

The events in Ferguson, beginning with the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9th and continuing with the police response to protests and the release of information about Brown and his killer, have been well documented.  But the way these events have been interpreted and understood varies dramatically according to race.  A recent Pew poll showed that 80 percent of African-Americans believed that Brown’s shooting and the subsequent police response to protesters raised important issues about race compared to only 37 percent of whites.  Moreover, nearly half of whites said that race was getting more attention that it deserved.

In my mind, only a serious misreading – or a deliberate misreading – of history can lead to such a dramatic divide.  We have a responsibility – especially in schools and classrooms that are almost entirely white – to reckon more honestly with our past. 

I started first grade in 1981 and graduated from high school in 1993.  That entire time, I attended public schools in a good-sized town in southern New Hampshire.  A lot of people, my family included, moved there for the schools.  And pretty much every person I knew during those years – teachers, administrators, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, classmates – was, like me, white.

Like many students attending public schools, I had near zero exposure to the parts of our history darkened by racism and oppression – for example, firsthand accounts of slavery, lynching, segregation (de jure and de facto), redlining, and racial profiling.  I learned the Revolutionary War maybe four or five times, but I don’t think any teacher of mine ever even got close to the Civil War, never mind the Civil Rights Movement.  By the time I finally read Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I had graduated from college and was shocked at how much I was learning for the first time.

But then again, even if my teachers had made their way to the chapters in our history books about the 20th century, we still would have learned almost nothing.  History textbooks, by and large, are so watered down by the inane compromises required to write a “consensus” history that they wind up being more myth than meaningful resource.  For my teachers to have taught me seriously about racism, they would have needed to go way off script (and, in their defense, that is a hard thing to do especially if no one ever did it for you.)

Besides which, conveying the myth of consensus history was – and in many places still is – a central part of the purpose of schooling.  As our national motto implores:  out of many, one.  Early proponents of public school like Horace Mann called them the common school because they were seen as the one unifying force that could corral a dizzyingly diverse populace.  And how tantalizing – how uniquely American – it is to think that we could have our own personal histories and a shared glorified American history, too.

But if we are to internalize our American history, we must internalize the fault lines that run through it, as well.  And no one has a better opportunity – and, I would argue, a greater responsibility – to introduce and wrestle with these fault lines in our history than teachers.  In the absence of a well-facilitated and empathic exploration of our history, especially our history as it relates to race and buffeted by firsthand accounts, we – and here I am talking mostly about those of us with a healthy dose of white privilege – risk remaining beholden to our biases. 

I cannot say for sure how I learned to unlearn (or at least to complicate) the historical narrative I was given in school.  Surely, being given Zinn’s book helped.  Ta-nehisi Coates’s writing for The Atlantic – especially his colossal historical account in this piece – has been another vital and humbling window into the lived experience of African-Americans.  And of course at least as influential on me as any piece of writing has been working with and becoming friends with people of color who have lived (and are still living and will always live) the so-called undercurrent of history that I was never taught. 

All in all, I am fortunate.  I have become race conscious in spite of my schooling.  And yet, I know that I remain (and always will be) a racist-in-recovery.  It is part of my permanent record, whether I choose to admit it or not.  For example, I think about being in second grade and about the time the only black student in our class told me that he had a crush on the same girl I did and how I – I’m ashamed to admit – told him that nothing could happen between them because he was black and she (like me, like everyone else) was white.  That was not something my parents taught me, not even something I remember thinking consciously until the moment it slipped out of my mouth.  It was only in that moment when my sense of entitlement over him (as a 7 year-old) came to the surface and I did not know how to answer his blank and hurt stare that I thought to question whether I really meant what I said.  Who knows what is still lurking in my subconscious?

We have a responsibility to confront ourselves – to confront each other – with hard and inconvenient truths.  And because our filters grow thicker and more durable as we grow older – much thicker than the one I had when I was 7 – we need regular practice breaking through.  We need, each year in school, to reckon with our collective past.  We need teachers and schools to introduce us to the messy, complicated, painful, and racist history that we have inherited.  If we do, then perhaps we will be better equipped – and maybe a little less divided – when we face the messes and complications and pain and racism that are sure to confront us in the future.