Uncomfortable hiStory 101
Let’s get a few things out in the open as this blog begins. I attended a catholic elementary school until second grade. There were zero black students enrolled. I completed the rest of my schooling at a suburban school district southwest of Pittsburgh. The student population of black students in my grade was around 3%. I did not have a black teacher until my sophomore year, when, for about one week, we were instructed by a black man who was a student teacher. I then continued to a university in downtown Pittsburgh to become a teacher. Scholarship money and the university’s mission led made it be best fit for me as an 18 year old. I do not believe that I had a single black student in any of my education classes, nor did I take a single class taught by a black professor. So, I’ll put it out there: I am uncomfortable writing this. Very uncomfortable. But that’s good; I am in a position where I need to start to feel uncomfortable. We all need to start to get a little uncomfortable. Now, do not take this as a complaint in any fashion; I have had many opportunities, wonderful teachers and professors, and interactions with educators around the nation and the world. I am simply stating my background that led me to this point in my thought process.
A few years ago, I decided to open each school year with a lesson asking students to draw an image of what they feel represents American History. They can draw anything they want. Many of my colleagues have seen the result. Most draw George Washington in military regalia or in other heroic fashion. Some draw Abraham Lincoln and a few draw the American flag. This year, two students depicted a person of color. Two. And it was the same person, Rosa Parks. While this leads to great opening conversation about how we are going to study American History in a way that challenges defining it only as the story of white men, it also serves as a pathway to reflect. How did this happen? And how do you stop it from happening?
Year after year, students enter my American History 8 class with a rosy view of our nation’s past. Good memories, if you will. It’s comfortable. But that’s not history. When we teach our students history, what stories are we leaving out? More importantly, whyare we leaving stories out? A textbook company’s fault? Meh, I don’t buy that. Somebody bought those books. Somebody decided to assign readings from those books. Not enough resources? Not a chance. We are uncomfortable having these conversations with students, with the discussions that these may generate in class, with the potential of going against the typical American History class that may even result in a few parents being upset because “it’s not how my history class was taught?” Yes. Exactly. We fear the uncomfortable and we avoid it.
When we teach history as rainbows and butterflies, we leave out emotion, we leave out connection, we leave out empathy, and we leave out history. We create learners and then adults that base news events solely on interpretation rather than fact. History and civics classes often have standards that are aged, or in some cases, decades old. Some others are even based on highlighting the principles of essential American documents. Teach American History as it links back to the goals of the Constitution. Sounds clean. Sounds informative. Sounds…comfortable. Look at where that got us, in the same situation where we lack so much understanding of our nation’s past, of each other as Americans, or ideas like America’s racial issues ended at some specific date, whether it is the end of the Civil War, the passage of the 13th-15thAmendments, or the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Do you believe that? No, I didn’t think so, but you probably know several people who do. And, as funding cuts to history education loom large across America, as decades of policy that prop up the importance of standardized testing in subjects outside of the humanities, this is a problem.
So it’s time for some Uncomfortable hiStory to be taught in American schools. Topics that spur questions. Narratives that inspire conversation. Images that make you feel uneasy. And let’s not wait until students are in 8thgrade to have that feeling. I’ll be honest, I have been guilty of this. My daughter is in 1st grade and loves to read. When she was in preschool, she expressed interest in space and astronauts so we bought her a book about Mae Jemison. She likes to perform, so we purchased additional books about Lin Manuel Miranda and Misty Copeland. You know what I did two years ago when we were reading about Misty being discriminated against? I skipped the pages. I avoided the conversation with my then 5-year-old. It would have been uncomfortable and would have stomped on her view of the world being full of all good people. So, we just read the “happy memories” parts. Boy, was that the wrong decision. At the start of my daughter’s 1st grade year, we read the whole book. And we talked. She asked questions. We learned together, and yes, there were uncomfortable questions that led to her asking more questions. Do we talk about everything that falls under that umbrella? No, but it opened the door instead of leaving it shut throughout elementary school. It led to her wanting to read other books about people who faced discrimination. See: Roberto Clemente. It led to her wanting to read about people who contribute to America: she read an abbreviated version of Hidden Figures tonight.
But, the most important product of this is the uncomfortable dialogue that it spurs. Uncomfortable for her? No. Me? Yes. How do you make it “age-appropriate”? Can you really discuss everything with a now 7 year old? No way, and I’m not advocating for that. But can we start to peel back a layer if infallibility? Yes. A dad-daughter talk about the idea that America has great memories throughout its past, has had periods of being an ethical and moral compass for the world, while at the same time, having ethical and moral breakdowns embedded in our DNA as a nation.
Every school, every history department, every teacher of social studies should be using the events of the past week as an opportunity to enact change where they can: their classroom, the resources they select, and the conversations that they ignite in their classroom. What if we taught our nation’s past starting with the stories of marginalized groups of society? Why should students wait until high school or college to engage in this dialogue. Why should “covering” items on a standardized test seemingly matter more as more funding and time is devoted to learning which bubbles to fill in? Next year, if I continued the norm, I would begin the year by teaching the French and Indian War and moving forward. No, that can’t happen anymore. We’re starting with Reconstruction first before jumping back to how we got here. We’re studying the Native American perspective of the French and Indian War. We’re discussing why Crispus Attucks’ facial color was changed when Revere’s engraving was distributed. We’re devoting time to the conversations that need to occur around Jim Crow laws. We’re studying history, not memory. Because it is time. It’s time to get uncomfortable.