The History of Public Education Demonstrates the Importance of Understanding the Implications of Racism

Conservative legislatures and state boards of education across the states are trying to prohibit what they call the teaching of “critical race theory,” which these far-right ideologues are redefining as any ideas that might make white Americans uncomfortable.  At the same time, on Monday, the NY Times featured an article about a tragic violation of our nation’s declared values of equality and justice for all—the century long mandate that American Indian children be enrolled in U.S. government-run boarding schools. Children were taken forcibly from their families and communities and sent, often far away, to boarding schools designed to force them to assimilate into the American dominant culture.

In a stunning history, Education for Extinction, David Wallace Adams describes the establishment in the 1870s of mandatory boarding schools for American Indian children and the philosophy of education that defined their purpose: “The word was civilization. European and American societies were civilized; Indians on the other hand, were savages… Indians must be taught the knowledge, values, mores, and habits of Christian civilization… The first priority was to provide the Indian child with the rudiments of an academic education….  Second, Indians needed to be individualized… In the philanthropic mind Indians were savages mainly because tribal life placed a higher value on the tribal community than individual interests… Education should facilitate individualization in two ways. First, it should teach young Indians how to work… But teaching Indians how to work was not enough. In the end, they must be inculcated with the values and beliefs of possessive individualism. They must come to respect the importance of private property… and they must come to realize that the accumulation of personal wealth is a moral obligation… The third aim of Indian education was Christianization.” (Education for Extinction, pp. 12-23)

The Boarding Schools’ purpose was forcing assimilation. Students were punished for using their primary languages and forced to speak English. They were given “American” names. This week’s NY Times story describes Dzabahe, a young Navajo girl renamed “Bessie Smith” by her boarding school: “The last day Dzabahe remembers praying in the way of her ancestors was on the morning in the 1950s when she was taken to the boarding school… Within hours of arriving at the school, she was told not to speak her own Navajo language. The leather skirt her mother had sewn for her and the beaded moccasins were taken away and bundled in plastic, like garbage. She was given a dress to wear and her long hair was cut—something that is taboo in Navajo culture.  Before she was sent to the dormitory, one more thing was taken: her name.”

The boarding schools for American Indian children represent one example of the ways the United States contradicted its founding promise that all are created equal and all are worthy of liberty and justice  In his profound book, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, James D. Anderson begins by acknowledging the blindness, bias, and misunderstandings that have defined the project of expanding the meaning of equal education for our nation’s children: “The history of American education abounds with themes that represent the inextricable ties between citizenship in a democratic society and popular education. It is crucial for an understanding of American educational history, however, to recognize that within American democracy there have been classes of oppressed people and that there have been essential relationships between popular education and the politics of oppression. Both schooling for democratic citizenship and schooling for second-class citizenship have been basic traditions in American education. These opposing traditions were not, as some would explain, the difference between the mainstream of American education and some aberrations or isolated alternatives. Rather, both were fundamental American conceptions of society and progress, occupied the same time and space, were fostered by the same governments, and usually were embraced by the same leaders.”(The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, p. 1)

American Indian boarding schools are now a thing of the past, but today we have a lot of work to do before we can move forward to address injustices.  We must find a way to understand the truth of our history in spite of today’s ideologues who insist that what Anderson calls “the politics of oppression” never existed and certainly does not operate today. In a powerful new book, Scripting the Moves: Culture & Control in a ‘No-Excuses’ Charter School, Vanderbilt University ethnologist Joannne Golann dissects the biases she uncovered in her 18 month study of the culture of one of today’s no-excuses charter schools, which she identifies with a pseudonym, “Dream Academy.”  Although Dream Academy’s staff believe they are imparting social capital and so-called “middle class values” to their mostly African American students, Golann’s research demonstrates that the no-excuses school inculcates in children a very different understanding of their social place and their rights than the sense of entitlement possessed by more privileged children. “(W)e can interpret the rigid behavioral scripts employed by no-excuses schools as in line with a long history of managing poor youth of color through social control, surveillance, and punishments. The poor have long been viewed as intractable, in need of guidance and reform.” (p. 14)

Golann continues: “Instead of putting the onus on schools and teachers to provide the extra supports to help all students achieve, the no-excuses philosophy was reinterpreted in the context of the school’s behavioral script to mean, as reflected in… (a) teacher’s words, ‘holding students responsible for their character and their actions and their education.’ This perspective attributes the failures of urban schools to low-income Black and Latino children who are seen as lacking the right attitudes and values (like hard work, diligence, personal responsibility) to be successful and sees success as holding these children to tighter expectations.” (p. 40) “As students learned to adhere to the school’s demanding scripts in order to gain privileges, they developed what I call a sense of earning… A sense of earning, however, contrasts with a sense of entitlement, which sociologist Annette Lareau has identified as a middle-class mindset…  Schools… cater to middle-class White families, positioning them as ‘consumers’ whose needs ought to be attended to rather than ‘beneficiaries’ who should be grateful for the privilege of attending the school.” (p. 46)

In a profound 1998 book, Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, Walter Feinberg, professor emeritus of educational philosophy at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, considers the urgent importance of a critical approach to the teaching of the nation’s history: “To be an American, that is, to submit to the nation’s laws, is different than to identify oneself as an American and to participate in the public will formations that determine the direction of national action and inaction. This identification is active and requires an engagement with interpretations of events that comprise the American story. That there is an ‘American story’ means not that there is one official understanding of the American experience but, rather, that those who are telling their versions of the story are doing so in order to contribute to better decision making on the part of the American nation and that they understand that they are part of those decisions. The concept is really ‘Americans’ stories’…  This means, among other things, that students must learn about the various meanings that people from different backgrounds might give to different events. They need to address these differences in ways that promote continuing discussion…  (T)he common school must be involved in teaching students both to speak from the knowledge that their cultural identity provides and, as audience, to hear the voices of others… It is within and across this medley of difference that the common school continues the dialogue begun during the American Revolution about the nature of national unity and the character of national identity.” (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, pp. 232-245) (emphasis in the original)

In a recent letter, 135 academic and professional organizations protest the far right attacks on public schools’ teaching honestly about the racism in American history.  They conclude: “Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration.”

One thought on “The History of Public Education Demonstrates the Importance of Understanding the Implications of Racism

  1. Pingback: To “CRT” or not to “CRT” | Rethinking Learning...

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