Blanding-Down History

Over the past few days, the language used to describe the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down segregated public education has been inspiring. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that Brown v. Board of Education “helped us to understand that the Constitution is ‘ours,’ whoever we may be.” Sen. John Kerry said that it “began to tear down the walls of inequality.” President Bush said that on May 17, 1954, “a line had been crossed” in American history.

Nevertheless, when I learned that my son’s school intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that Supreme Court decision this spring, I felt somehow less inspired. The problem was not the principle, but the context: The child in question, who is admittedly very young, has yet to be introduced to the concepts of “Constitution” and “Supreme Court.” Maybe they’ll get to that eventually, but he hasn’t learned much about such matters as the “American Revolution” and “George Washington” either, not to mention “slavery,” except what he picked up on the family trip to Mount Vernon.

If Brown was about anything, it was about how the language used by America’s founders — words such as “equality” and “freedom” — ultimately proved more powerful than the forces of deep-seated racial prejudice. But if you don’t know who America’s founders were, or what language they used, or why there was racial prejudice in the first place, then the commemoration necessarily becomes a bland celebration of diversity.

I hope most American children are given more context, and I’m sure that many are. But if they aren’t, that won’t be surprising. For although a lot of angst has been focused on the dark forces of political correctness in education, the larger problem in many schools is an apolitical one: Nowadays, history is too often drained of any meaning, left- or right-wing, whatsoever.

Partly this is because history, unlike math or science, doesn’t lend itself easily to standardized tests. This is clear from the sample questions proudly displayed on the Department of Education’s “U.S. History: The Nation’s Report Card” Web site. One, designed for fourth graders, shows a picture of a feather. The question beneath it reads: “In pioneer schools, feathers like this were most often used for (a) measuring, (b) sewing, (c) writing, (d) playing a game.” On the basis of students’ answering “(c)” to questions such as that one, the National Center for Education Statistics triumphantly declared, in 2001, that the “average scores of fourth and eighth-grade students have improved since 1994.”

But testing alone isn’t the problem. Recently a group called the American Textbook Council reviewed the standard world history textbooks used between sixth and 12th grades in schools across the country. They found a huge variety of staggering flaws, from phony attempts at relevance, such as comparisons of Odysseus to Indiana Jones, to bad writing and design. Proliferating cartoons, sidebars and trivia drown out the main narrative. The need to touch on everything from the Mongols to Renaissance women to the Holocaust leads to discussions of genocide so compact and simplistic as to be offensive:

“Genocide is an attempt to kill all the people or members of a certain group. Why would one group of people want to completely destroy another group of people? One reason a group of people commits genocide is hatred.”

But the worst offense is a tone of cheerful, sanitized neutrality so overwhelming that it actually renders the prose ahistorical. Thus in a section on “Life Behind the Iron Curtain,” middle-schoolers are taught both that “Communist governments in Eastern Europe granted their people few freedoms,” and that “in some ways, Communist governments did take care of their citizens. Food prices were low. Health care was free,” as if all prices really were low and health care really was free in economic systems that depended upon bribery and connections. Thus in a unit on the Industrial Revolution, students are asked how they would react if forced to become child laborers — “Would you join a union, go to school, or run away?” — as if there actually were unions, universal education and places for children to run to in early-19th century Britain. Thus in a chapter on Africa, the word “tribe” is carefully avoided. Good teachers can and do overcome bad textbooks, but they clearly have an uphill battle.

The issue, then, is not merely the absence of the dead white men: The issue is the absence of both dead white men and slavery, the absence of both the Constitution and the violence that was used to preserve it. To put it differently, the issue is the low expectations we now have of our children, whom we too often judge incapable of hearing the truth. If we want them, someday, to understand why judges and senators and presidents think Brown was so inspiring, we will eventually have to teach them the parts of the story that precede the happy ending.

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