Thursday, June 16, 2005

Compulsory African History? by Checker Finn

This is worth discussing. I dispute three points mentioned below. These are stated in my posted commentary. -Angela

A Weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
Compulsory African history?
by Chester E. Finn

Philadelphia's public school system, under the leadership of Paul Vallas, has been making so much progress on so many fronts that it's a special disappointment when they blunder. But blunder they are doing.

In February, the "School Reform Commission" voted to offer courses in African and African American history in the city's high schools. Last week, the district decreed that every high school student, beginning with September's freshman class, will be required to take a year-long course in African and African-American history. That course, tentatively slated for 10th grade, becomes one of the 23.5 units required for graduation and joins U.S. history, world history, and geography on the list of mandatory high-school social studies courses. (Nobody has said what will happen to the African-American parts of the U.S. history course or the African parts of world history. One doubts they'll be axed to make time for other topics. Maybe they'll be taught twice.)

It's a fine thing to get students to study history, the more of it the better, and African/African-American history, properly conceived and taught, is a legitimate elective course. It deserves to be on the list, along with the history of China, the history of music, the history of science, the history of Europe, art history, and more.

But should every student in a vast municipal school system, regardless of their own race or interests, be required to take this particular history course? I think not.

Philadelphia's 196,000 public-school students are 65.5 percent black. The others are 5.3 percent Asian, 14.5 percent Latino, 14.2 percent white, 0.2 percent Native American and, presumably, 0.3 percent "other." It's a characteristically mixed urban school system that early in June staged a "multicultural fair." The head of the school system's "Office of Language, Culture and the Arts" (a woman named Chin, whose deputies are named Alvarez and de la Peña) sends out "Dear Parent" letters in eight languages, including Albanian and Khmer.

Yet every pupil must now take African and African-American history.

A founding principle of the republic is protecting minorities from the excesses of majority rule. The School District of Philadelphia is majority black. Everyone else is a minority. Yet who is protecting their interests? Why are they and their heritages being discriminated against? One imagines families of Mexican, Trinidadian, Irish, Korean, and Bangladeshi backgrounds asking why the school system is "privileging" its African-American students' heritage and neglecting their own.

System officials know better. Reform Commission chairman James Nevels said, "The ideal I would love to see is a rich, diverse, textural, and contextual history of all those who make up the fabric of America."

Exactly so. But instead of insisting on that "ideal," Nevels and Vallas are yielding to Mayor Street (who appoints two of the Commission's five members) and community activists bent on "reparations" for slavery. Says the education chief of the local NAACP chapter, when asked about equal time for other ethnic groups, "None of those people came here as slaves except for African Americans. . . . The Asians came over here because they wanted to. The Hispanics, too."

What sort of course will this be? The Inquirer says the African portion was designed by a controversial Temple University professor whose , website, modestly depicts him in these words: "Molefi Kete Asante, the founding preeminent theorist of Afrocentricity, is one of the most important intellectuals at work today. His works continue his tradition of combining an extraordinary intellectual range with impressive ability to identify and clarify central issues in the current discourse on Afrocentricity, Multiculturalism, race, culture, ethnicity, and related themes."

Asante is, to say the least, an outspoken fellow who analogizes the Iraq war to Hitler's invasion of Poland and opposes African history being taught by white professors and teachers. (He likens it to Nazis teaching Holocaust history.) He is, in fact, perhaps the nation's foremost proponent of what Diane Ravitch terms "particularistic multi-culturalism," which is precisely the opposite of the "ideal" espoused by James Nevels. Until now, advocates of this approach have merely urged schools to teach children the history and culture of their own ancestors. Philadelphia is going further, saying to kids of Lao or Italian or Nicaraguan or Navajo origin that, like it or not, they must study African history--and the heck with their own.

The Inquirer says the textbook for this course will be The African American Odyssey by Darline Hine, et al. It's published by Prentice Hall (now a branch of Pearson) and sells on Amazon for $77 a copy. I haven't seen it but spent a few minutes on its companion website, which contains at least a few troubling things. For example, in the book's last chapter ("Modern Black America"), the four recommended website links take students to the home pages of Louis Farrakhan's deeply anti-Semitic Nation of Islam and Jesse Jackson's ethically challenged Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, as well as the "Million Man March" (and a page of biography that I was unable to access). See link.

Philadelphia is setting a woeful precedent. If it holds firm to this mandate, it will either anger 35 percent of its own students by ignoring their stories, perhaps driving them out of the public schools and further segregating that system. Or it will have to follow its required course in African/African-American history with scads of others, tailored to the singular histories of other groups and places. The latter is obviously impossible, at least for required courses, though plenty of scope remains for electives. The former course of action is undesirable. The last thing America needs is for its schools to foster intergroup tension and resentment. And the last lesson our children need to learn in school is that any one group commands special attention from everyone.

Philadelphia, though, seems to be slipping into the reparations habit. A municipal ordinance passed earlier this year (following Chicago's lead) requires companies doing business with the city to disclose whether they or their corporate antecedents ever profited from slavery. The next step--a bill introduced last week--will require all such firms annually to provide the city with a "statement of financial reparations," i.e., a list of investments and contributions that seek to make amends.

This is racialist politics that's bad enough in city hall. It's even worse in the public school curriculum. Voucher opponents often make alarmist predictions that schools of choice will promulgate "centric" curricula of one sort or another and we'll head toward an American version of Islamic madrassas. Could the route in that direction instead be getting mapped by the Philadelphia School District itself?

"African study plan stirs debate," by Susan Snyder and Dale Mezzacappa, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 10, 2005

"Philly's African education plan may have merit in Milwaukee," by Eugene Kane, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 11, 2005

"Companies' ties to slavery disclosure, not punishment," Philadelphia Inquirer, June 12, 2005

Volume 5, Number 22. June 16, 2005
Current Issue On the Web

1 comment:

  1. First, Checker is wrong. African Americans are NOT the "majority" in Philadelphia Public Schools or anywhere, for that matter. As a sociologist who studies, writes, and teaches in the area of race and ethnic relations, what should be clarified is that the term, "minority," refers to political, social, and economic power—something that by definition, poor, communities of color generally lack. So it's possible, such as in South Africa, to have a numerical small (White) majority and a populous minority. Yet whites are still the political majority. This is not an issue of numbers, but POWER. What appropriately modifies "minority" in its sociological usage, is the term, "political," since minority-majority relations signal differences in power.

    Second, the unnamed NAACP education chief refers to Hispanics as immigrants like Asians. First of all, this is a complex phenomenon with level of voluntariness of migration—akin to European migration as suggested in a blanket manner by Finn—depending on the Hispanic group in question (e.g., Hispanics from Spain are not minorities; nor are upper-class Latin Americans from Latin America).

    That aside, the history of the U.S. with Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, the two largest Latino subgroups is not characterized generally as one involving voluntary migration. Rather, the experience of conquest and colonization of these groups as territorial minorities are crucial to understanding their experiences. Indeed, this view is quite mainstream in scholarship and is expressed by renown scholars like the late John Ogbu and Bob Blauner before him and so many others who acknowledge their distinctiveness from Anglos emanating from Europe. Today, even if Mexicans migrate "voluntarily" to the U.S., their economic subordination in the labor market, subtractive schooling, and racialization, generally, means that they inherit the legacy of these groups' prior subordination.

    This criticism doesn't mean that I don't think that African American History should not be taught, but rather that for it to apply well to the experiences of other groups, premises of majority and minority group statuses need to be empirically and theoretically grounded. My guess is that the so-called "Hispanic" children of Philadelphia schools are not going to follow the merry road of European-origin assimilation as Milton Gordon maintained in his treatise, ASSIMILATION AND AMERICAN LIFE, but rather that they, too, are a subject population with whom it shares experiences with other subordinate groups like African Americans.

    Third, my last point regards Finn's misguided statement—"The last thing America needs is for its schools to foster intergroup tension and resentment. And the last lesson our children need to learn in school is that any one group commands special attention from everyone."

    First of all, is Finn so naive as to believe that schools as currently structured DO NOT foster intergroup tension and resentment? What's obvious to me is that the genesis of this concern over history is the historic and systematic curricular disregard for African American experiences, on the one hand, and the profound cultural chauvinism of our schools, on the other. Why, for example, do we not make use of our diversity to nurture bilingualism or multilingualism—competencies that have become global necessities? Why does one have to earn a college degree to finally get the opportunity to study African American or Mexican American or women's histories? My students ALWAYS express their frustration about not having gotten in 12 years of schooling in Texas the opportunity to study all of Texas history—Black, brown, or red.

    Finn would probably say that he's both color- and culture-blind. This is a convenient ideology that supports the status quo of English-mostly and the conforming standardization of human worth at whatever cost. Even if I grant him that color-blindness is a desirable goal, I agree with Cornel West, Asanti, Ladson-Billings, and so many others who value the role that color-consciousness plays in our collective, mutual goal of honoring and respecting the richness of our American histories, identities, and communities.