By the Editors of Rethinking Schools
Educators call them "teachable moments." Circumstances
accidentally cross paths, creating the opportunity or
need to learn about a certain topic.
We might have witnessed such a moment this spring on a
national level after Fox News aired short video
excerpts from sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright,
Senator Barack Obama's minister and friend. Right-wing
talk-show hosts had a field day and YouTube buzzed as
people viewed Wright's denunciations of U.S. social
Obama rose to the occasion, and on March 18 delivered
a 37-minute nuanced speech about race and racism in
the United States.
The speech was an anomaly in U.S. history. How
refreshing to have a mainstream political leader speak
so poetically and in such detail on a topic that at
least in white and multiracial settings is rarely
This national silence about race is especially
apparent in the school curriculum. A case in point is
the recent controversy in Milwaukee over the potential
multimillion dollar social studies textbook adoption.
Activists pointed out that none of the four major
publishers' books on U.S. history for the 5th
grade˜some over 600 pages long˜ever mentions the words
"racism," or in the case of two of the four, even the
Such omissions are not only factually inaccurate and a
sorry commentary on the scholarship behind such books,
but more importantly they teach children not to notice
the silences surrounding key social concerns.
The issue involves more than acknowledging the stain
of racism in our country's past. When texts don't talk
about racism, when standards don't mention racism,
when teachers don't teach about racism, they
automatically eliminate any discussion of anti-racism.
For if there is no racism there is no reason to be
anti-racist. As a result, kids rarely learn of moments
in U.S. history when people worked against
racism˜especially times they worked across racial
This is a particularly unfortunate omission for white
students who need examples of their "moral ancestors"
acting as allies in the battle against white
supremacy. Few kids know of whites in U.S. history who
dedicated their lives to the struggle against racism:
John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips,
Prudence Crandall, Theodore Weld, Lydia Maria Child,
Lucretia Mott, or Elijah Lovejoy. But all students,
regardless of their own racial identity, need a
curriculum that names racism and highlights the
struggles against it.
But race is not the only social and curricular
silence. Another is empire. In Howard Zinn's essay in
this issue, he laments the silences and distorted
characterizations of U.S. foreign policy from the
first Indian wars through today's Iraq war.
If textbooks, Weekly Readers and other classroom
materials mention U.S. imperialism at all, it's most
likely a mere hiccup starting with the
Spanish-American War in 1898 and perhaps continuing
through Teddy Roosevelt's interventionist "Big Stick"
policy in Central America and the Caribbean. Rarely is
"Westward Expansion" regarded as "imperialism," as
empire building. It's a similar omission when it comes
to the 1846-48 War on Mexico, after which the U.S.
seized almost half that country's territory˜albeit
"legalized" in a treaty. And Vietnam˜if history
teachers make it that far˜is more often portrayed as a
"mistake" than as part of a pattern of U.S. imperial
But curriculum begins not just with textbooks. The
renowned educator Asa Hilliard, who passed away last
year, was fond of saying, "Curriculum is what is
inside a teacher's head"˜and, we might add, what's not
inside a teacher's head. Many are unaware of the long
history of imperial conquest that preceded the Iraq
war. The World War II fight against fascism seems to
have shaped the way too many educators view the United
States in the world: at best, a fighter for freedom
and democracy, at worst, a well-intended blunderer.
Educators' classroom approaches often reflect
one-sided textbooks that neglect the dozens of overt
and covert U.S. military and CIA interventions since
World War II. Few know, for example, of the 1953 U.S.
intervention in Iran at the behest of the oil industry
that overthrew the democratic reformer Mosaddegh; and
yet this historical fact is crucial to understanding
that area today. Other interventions˜Guatemala in
1954, Cuba in 1961, Brazil in 1964, the Dominican
Republic in 1965, the secret wars in Cambodia and
Laos, Chile in 1973, Nicaragua and El Salvador in the
1980s˜rarely appear in textbooks or classroom
discussions. Other "soft interventions" also go
unmentioned, such as the U.S. "constructive
engagement" policies that propped up the apartheid
regime in South Africa, and our elected officials'
refusal to sign international treaties ranging from
child labor and women's rights to global warming and
international war crimes.
And there is a corresponding curricular silence about
the long history of opposition to imperial policies.
Henry David Thoreau's opposition to the U.S-Mexico war
occasionally gets a sentence in some texts, but for
the most part the rich history of anti-imperialist
activism is forgotten˜whether it's the
Anti-Imperialist League formed by Mark Twain and
others to protest the U.S. war against Cuba and the
Philippines, the massive antiwar movement during World
War I, or the significant role the anti-war movement
played in Vietnam (and in the U.S. military itself).
Absent these voices of dissent, the curriculum
implicitly tells children that "we" were the ones
fighting wars and planting flags. But, as Howard Zinn
wrote in his book, A Power Governments Cannot
Suppress, "If patriotism in the best sense is loyalty
to the principles of democracy, then who was the true
patriot, Theodore Roosevelt, who applauded a massacre
by American soldiers of 600 Filipino men, women, and
children on a remote Philippine island, or Mark Twain,
who denounced it?"
These two silences˜race and empire˜are intimately
connected. An honest appraisal of one, cannot proceed
without an examination of the other. The ability of
this country's rulers to successfully use jingoism to
generate support for the many U.S. imperial ventures
is tied to the racialized portrayal of the "other."
This began with the dozens of wars to steal this
continent's land from the original inhabitants, but is
also manifested in the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim
sentiments that fuel the current conflicts. When the
curriculum fails to address race and empire, our
students are ill-equipped to face a world where both
are very much alive.
We need an extended teachable moment in our
schools˜collective efforts on the part of educators,
parents, and social justice activists to expose and
eliminate these silences in our curriculum and
On the national level, we need courageous leaders
willing to put the issue of race on the table along
with the equally difficult topic of American Empire.
It is only when we begin to address both issues at a
societal level that real change will come to our schools.