Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Pattern of Neglect and a Missed Opportunity

By Emilio Zamora | History News Network
May 10, 2010

Emilio Zamora is a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. He specializes in Mexican American history, Texas history, oral history, and transnational (U.S./Mexico) working class history. Zamora is also an Associate with the Center for Mexican American Studies and the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies in the same institution. He has authored three books, co-edited three anthologies, assisted in the production of a Texas history text, and written numerous articles. Zamora has garnered four best book awards, a best article prize, and a Fulbright García-Robles fellowship in 2007-08.

My natural inclination is to stay away from noting the obvious gaps in the proposed public school curriculum, because the discussion can degenerate into a haggling over this or that person, event, or concept. Glaring omissions and deletions, however, reflect more serious problems of representation, diversity, and perspective that require our attention. A cursory review of the historical figures that are required by the designation of “including,” for instance, demonstrates a narrow and limited set of standards for social studies: only one person from the African continent, two from Asia, and two from Latin America appear in the proposed curriculum. The curriculum’s consideration for indigenous persons is limited to two Native Americans from the United States, and none from the rest of the Americas. Mexico, the country that has been most intimately involved in our history, only has one representative from the period after 1836, and he is the fully scorned Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. To make matters worse, references to Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla -- the father of Mexico’s independence movement -- and one of his historic speeches have been deleted. The Board also deleted Oscar Romero, the assassinated archbishop from El Salvador, who has become one of the most popular Christian figures in the Americas. According to numerous press reports, a member of the board unabashedly justified his erasure on the grounds that “no one knows who he is.”

To state the obvious, such striking omissions and deletions suggest a pattern of neglect rather than happenstance or an occasional lapse of judgment. This became more apparent when I tabulated the number of times that whites, Latinos, blacks, and others are noted. Whites from the United States and Europe predominate: they appear 171 times, or 76 percent of a total of 224 mentions. The 34 Latinos that are mentioned represent 15 percent of the total, while 19 blacks registered 8 percent, and 3 others recorded 1 percent. Women fared badly: males are mentioned 198 times, or 88 percent of the time, while women appear 26 times, or 12 percent of the time. White males are ten times more likely to be mentioned than white females, Latino males are five times more likely to be mentioned than Latinas, and black males are twice more likely to be mentioned than black females.

Part of the explanation for the skewed representation rests in the continued predominance of white males as major figures in history books. This view of history, however, cannot be justified solely by the emphasis that we give to fields of history like government, industry, and wars, fields where men dominate our attention. A 76 percent male representation in the proposed curriculum is inordinately high, especially if we consider that the study of history has expanded significantly since the early 1970s and provided greater depth and breadth from which to draw.

To state this differently, we face a fundamental problem if we view the curriculum standards in the limiting terms suggested by the approximately two hundred historical figures that are required learning for Texas students. Instead, we should use the great opportunity afforded by the vast amount of information and knowledge that has been generated to provide our students an expanded and enriched basis for understanding our diverse and interconnected world—and the students’ relationship to it—in historical and contemporary terms.

I addressed this issue in my testimony before the Board when I noted that the public school curriculum lags far behind the state of knowledge in Texas history—one of my fields of study. A cursory review of some of the more popular general treatment on Texas history—works by Robert A. Calvert, Randolph B. Campbell, Jesus F. de la Teja, Fane Downs, George Green, and Rupert R. Richardson—leaves the clear and distinct impression that the proposed curriculum has not kept pace with the current knowledge base in Texas history. The limited list of historical figures underscores this assessment.

The missed opportunity to use oral history or the method of interviewing also suggests a narrowly defined set of standards and the need for an expanded curriculum. The method appears in the early grades, but the proposed curriculum suggests it in passing and with little conviction. This would not be a problem except that oral history offers unique opportunities for the teacher to instruct students in practical research activities, as well as higher-order skills. Oral history provides hands-on opportunities to teach research planning; good writing; interviewing techniques; understanding and empathy for the family or community members as narrators; a deeper familiarity and appreciation for local history; the value of the relationship of local history with the regional and national experience; a deeper understanding of the meaning of perspective in history as a lived experience and area of study; and the intellectually stimulating exercise of creating a research product from start to finish, from the point of the production of the record to the final historical interpretation in the form of a research paper, an exhibit, or an audio-visual presentation.

I am not suggesting that the proposed curriculum is entirely flawed. It contains promising and well-conceived guidelines and sound standards throughout the recent iteration. Nor am I suggesting the problem is limited to the two areas that I have noted. The lack of time prevents me, as well as anyone else, from offering you a complete analysis of the problems. My analysis in the two problem areas that I have addressed, however, offers compelling evidence that the proposed curriculum is lacking.

A possible compromise would be to create primary and secondary sets of standards. The primary portion could be retained as the essential frame of reference. The secondary set of standards would make use of the expanded information and knowledge to insure greater breadth and relevance in classroom instruction.

I will conclude by noting that many others have expressed concern during the Board’s meetings and in the local, state, and national press regarding the content of the proposed curriculum and the occasional intemperate and ideologically driven statements by some Board members. The numerous informal expressions of concern that I received from colleagues in colleges and universities from throughout the country convinced me that they also deserved to be heard.

With this in mind, I wrote an “Open Letter to the Texas State Board of Education” during the first week of April and, with the help of Professor Keith Erekson of the University of Texas at El Paso and an “organizing committee” of history faculty from the Austin and El Paso University Texas campuses, initiated a national signature soliciting campaign in support of the letter. The letter is critical; it claims that the Board “has been derelict in its duty to revise the public school curriculum” and that “the integrity of the curriculum revision process has been compromised.” In a very short time, more than twelve hundred history instructors and researchers, together with people who use history in their courses from U.S. colleges and universities, have electronically posted their signatures.

Besides my recommendation to create primary and secondary sets of standards, the following are the recommendations in the “Open Letter”:

1. Delay the final adoption of social studies curriculum standards;
2. Allow curriculum teams and a new panel of qualified, credentialed content experts from the state’s colleges and universities to review changes that the Board has made and prepare a new draft of the standards that is fair, accurate and balanced;
3. Permit the public to review and comment on the new draft of the standards before final adoption; and
4. Make final changes to the draft of the standards only after public consultation with classroom teachers and scholars who are experts in the appropriate fields of study.

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