Race and the Social Studies Curriculum

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In his widely read book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, author Jim Loewen (1996) argues that high school students hate history. When they list their favorite subject, history always comes in last. They consider it the most irrelevant school subject; “boring” is the adjective most often applied to history as a school subject. We continue to tell our students lies about our history, our world views, and our culture.

One of the central concepts that we predicate many of our social lies on is the concept of race. And, for this discussion,  race is an ever-present concept in social studies-in the curriculum, the profession, and its policies and practices. If one were to attempt to construct the history of African Americans based on the information presented in a typical U.S. History textbook, that history might consist of the following:

Africans were first brought to the Americas in the early 1600s as slaves and indentured servants. Some fought for the British in the American Revolution because King George offered freedom from bondage to those who fought on the British side. One notable African American who died protesting Britain’s colonial rule was Crispus Attucks. In the 1800s African Americans were responsible for the economic prosperity of the nation-particularly that of the South. In the mid 1800s tensions between the North and South over slavery led to the Civil War.[lies, lies, lies] After the North won the war, the Reconstruction period was a difficult time for the South and many restrictive laws were enacted to subvert the new amendments to the Constitution that guaranteed Black rights.[segregation, Jim Crow, the Klan, voting restrictions, home ownership restrictions, land takeovers, pseudo-scientific research, travel restrictions, border adjustments,….] Black people fought for their civil rights in the 1960s.

Sprinkled in this history students might encounter the names of people such as Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King, Jr. However, they will not leave their history course with any sense of a coherent history of Africans in the Americas. In social studies courses other than history, African Americans are virtually invisible.

[note: Within the parentheses, are my own commentaries.]

Students have access to this curriculum whenever they turn on their nightly news and see people of color as menacing, dangerous criminals and social outcasts. They have access to this curriculum when they see inverse relationships between who the student population is and who the teachers and administrators are. If the people who look like them occupy the lowest skilled jobs in the school-janitors, cafeteria workers, instructional aids-then they begin to calculate their own understanding of people. The official curriculum only serves to reinforce what the societal curriculum suggests, i.e., people of color are relatively insignificant to the growth and development of our democracy and our nation and they represent a drain on the resources and values.

The typical K-12 social studies curriculum has changed very little in the past thirty-forty years. Many elementary schools continue to use the expanding horizons approach starting with family and moving to school, community, state or region, nation, and world history. Secondary schools (from grades 7-12) continue to offer two years of U.S. History (typically grade 8 and grades 10 or 11), a civics or U.S. Government course, and a world history course.
The failure of social studies to meaningfully engage in dialogue about one of the nation’s persistent social justice issues is not surprising, but it is disappointing. The historical, social, economic, and political records provide compelling blueprints for the way the nation has adopted the concept of race to justify hierarchy, inequity, and oppression. The social studies instruction can and should serve as a curricular home for unlearning the racism that has confounded us a nation. Yet, we still find teachers continuing to tell us lies.

The most critical vital and perfect starting place in the education of children in school settings is history and social studies curricula.The increased “multicultural presence” in many social studies textbooks typically represents “marginalizing knowledge”.  This is a “form of curriculum transformation that can include selected ‘multicultural’ curriculum that simultaneously distorts both the historical and social reality that people actually experienced”. Social studies textbooks exhibit this marginalization by including people of color in “features” that literally adorn the margins of the text while leaving the mono-cultural, exclusive narrative undisturbed.

What we must do is look, not only at what is present in these documents, but to ask pointed questions about what is missing. This analysis would also raise questions about how such documents are formulated.Who decides what gets placed in textbooks, why, and what about the narrative and historical representation of all people who were impacted by the socio-political climates in which they lived? Are we to continue to tell school children a slanted, skewed and disrespectful story of America and the world outside of this country?

To continue doing so would be like telling children that the world is ‘flat’, when common sense tells us otherwise. The longer we teach this version of propaganda and insist upon it as truth, the more we  will witness and experience racism, prejudice, injustice and inequity in this democracy. We will be and are raising a next generation bigot, and feeding into the disparities that plague us today, guaranteeing the marginalization of  diverse groups who share a history of being maligned, misrepresented, mistreated and missing from our texts.

Graduating global citizens is impossible when we continue to support and teach from a curriculum that was originally designed from an exclusively euro-centric perspective. If we approach teaching history guided by and delivered with an inclusive honesty, the classroom lessons would be more engaging, promote critical thinking, compassion, tolerance, understanding and school would be more interesting to students-ALL students. It’s not fair to ask children to be more tolerant of one another and respect diversity when they aren’t being taught from a respectfully diverse perspective. Nothing changes if we change nothing. The social studies curriculum is a great place to start. Teach a people’s history, not one people’s slant on what or who is historically significant. Until textbooks change, we must teach outside of the text!





6 thoughts on “Race and the Social Studies Curriculum

  1. I agree 100%. I teach mostly Latino students now. I admire Cesar Chavez, but anyone reading a social studies text would think, in the 2 paragraphs devoted to his efforts as a civil rights leader to bring attention to the plight of migrant farmers, that he was the only American of hispanic/latino culture/ancestry to be influential in our history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with your comment. Sadly, young people are uninformed about countless otherwise prominent innovators who have made the world a better place. So much missed inspiration!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What is missing is SHOCKING! I asked my daughter to bring her text book home and was very disappointed in what I saw sand didn’t see. Some teachers really go the extra mile to supplement the text but parents. But in general, historically accurate narrative of people of color are often black and to a large degree. This is a very important issue. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So sad, too! Yet, we wonder why children disengage. There is not enough to engage, inspire, interest or satisfy the inquisitive nature. We can and must do better.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yes. The ability to dream, imagine,and be creative……can be both a coping strategy, and a catalyst for change in young people. It can ignite a fire that blazes a trail out of the “familiar” cycles of negativity that they are often exposed to.

        Liked by 1 person

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