is the title of the kickoff session of a campaign titled "Teaching Out Loud" being run by Teaching for Change, an organization which
provides teachers and parents with the tools to transform schools into centers of justice where students learn to read, write and change the world.It is dedicated to the idea that building social justice starts in the classroom.
The subtitle of the campaign is Social Justice Teaching Shouldn't Be Silenced, and that of the particular event is History Under Attack And Why It Matters.
Teaching for Change runs the bookstore at the original location (14th & V) of a DC area chain of restaurant/cafes, Busboys and Poets, with two locations in DC, one in Hyattsville MD, and one in Shirlington in Arlington County VA (where I live).
This was an important event, as well as a fundraiser for the work Teaching for Change does, which includes book author events at the restaurants and most notably the Zinn Education Project, which it runs in conjunction with Rethinking Schools, and which promotes and supports the use of Howard Zinn’s best-selling book A People’s History of the United States and other materials for teaching a people’s history in middle and high school classrooms across the country.
I want to explore the evening, which took place in conjunction with the showing of the film Precious Knowledge, a film about the fight over the Mexican American Studies Program in Tucson AZ. The film has been shown at three of the locations so far, and is will be shown this coming Sunday at the 5th & V Street location. Precious Knowledge is this month's selection for Focus-In! Films: Cinema for a Conscious Community, which is a Busboys and Poets-produced monthly film series that screens films with a focus dedicated to social justice, peace, art, music, and/or community value. Films are screened one time per location with no admission cost.
I urge you to continue reading to learn more about What Kids Aren't Learning.
After a reception for supporters, with music from a jazz combo from DC's School Without Walls, the event began with some introductory remarks from members of the Board of Teaching for Change. Then the panel was introduced by the hostess, Renee Poussaint, Emmy-Award winning journalist and an activist who has worked to preserve the legacy of African-American elders (she is the niece of Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint).
The Moderator was Dr. Bernard Demczuk, a historian of African American history and Culture and an Assistant Vice President for George Washington University who also teaches African American history and culture at the School Without Walls. He serves as the official historian of one of the most important institutions in DC, the famous Ben's Chili Bowl. The three panelists were as follows:
Jeff Biggers, an award-winning author, educator, and community organizer, with expertise in environmental issues and activism in Appalachia and in Ethnic and Mexican-American studies. He has roots in Arizona, which were relevant for the discussion.
Dr. Enid Lee, a prominent leader in the fight for anti-racist education, and - like Renee Poussaint - someone who works in conjunction with Teaching for Change
Dr. Kahlil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library and the award winning author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.
I need to make several disclosures before I continue.
1. The focus of some of the antipathy of the panelists was, with little surprise, the Attorney General of Arizona, Tom Horne, who previously was the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the state. I have known Tom Horne since we were in the same cub scout den circa 1954, about the time he became a U. S. Citizen (he was born in Canada of a Jewish family that had fled Europe during the rise of the Nazis). We were high school classmates, I have been a guest in his home in Phoenix and have hosted he and his family when they were in town for a convention, these events dating back to the 1970s and early 1980s.
2. Bernard Demczuk did his doctorate at George Washington University, where my wife was one of his readers, and someone he told me who really challenged his thinking with the questions she raised.
3. I have ongoing relationships with both Teaching for Change and Rethinking Schools. This is not the first time I have been asked to write about something by one or the other.
4. As a teacher, I am strongly committed to challenging my students with the ideas of social justice, and to think more deeply about our history and our government.
Now on to the event.
Poussaint introduced the event as the kickoff of Teaching Out Loud Campaign, because teaching for justice should never be silent. They were trying to raise 15K for the campaign, which she noted is "chump change for Mitt Romney." We had a poem (quite common at events at Busboys and Poets), then Jeff Biggers introduced a brief selection from the film by noting several things:
1. He himself is from Tucson, as was author Robert Serling (whom his family knew), brother of the creator/writer of the Twilight Zone. Biggers said that Serling very much wanted to address issues of civil rights, so he often wove it in to his scripts in interesting ways. As Biggers mentioned this, my mind flashed back to an episode with Frank Gorshin titled "Let this be your last battlefield" about two aliens in ongoing (and eventually permanent) conflict because of how they were different: each man had a face half white and half black, but the halves were reversed, which made all the difference in the world. I remember that when I watched that episode I thought of Jonathan Swift, who used a similar device of those who broke their eggs on the big end versus those who did so on the small end.
2. Biggers made reference to the date being the occasion of the 140th anniversary of the founding of the first public school in Tucson by a man of Mexican background named Estevan Ochoa, certainly relevant to a discussion of ethnic studies.
3. He also pointed out that Horne was himself an immigrant, and also held the unique distinction (along with Bernie Madoff) of having been permanently banned by the SEC (this came from a securities scheme he was running while he was simultaneously enrolled at Harvard Law and Harvard Business, the same program in which Mitt Romney would later enroll).
We saw a brief clip from the film, in an attempt to entice us to come and see it.
Let me offer some of the insights shared during this session.
Demzcuk asked, if we teach true history, we are teaching about racism, sexism, genocide, etc. Do you think our public schools avoid teaching full history of America? What are your thoughts?
Lee answered: When we say it is shameful, painful, embarrassing, to whom? Who is suffering? What about the students who are left out. There are educators who are bold enough to teach this for the benefit of all the children.
Biggers added that he was was 1st on a panel on AZ history in 1970 - Who decides what goes into our textbook, who decides what AZ history is about? They've been having these discussions in AZ for more than 40 years. What is happening now is strip-mining; stripping and removing from the history that is being taught.
Dr. Muhammad noted public education functions as a gateway to growth. But growth consists of extracting profits, including from human labor. The question of whether it is shameful is secondary to the point to America’s focus on profits as measure of growth.
The responses to that first question should give a real sense of the depth of the discussion.
Without going through all my notes, which are extensive, let me offer a few more observations from the panelists.
Muhammad noted data from the Southern Poverty Law Center on teaching the civil rights movement around the country. 35 states received a grade of F, with 19 requiring NO teaching of civil rights history.
Lee commented that when AA history is presented, it is often marginalized. Every day history is taught in the way we carry out our affairs - it is present in what is taught in literature, math, and science. She discussed the idea of infusing history into rest of studies. (At this point I remarked to the people with whom I sitting that in teaching government I infuse other things, including music, poetry, popular culture, science, etc. )
We already had a real problem reaching our Hispanic students, even before the noxious actions in Arizona. Biggers noted 50% of foreign born Latinos are dropping out. About 25% of native born are dropping out. In Tucson had an 88% graduation rate with its Mexican American Studies program.. For ten years the program was working. It was started in response to NCLB. Dolores Huerta in 2006 made a quip at Tucson HS that Republicans hate Latinos. Horne responded with anger. He sent a Latino assistant to speak but kids were not allowed to speak back - so they stood up and taped their mouths. The elimination of the program was a direct result of Horne's anger, and it is important to remember that both he and his successor as State Commissioner of Education ran on an explicitly anti-Latino platform.
Biggers also noted that a key word is resistance, that Cesar Chavez was from Arizona (born in Yuma), that when a previous effort like SB1070 was being proposed he return to oppose it. It was then that Si Se Puede became a common phrase.
Muhammad then offered a joke from late 19th century, originally told by a white liberal: you can’t get clean corners and algebra out of the same citizen. You need clean corners. In other words, you don’t really need educated black people. From this he drew the conclusion that there is a profound tendency on part of some people to under-educate people, basically because if they are educated you cannot economically subjugate them.
Let me interject here. Many of us who have strongly opposed what has been happening in public education is because we see its thrust precisely as creating a compliant work force dependent upon others for their income. While middle class schools can continue to offer art and music and other "soft" subjects inner city and some rural schools are being deskilled, forced to concentrate on preparation for those subjects that are being tested. At the same time, by cutting back on history and civics we do not provide those students with the knowledge that these battles have been fought before, and there was pushback then.
Muhammad noted that public education in the South was the direct result of when Blacks were in State legislatures after the Civil War. Those legislatures established the infrastructure of public education for all. When Reconstruction ended and the military was pushed out, we saw the beginning of Jim Crow education, something that continued even despite Brown v Board in 1954.
I would add that the history books offered in my liberal middle class community in the 1950s and 1960s portrayed those legislatures with Blacks, some relocated Northern Whites, and some cooperating Southern Whites, as full of buffoons and idiots.
I think from the few notes I have offered you can see the challenging and thoughtful material presented at this forum.
Teaching for Change is one resource to which those concerned about Social Justice should turn.
There are others.
From time to time I point at them.
But it is more than materials to which teachers can turn.
It should be a movement, one that insists on teaching all of our history, and the history of all of us.
American history should not be portrayed as the movement of white, Northern Europeans (predominantly Protestant) landing and then spreading across the continent. By the time English colonies were being established on the East Coast, there were thriving Native American cultures across the Continent, and the Spanish were already founding communities in the Southwest.
If we do not reclaim all of our history, we deny equal participation by those whose history is suppressed, as Arizona has now attempted to do by crushing the program in Tucson.
What Kids Aren't Learning is the real and complete history of America.
We must push back.
After all, there are those whose approach to this nation is theocratic, who would teach that America was founded as an explicitly Christian (as they define the term) nation, who would not allow anything to the contrary to be presented in public schools.
I am fortunate to be in a metropolitan area that has resources like Teaching for Change. We need to have similar resources across the nation.
We need to resist attempts at whitewashing (I use that term deliberately) our history.
Please consider what actions YOU can take so that our children - and our nation - learn our real history, the history of all of us, a history which is rich, vibrant, exciting.
Our demands for social justice are rooted in history. The more people understand that history, the more they will support not only teaching it, but infusing social justice in American society.
Anyone who opposes such a movement must be doing so either from bigotry, even if not explicit but rather taking the form of fear.
The only thing lost by teaching our history fully is the bigoted basis of White privilege.