Monday, January 31, 2011


Last week while teaching World History I, or history about Ancient Civilizations, we were discussing the meaning of the term history and what are the different ways we can see history as an essential and important part of our lives, but also the ways it fails us, as in what its limits or impossibilities might be. I always like to remind my students that for every reason or instance that you argue that history is important and good, you could come up with just as many reasons why it is useless or not important. Most students articulate their thoughts on history through its importance in knowing where one came from and not making the same mistakes of the past. Those who have a more critical edge to their minds often bring in anonymous bad guys, who may manipulate history and take advantage of ignorance and give people some sliver of history that serves their interests, hoping that people will follow without knowing any better. That is always a key moment in the class where people stop thinking of history as a warm, friendly blanket, something which you regurgitate important-sounding platitudes about, and see it as a weapon instead, something which you can use, or can be used against you.

We read the poem "Kidnapped" by Ruperake Petaia, which discusses the experience of a Samoan in an foreign educational system, being indoctrinated. Most students clearly identified with the poem and the feelings of being forced to learn and value things which you don't truly feel are your own. Students interprted the poem as being one of anger over being stripped of your culture, your language, your heritage. At the end, the feeling of finishing school is likened to being released from prison (at a ceremony where your fellow inmates cheer) and being given a slip of paper to decorate your walls. But one thing which complicates this interpretation is the tone of the poem. Despite it being titled "Kidnapped" and taking on the metaphorical imagery of someone who is forced into a situation they don't seem to want, the tone is not overtly angry or frightened. It is more composed, restrained. It is clear that the poet does not like what is happening, but by the poem's end, you can argue that he has become resigned to how he has been changed, that there is probably nothing that can be done to change his situation.

Although there may have been one moment early on when the poet resisted aggressively what was happened, by the poem's end he is not sure what is what. While he makes clear that his education made him "whiter and whiter" and that his kidnappers became richer and richer and his parents "poorer and poorer," the feeling of kidnapped is a feeling of being engulfed, of losing your bearings and losing the ability to see outside of what is being forced upon you. At some point, even if you don't like it, you cannot see any way around it or beyond it. Chamorros prior to World War II suffered from this. Even though they detested the lessons of the US, which were forced upon them in schools, but the end of the war, they had "learned" those lessons so well, that even if they might hate where they came from, and might personally loathe "Americans" they still could not imagine that "education" could take place, unless is followed that same model of indoctrinating and killing the Chamorro to save the child, thus making a minor American possible.

One of the dangers of education is that it is assumed that whatever is taught is correct, because it comes with the authority of the teacher. Even if you might feel something is incorrect or wrong, you most likely will not question it, nor will you even know how to question it. This makes teaching easy in some ways, but dangerous in others. I always encourage my students to challenge me, to take issue with things I say, with how I say them, what I choose to focus on. Although I give them this room and encourage them to debate me or stand up to me, this rarely every takes place. The teacher is at the top, he or she sets the rules, he or she is supposed to know more than everyone else, and so long as the teacher knows what they are talking about and students pay attention, learning is supposed to take place. But, when what teachers say is taken without thinking, it doesn't do much. It just becomes notes on paper or carved into your mind. It not only leads to mere parroting of information or rhetoric, but reproduces that subordinate, silent relationship. Learning is not supposed to be a one sided exchange where a teacher shoves the knowledge morsels into the mouths of the students, if there is not some engagement from the learner, then not much actually happens. This engagement doesn't only come in the form of open attacks on the professor, but just that when things enter your eye sockets or your ear canals it does not simply waft into an empty void within your consciousness but actually bounces around in there, knocking some things around, shaking things loose, tearing down a few of the cobwebs that naturally form there.

One of the interesting things about teaching is that student's may be able to detect an ideological bent that they don't like or are averse to, but that in no way means they can detect the difference between truth and falsity. One of the interesting things about ideology is that it is meant to provide certainty in the absence of truth or even the presence of counter fact. I have students who will challenge me with verve on things they know absolutely nothing about, but have some faint ideological predisposition to not like. They hear something, about political status, about the military buildup, that they know they aren't supposed to like and will speak forcefully, hoping that the loudness of their rhetoric will carry them just as far or farther than actual knowledge. But when it comes to the details of history, for example which you know nothing about, how to do challenge if something is true or not?

It is for that reason, that last semester, for some lectures I would tell my students that I'm going to make something up this class. I'm going to lie my ass off to you about something and slip it into my lecture. I'm not going to qualify it in anyway, but just going to communicate it to you in the way I do everything else. At the end of the class I ask students if they can figure out what I made up in what I taught them. Very few times do students ever guess what it was. I mean, if you were getting a lecture about the Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes of Ancient Persia, people you've never heard of before, but who are apparently important to world history, how would you know that according to one of the versions of how Cyrus The Shepherd died, the nomadic Scythian-like people from the deserts of modern-day Kazakhstan and not modern-day Saudi Arabia? I do this to try to teach them this lesson about the importance of paying attention and being ready to question what you are being taught. I also do it since it actually helps students pay attention because it is a new approach, something different and kind of like a game.

You could argue that the truth has some inherent logical consistency to it, but that does not mean that when it appears before you, it signifies truth. In the absence of any contrary knowledge, we tend to accept as something true because it is spoken with confidence. But that does not mean that people or students are blind and have no way of telling if their professors is just making things up. But everyway of being able to know or guess the difference requires that engagement, it requires learning on your own, or at least paying close attentiton.

This issue came to mind as earlier tonight I was preparing for class tomorrow and I was searching for articles about how conservatives in Texas changed their state's textbooks last year to reflect conservative paranoia and wetdreams about the United States, and erase things which they felt put down the United States or might make white christians depressed about themselves and their history. I found the following article from The New York Times, and it reminded me of the discussion I mentioned above from last week.


March 12, 2010

Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change


The New York Times

AUSTIN, Tex. — After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.

The vote was 10 to 5 along party lines, with all the Republicans on the board voting for it.

The board, whose members are elected, has influence beyond Texas because the state is one of the largest buyers of textbooks. In the digital age, however, that influence has diminished as technological advances have made it possible for publishers to tailor books to individual states.

In recent years, board members have been locked in an ideological battle between a bloc of conservatives who question Darwin’s theory of evolution and believe the Founding Fathers were guided by Christian principles, and a handful of Democrats and moderate Republicans who have fought to preserve the teaching of Darwinism and the separation of church and state.

Since January, Republicans on the board have passed more than 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum standards affecting history, sociology and economics courses from elementary to high school. The standards were proposed by a panel of teachers.

“We are adding balance,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, the leader of the conservative faction on the board, after the vote. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

Battles over what to put in science and history books have taken place for years in the 20 states where state boards must adopt textbooks, most notably in California and Texas. But rarely in recent history has a group of conservative board members left such a mark on a social studies curriculum.

Efforts by Hispanic board members to include more Latino figures as role models for the state’s large Hispanic population were consistently defeated, prompting one member, Mary Helen Berlanga, to storm out of a meeting late Thursday night, saying, “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist.”

“They are going overboard, they are not experts, they are not historians,” she said. “They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world.”

The curriculum standards will now be published in a state register, opening them up for 30 days of public comment. A final vote will be taken in May, but given the Republican dominance of the board, it is unlikely that many changes will be made.

The standards, reviewed every decade, serve as a template for textbook publishers, who must come before the board next year with drafts of their books. The board’s makeup will have changed by then because Dr. McLeroy lost in a primary this month to a more moderate Republican, and two others — one Democrat and one conservative Republican — announced they were not seeking re-election.

There are seven members of the conservative bloc on the board, but they are often joined by one of the other three Republicans on crucial votes. There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings, though some members of the conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topics.

The conservative members maintain that they are trying to correct what they see as a liberal bias among the teachers who proposed the curriculum. To that end, they made dozens of minor changes aimed at calling into question, among other things, concepts like the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the American Revolution.

“I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state,” said David Bradley, a conservative from Beaumont who works in real estate. “I have $1,000 for the charity of your choice if you can find it in the Constitution.”

They also included a plank to ensure that students learn about “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.”

Dr. McLeroy, a dentist by training, pushed through a change to the teaching of the civil rights movement to ensure that students study the violent philosophy of the Black Panthers in addition to the nonviolent approach of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also made sure that textbooks would mention the votes in Congress on civil rights legislation, which Republicans supported.

“Republicans need a little credit for that,” he said. “I think it’s going to surprise some students.”

Mr. Bradley won approval for an amendment saying students should study “the unintended consequences” of the Great Society legislation, affirmative action and Title IX legislation. He also won approval for an amendment stressing that Germans and Italians as well as Japanese were interned in the United States during World War II, to counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism.

Other changes seem aimed at tamping down criticism of the right. Conservatives passed one amendment, for instance, requiring that the history of McCarthyism include “how the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government.” The Venona papers were transcripts of some 3,000 communications between the Soviet Union and its agents in the United States.

Mavis B. Knight, a Democrat from Dallas, introduced an amendment requiring that students study the reasons “the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.”

It was defeated on a party-line vote.

After the vote, Ms. Knight said, “The social conservatives have perverted accurate history to fulfill their own agenda.”

In economics, the revisions add Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, two champions of free-market economic theory, among the usual list of economists to be studied, like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. They also replaced the word “capitalism” throughout their texts with the “free-enterprise system.”

“Let’s face it, capitalism does have a negative connotation,” said one conservative member, Terri Leo. “You know, ‘capitalist pig!’ ”

In the field of sociology, another conservative member, Barbara Cargill, won passage of an amendment requiring the teaching of “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices” in a section on teenage suicide, dating violence, sexuality, drug use and eating disorders.

“The topic of sociology tends to blame society for everything,” Ms. Cargill said.

Even the course on world history did not escape the board’s scalpel.

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term “separation between church and state.”)

“The Enlightenment was not the only philosophy on which these revolutions were based,” Ms. Dunbar said.

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