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Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Tough day to be a History Teacher....or a student

Hard times seem to have landed on the world of social studies educators. This can be especially evident in my part of the state for educators seasoned and green alike in finding or securing employment based on the hiring freeze and mass privatization in Philadelphia and the slashing of educational budgets in the Garden State or if you’re an educator in general based on the day-old Texas mandate which, in a nutshell, plans to literally rewrite American History text books or if you live in Arizona and want to learn about any history beyond American or European, you’re out of luck. Wow, what a laundry list of depressing stuff! Social Studies, which is often thought to be a backdoor or unimportant “filler” class, now has been the placed in the national spotlight on multiple issues the past few days. All of which are negative.
That said, I would like to speak about two specific stories; the first regarding the 9-5 Texas statewide school board decision to completely rewrite American History text books. Both of these strike major blows to not only social studies students on statewide and national levels but also are a disgrace to history as a profession and a practice and the second regarding a part of the notorious set of laws which had befallen Arizona regarding the elimination of the “Ethnic Studies” portion of their History curriculum.
I will begin by writing about the controversial Texas initiated curriculum change. As a history teacher, I already thought text books were slanted and biased by white-washing (in some cases literally) controversial issues through making them as irrelevant as ever or just not covering them period. I have noticed a pattern of leaving out a great deals of "question raising" topics like the progressive movement, reformers, anti-war activists, important African American, Native American, Latino and unconventional white male and female historical figures, unpopular wars, US "interventions" throughout the Western Hemisphere and the rest of the world, and often simply saying war "broke out" instead of actually laying out causes such as economic and political motivations for war and then refusing to show the actual human sacrifice and cost of it. Now, Texas is officially smashing the scales. Students will get to read an extra long segments about how great Jefferson Davis, Milton Friedman, Phyllis Schafly and Ronald Reagan were while inventing religious principles to founding fathers who rarely prayed (such as Washington) and actually condemned the organized church during the revolution calling it an institution of "oppressors" and "opponents to [our] liberty!" (Such as Adams and Jefferson) How about less Ronald Reagan and Jefferson Davis and more Eugene V. Debs, Malcolm X or Jane Addams? Since we are making up history, why don't we rewrite it where George Washington became a regent for life, Alexander Hamilton turned our country into a monarchy, slavery never happened, Vietnam adopted American democracy, Kennedy was never assassinated (because he lost to Nixon the first time like he should have)  and the Native Indians happily gave up the Americas and flew off in their shiny space ships? Sure is a pleasant fiction.
Don McLeroy, the former but acting chair of the school board who spearheaded many of these “revolutionary” changes stated that these were to instill history students with a working knowledge of our nation’s origins and to tout American exceptionalism. These in and of themselves sound like pretty admirable things to have in a social studies curriculum. However, once you take a glance even a few statements beyond what Mr. McLeroy is saying, you see that this self-proclaimed “conservative religious fundamentalist” or the rest of his board does little to remove their own personal motives, biases and agenda. This is exactly the opposite of what even first-year history students are instructed. This is to be absolutely objective and balanced in uncovering and delivering the truth. What the overall conservative, republican school board has done has taken an initiative to stress major hegemonic and xenophobic goals in stressing America’s founding as a solely “Christian Nation” under “Christian morals and principles.” You can see these “ideals” echoing the numerous right wing emails that spam mailboxes everywhere dressing up racism and hate in the rhetoric of the flag and the bible while still managing to bash Latinos, Muslims, and well, you know, anyone with dark skin or a vagina. The board is also steadfast on presenting opposing viewpoints which sound like a breath of fresh air but it seems completely devoted toward the viewpoints of conservatives, confederates, racists and opponents to actual liberty and civil rights while renaming them the true patriots of America. Howard Zinn really picked a year to die because, sadly, I can only picture him spinning in his grave from this travesty of history. This is a slap in the face to our actual founding fathers' principles who believed the teaching of morals belonged in a house of living or prayer, not in a classroom. Many of our founding fathers did all they could do to warn against forced religious indoctrination as many of the empires and legacies of Europe were trapped in a world of religious driven tyrants who stated they were of the direct lineage of God and therefore to oppose their monarchical viewpoints was not only illegal but was a path to damnation. Great way to keep the superstitious rabble in line, isn’t it? Strange enough that this forced fundamentalism is actually something conservatives in this country berate Muslim nations from doing under Sharia law. Don’t tell them that because, somehow, I’m sure they would turn the argument around by calling you a terrorist. Be sure to remember, the free-market not only controls all aspects of our lives but now it needs to get extra pages in our children's history books stating it is the ultimate defining force behind what it means to truly be “American.” So now history is synonymous as a fundamentalist version of God and big-business. What a winning combination, just like an evil hate-filled mix of chocolate and peanut butter.
From my experiences reading various history textbooks coming from many different parts of the political spectrum, I always have found, at the very least, a somewhat accurate mention of nearly every major event in American history. Granted, it's almost always written with "America only was trying to help and it did all it could to not have to intervene..." Yeah right.  Sure, many things would be cut out for time constraints or previous decisions of what was important or not but I have always found a pretty healthy coverage of right centered moments in our historical timelines. This includes the black conservative movement, the Moral Majority, the John Birch society, the contract with America, the wars on terror, Patriot act, Redeemer Era, Imperialist movement, Law and Order Nixon Period, Trickle-Down theory, you name it and you will see it. So why, all of a sudden, do we need to hear about these things in greater length but now with a spin that they were wonderful periods in our existence? Especially, when history teaches us, irrevocably, they were not.
Usually, this type of history is called revisionism. An example would be from some neo-confederate Civil War “experts” who have repeatedly tried to repaint the civil war as “a war of northern aggression” or a war for “the lost cause of state’s rights.” This is also echoed by people like the hack who poses as a “conservative historian,” Michael Medved whose book, The Top 10 Lies About America, is sure to point out that slavery actually wasn’t that bad and that black people would have been better off as slaves. (He also says Europeans didn’t do anything bad to the Native Americans and that workers protection and business regulation was all manufactured by communist-loving Unions) Claims such as there are usually driven by reactionary motives. But reactions from what? All this does is solidify, in my viewpoint, the tea-party ultra conservative perpetual victim complex to defend their poor wounded vision of American the beautiful and to return us to the “good old days.” Apparently the good old days when you could tie up and drag a homosexual from a car, burn black people alive, beat your wife and child and talk openly racist but be sure to go to bed early because you have church in the morning, Proper. born-again. fundamental, Protestant chruch that doesn't worry about that wussy Social Gospel or Living Wage those Pope worshipping Cathoics do. The true colors are showing more and more. Rand Paul for one showed it best when he went on record after his Republican primary victory in Kentucky by stating he didn’t agree with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And for good reason because those terrible African American religious and community leaders really should have known their places instead of mobilizing and demanding the federal government give them the ability to vote, live and work without the fear of being murdered. Remember, a little fact about Arizona, it among the last states to actually recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day because their politicians didn’t feel he did anything to merit being recognized and honored as a national icon. Go figure, preaching for peace, integration, equality, non-violence and understanding at the literal cost of your own life doesn't warrant a national holiday. They finally acknowledged the day in 1990. A little late, don’t you think? But it is Arizona so are you really that surprised? Still not as bad as Virginia and Mississippi who simultaneously honors Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J."Stonewall" Jackson or Texas who has "Treason Day"...wait, I mean, "Confederate Heroes Day" on the same day as Dr. King's holiday. Fitting to honor a civil rights icon and the political and military leaders of American sedition and defenders of oppression and enslavement.
Bringing up Arizona, I will transition into my second topic. This is another part of the already horribly racist and oppressive Arizona immigration laws entitled HR2281 signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on May 11, which officially bans the high school course entitled “Ethnic Studies.” If anyone has any questions about Arizona’s motives regarding “Homeland Security”, “Keeping Americans safe” or whatever other Orwellian reason they may choose to employ to justify the fact that they plain just don’t like Mexicans, I hope this illuminates their true reasoning loud and clear. This is part of a systematic pattern to make the lives of Latino Arizonans so uncomfortable and to make them feel so unwelcome that they either become demoralized and take the abuse or they do what the state really wants, which is to pack their bags and leave. This is what Israel’s policy is regarding Palestinians, Britain’s on Catholic Northern Irish, Afrikaners to black South Africans, Russia to Ukrainians, etc, etc. Our country did this before by writing out or oppressing “unsavory” racial or political groups in history classes or general society before. During the Spanish American war, Spain was cast as oppressors and villains in history classes. In World War I, all aspects of German culture was wiped from textbooks and American culture even going so far as to rename frankfurters (hotdogs), sauerkraut (liberty cabbage), the banning the work of Brahms, Bach and Beethoven and, in reverse, even speaking of England (our then ally) in a negative light such as our enemy in the American Revolution could and did land teachers and writers in prison. In World War II, many things about Japan were banned and illegalized and the same followed suite in the Cold War regarding aspects of Russian culture. (Even Russian, Ukrainian and Union Halls were attacked and raided by the Justice Department and, in one case, the American Legion with loaded weapons right after World War I in 1919!)
I remember reading the immediate comments behind this story and for every rational comment, I saw about 10 stating “Duh, Go back to Mexico!” “Duh, we don’t need to know about your filthy culture!” “Duh, I’d like to see Mexico teach an American Studies course!” Well…. I don’t want to be one of those pussy, technical liberals concerned with, you know, facts…. But (A.) many Mexican Americans actually didn’t come here but lived here longer than we did (B.) How come we feel the need to learn about European History, I really don’t think it would hurt our students to learn about anything let along a culture that is infused in a great deal of our national scope and shape especially when the only way you will hear about African, Latino or Asian culture is to have a class devoted to it since “American” History barley mentions any of those topics (C.) Mexico possibly would if their government annexed a third of the U.S. and there were millions of white North Americans living there but, alas, we will never know. Just this week, 15 students were arrested for employing civil disobedience by protesting the governor’s decision to effectively whitewash the Arizona curriculum through the banning of a class which, in her words, “was a class teaching political indoctrination, radicalism, the overthrow of our government and which portrayed my [republican] party in a negative light.” Well, there’s a pretty easy way for a party that is oppressive, racist and brutal to your race to not be portrayed negatively. Can you guess what it is? It might be to NOT be oppressive, racist and brutal! Also, this class not only taught of Hispanic issues, but also dealt with Native American history as well considering Arizona has a large Native American population (the 7th largest in the nation). So, what is this law inherently doing? I may be wrong but I’m interpreting that this is telling students: if you want critical thinking (the point of history classes), you will not get it; if you want to learn about a rich and cultural heritage that out dates almost every other form of history in the world, you won’t see it; if you’re Native American or Latino, you do not matter; if you think because you are different, you are not welcome, you are right.

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