American schools must take a multicultural approach to teaching history
In response to the recent revelation of factual inaccuracies in a history textbook used throughout the Virginia public school system, there has been a lively debate touching on everything from the state's standards for reviewing textbooks to the role of the Internet in contemporary academic research. Notably absent from this conversation, however, has been a broader critique of the ways in which the American education system provides a skewed historical perspective that cripples the ability of its students to properly understand their nation and the world. Yet with this week, which marks the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday, there is perhaps no better time to consider improvements that can be made to historical instruction that will offer American students a more holistic view of the past.
By allotting more time and resources for academic lessons about historical events and figures from outside of the nation's white, European-descended majority, the American education system can furnish its students with the necessary knowledge to address the myriad social and political problems that have persisted for decades since King's era of progress and reform.
The plight of minority communities - particularly that of black people, but also those of Mexican, Latino and Caribbean immigrants - is one major national issue that remains unsolved because of the prejudices and misconceptions that have been imbued in mainstream society through biased historical education. Although minority groups are not explicitly discriminated against in history textbooks or classroom curricula, an education system dominated by whites of European descent results in a disproportionate amount of attention focused on events and figures that emanate from that subset of society. For example, although the extensive and complicated history of European immigration is discussed at length in American history classes, it is rare to encounter a thorough review of the equally important journey of blacks from the Jim Crow South to the burgeoning cities of America's north and west during the early-to-mid 20th century. Nevertheless, the details of this demographic transition, known as the Great Migration, are crucial to understanding the socioeconomic circumstances of blacks in contemporary America.
Award-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson has sought to illuminate the many untold stories of black migrants in her recently published book, "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration." During a recent forum at the University's Miller Center, Wilkerson described the migration as the "biggest under-reported story of the 20th century" and analyzed with extraordinary depth the conditions that served as its catalyst. Although the forms of social control that Wilkerson cited - including such arcane laws as one that prohibited blacks and whites from playing checkers together - exacted a terrible toll on the black population, they also impoverished the white majority. By prohibiting whites from interacting with their black countrymen, society prevented itself from experiencing the talents and insights that blacks could undoubtedly have contributed to Southern society, had they only the freedom to do so.
Wilkerson's talk focused primarily on the root causes of the Great Migration, but her book elaborates on the employment and housing discrimination that black migrants faced once they reached cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. This organized white resistance to black migrants is a major reason for the existence of concentrated poverty in modern urban communities that are almost entirely populated by minorities. Because American students are essentially denied access to this part of the nation's history in school, however, misguided notions of pathological immorality and social deviance among minorities have arisen as alternative explanations for the problems that afflict inner-city communities.
The consequences of this misunderstanding have paralleled those of the Jim Crow caste system. Such consequences have been devastating for blacks and other minorities who have been denied an appropriate level of public assistance for poverty alleviation, but they have also fundamentally weakened mainstream American society by erecting barriers that have locked out countless talented minorities. Thus, those who would follow in the footsteps of Toni Morrison, Berry Gordy and Miles Davis - sons and daughters of the Great Migration and whose brilliance never would have been discovered under the Southern caste system - are being denied the opportunity to share their skills and abilities with a society that is desperately in need of their contributions.
By teaching the story of the Great Migration - as well as the stories of immigrant groups from Puerto Rico, Latin America, Mexico, Asia and elsewhere - the American education system will not only give its students a more nuanced view of the various social ills that presently afflict the nation, but it will also allow them to see the great possibility that exists for positive change at this point in the nation's history. For while there is tremendous struggle and suffering present in the tales of these migrants and immigrants, there are also remarkable instances of courage, triumphs that highlight the resilience of the human spirit. As Wilkerson said of those who moved north during the Great Migration, "If they did all that they did with nothing, then there is nothing that we cannot do."
Matt Cameron's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.