Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Historical ignorance is the soil in which racism grows

"The big problem we have in the United States is that we don't actually know our history.... Truth telling can actually bring people together."  — Bryan Stevenson

In her book, The Sum of US, Heather McGhee tells the story of Angela King, a reformed neo-Nazi white supremacist who co-founded “Life After Hate,” an organization that helps others overcome racist beliefs.

When King describes how she overcame racism herself, she identifies two key factors: she was befriended by a group of Black women in prison and studied history after her release. She did not mention anti-bias training.

“I learned a great bit about history and systemic racism and oppression and got a clear understanding of the true history of our country,” she says of the learning she did while attaining three college degrees after prison.

In my 24 years at Phillips Exeter Academy, the history department has frequently debated the relative importance of teaching content versus skills. Some of us are more inclined to think that the historical content of our courses matters less than the skills we impart; students, the thought goes, don’t retain the content (none of us seem to remember much from our own high school history lessons), but they will carry the skills we teach into college and beyond, where they will build upon them—skills like critical source analysis, analytical writing, research.

But according to Mike Maxwell, a former high school teacher and author of Future Focused History Teaching, that’s not actually an argument for the discipline of history. Students could learn all of these skills in other disciplines. Even the things that pass for “historical thinking,” like contextualizing evidence, are not unique to historical inquiry, Maxwell says.  In a lot of schools it's the English teachers who teach research paper.  The ultimate book on writing a research paper, The Craft of Research, was written by three English Professors.

I think he has a point. If content doesn’t matter why do shelves in our history classrooms and in the homes of history teachers sag with the weight of so many books?

Because knowing what happened in the past helps us understand the present.

People who are ignorant of history have no defense against propaganda that props up racism and white supremacy. It's easier to believe that the high rate of Black poverty in American cities today illustrates something inherently wrong with Black people if you don't understand the history of Black migration to Northern cities out of the Jim Crow South after World War II and how that was accompanied by the elimination of good working class jobs as a result of deindustrialization, suburbanization, and the decline of unions. Historically ignorant moviegoers assumed that the racist propaganda in the most popular film of 1915, “The Birth of a Nation,” represented "true history." That film was just one of many misrepresentations of history aimed at justifying the Jim Crow segregation, Black disenfranchisement, and racial violence of that era. Poorly educated Americans had no defense against such propaganda.

In faculty meetings last spring, we decided to reduce class time and cut back on the curriculum so as not to overburden our students. We may or may not be giving our students an optimal amount of work and cutting back may be the right thing to do. I suspect that it is. But I would dissent from those who say that such cutting will not carry a cost.

Angela King was not dissuaded from her racist beliefs because she learned how to write a persuasive essay or use footnotes. It was the content that did it, “the true history of our country.”

Sadly, she didn’t learn that content in her high school history classes. Ms. King was of high school age when she embraced white supremacy and covered her body in racist tattoos.  Racist ideology filled a mind devoid of true history.

Maxwell argues that the point of studying history is to learn to spot recurring patterns, and a persistent pattern involves leaders stoking fear and loathing of out-groups to distract the people from problems—like deindustrialization—that the ruling class won’t address.

McGhee’s book is an example of “true history.” Not only does it illustrate how “systemic racism and oppression” have disadvantaged Black Americans, it show how those same systems have harmed white people too. Lots of white working class Americans, for example, have been harmed by deindustrialization.

Schools have been investing a tremendous amount of time and money in diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and anti-bias and anti-racist training seminars—the trustees of my school have pledged to make it an “anti-racist school.” To that end, we have incorporated an anti-racist block in the schedule at the same time as we are reducing the time spent on regular academics, including history.

Reducing racism in our society is unquestionably a commendable goal. But as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, studies of the effects of anti-bias training by professional consultants over the years have shown little evidence of effectiveness. The anti-racist block has been filled with workshops along similar lines, including ones that are conceived and run by teachers or students rather than professional consultants.  

According to an article in Psychology Today anti-racism training is ineffective simply because people don't like to be told what to think. That definitely seems to be true of my students. 

In good history classes (which, at Exeter, are all taught by professionals with advanced degrees), students are presented with what Angela King called "true history" and allowed to come to their own conclusions.  I have faith that when the historical facts and the tissue of lies that support racist beliefs are laid out before them, smart, decent people, like my students and Ms. King, will decisively reject racism move toward the ethos of anti-racism that our school is so eager to promote.


(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism)

The Bryan Stevenson quote comes from his interview with Ezra Klein, “The Ezra Klein Show,” July 20, 2020, Vox.com

The ultimate book on how to do research now has four authors. Two additional English professors updated it for the fourth edition.  The PEA history department is possessive of the research paper, but we devote quite a bit of class time on it and that crowds out a lot of content. We require students to take a measly 2 years of history while the English department has them for four years. 

On Angela King, see Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We can Prosper Together, 223-22. 

See Mike Maxwell's blog, with information on his book.  

The phrase "true history" avoids the fact that no two historians ever quite agree on any one narrative.  History is always contested.  The debate over the New York Times' 1619 project reveals the nature of the ongoing debate over what constitutes the true history of race in America and reveals that it is over different versions of anti-racist history, not a racist versus an anti-racist historical narrative.  After I wrote this, I stumbled on this interview with Princeton Historian Matthew Karp, who talks about his July essay in Harper's Magazine, which explains how the debate over American history has moved toward an anti-racist consensus.  I also read his essay via the link on Twitter, but today it's behind a paywall. You can read it, though, via the PEA library via one of it's databases.