|Sally Field playing union organizer Crystal Lee Jordan in the film, Norma Rae|
In a survey I conducted, more Americans were able to identify five of the three stooges than even two of the nine Supreme Court justices. My sample size was very small and unscientific. But I have a feeling a real survey would come up with similar results. A C-SPAN poll found that 52 percent of American adults could not name a single Supreme Court justice. They did not ask about the Stooges.
That is just one of a million embarrassing poll results and man-on-the-street interviews conducted over the years displaying Americans’ astounding ignorance about civics and history.
One of the more recent laments about the state of history education was delivered by the New York Times, as part of its 1619 Project, which leveled a charge of “educational malpractice” against America’s history teachers for the way they teach the history of slavery. Elements of malpractice include outdated textbooks, the whiteness of teachers, and the soft-pedaling of the horrors of slavery in elementary grades. A history professor complained that his 8-year-old daughter was told by a teacher that George Washington had false teeth, but not that he bought some of them from slaves.
One survey showed that a third of students thought the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery rather than the 13th Amendment. I actually found that result heartening, compared with some of the other ignorance we’ve seen. At least they were close. More disturbing is the finding that 92 percent of students didn’t know that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War.
None of this should be surprising. Since 1917 dismal knowledge about all aspects of American history has been revealed in surveys released as a more-or-less annual ritual of national self-flagellation. That year, only 33 percent of high school students were able to identify “the simplest and most obvious facts of American history” and the results have not improved much over the past century.
It seems that educational malpractice in the teaching of History goes far beyond the slavery curriculum. And every group has their particular complaint. Conservatives think our courses are too negative and don't adequately capture the nation's greatness or foster a proper sense of patriotism and unity. Last year, students at my school criticized my colleagues and me for focusing too narrowly on the “Black-white binary” and ignoring the role of immigrants from Asia and Latin America in U.S. history.
I can't speak for the nation's history teachers, but I can tell you that the Exeter History Department is guilty of lots of unfortunate omissions in our year-long survey of U.S. history. We do a lousy job of covering the recent history that touches most directly on the world students will blunder into after graduation. Most of us run out of time somewhere between Watergate and Reagan. But we’d need to cut something else out if we wanted to add more about the last fifty years. It’s all about trade-offs. When I first started teaching at Exeter, we began the course with the Revolution and spent a whole week on the Constitution. Then we added the colonial period back in. Now we’re lucky if we spend a day on the Constitution. And there's no civics course in our curriculum. (By the way, according to a scary study by a conservative group, only 20 percent of college graduates know that James Madison was the author of the Constitution.)
The students’ complaints about the omission of certain racial groups echoes a mandate of the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiative, that the curriculum include windows and mirrors, so all students see themselves in what they are studying. But the pluralistic nature of American society, with its multitude of religious, ethnic and racial groups, along with the rising awareness of identity categories based on gender and sexual orientation makes it impossible to include a mirror for every identity category and still cover things like politics, elections, demographic trends, economics, foreign affairs, wars.
One category that was not mentioned by students critical of our omissions, and doesn’t seem to come up much in our DEI discussions, is class. Perhaps, though, class is a way to offer a mirror to students in many different identity categories all at once.
As the political scientist Adolph Reed puts it, “class is itself an identity category” and it's an identity rooted in the common, unavoidable, daily necessity of the vast majority of American adults, to make a living. Reed says:
The concerns and aspirations that are most widely shared are those that are rooted in the common experience of everyday life shaped and constrained by political economy—for example, finding, keeping or advancing in a job with a living wage, keeping or obtaining access to decent healthcare, securing decent, affordable housing, pursuing education for oneself and intimates, being able to seek or keep the protection of a union, having time for quality of life, being able to care adequately for children and elders.A history class is not concerned, like Reed,with building a mass movement, but his insight about identity his might help us solve the problem that our nation's diversity presents to the construction of an inclusive one-year U.S. history survey.
Slavery, after all, was one part of a system of labor that included people of all races and genders. When we look at U.S. history through the experiences of the laboring classes, we see the whole rainbow of American identity and common and contrasting, converging and diverging stories. We learn that, before slaves sold George Washington their teeth, poor white people had been selling their teeth to wealthy individuals since the Middle Ages. After emancipation, the nation's first great industrial union, the Knights of Labor, sought to bring Black and white workers together in one big union to abolish "wage slavery." Their failed effort is one episode in a larger story about the American working class that involves every identity category, and a movement frequently thwarted by internal divisions but coming together in solidarity at important moments. It offers vivid examples of how racism harms and antiracism benefits white people.
Contemporary events often lead us to change the way we teach history—as they should. The Civil Rights Movement inspired historians to bring Black Americans into the national story. BLM inspired the Times to call for improving the teaching of slavery. Contemporary workplace struggles should make history teachers rethink how we teach the history of labor, because although the BLM and transgender protests seem to have gotten more attention in recent years, something is also stirring among the nation’s workers—A Great Resignation of unemployed people refusing to take jobs and a significant uptick in strikes this year. And the most successful people's movement of our time in terms of concrete results could be the Fight for 15. Since it began in 2012 40 cities and counties have raised their minimum wages, and in the last three years, 15 states have done so. The Fight for 15 website claims 19 million workers have gotten a raise because of their advocacy.
Most of our students will end up in the workforce, and as they consider how to respond to job actions, it would help if they had a background in the history of labor movements that often discriminated against workers because of race or gender, but then sometimes unified them across identity categories.
Adolph Reed argues that class is the only identity category capable of “building a majority coalition.” It may also be the only category capable of building a U.S. history course that resonates with all of our students.
Notes and Sources:
Nikita Stewart, “‘We are committing educational malpractice’: Why slavery is mistaught — and worse — in American schools.” New York Times Magazine, August 19, 2019.
Adolph Reed, Class Notes, Posing as Politics and other thoughts on the American Scene (2000). Quotes are from the introductory essay.
Fight for 15. A prominent Fight for 15 organizer, Terrence Wise, a Black 40-something Burger King employee and father of three called on workers of different racial categories to unite under their shared class identity. “We've got to build a multiracial movement, a different kind of social justice movement for the 21st century…. We've got to have a new identity for the working class. What do we do every day in this country? We make this country run.” (I can’t seem to find the source of the quote, but here is the Fight for 15 website.)
Employment in the fast food industry is typical of social problems like poverty and police brutality in that a disproportionate number of Black people work in low-wage fast-food jobs, but white people make up a larger number of that work force.
Statistics are often wielded in ways that obscure these facts by activists with different political agendas (they call each other race reductionists and class reductionists; welcome to the fractured American left). It's a good example of why an education in statistics is essential for advancing anti-racism and social justice. We need to prepare students for navigating these disputes within the left. Not to mention between the left and the right. Adolph Reed writes extensively on what he calls anti-disparitarianism.
On Washington’s teeth: “Records at Mount Vernon show that Washington bought teeth from slaves. The poor in the Western world had been selling teeth as a means of making money since the Middle Ages, and these teeth would be sold as dentures or implants to those of financial means.”
Feature length movies that portray actual events that illustrate the problem of working class diversity: Free state of Jones; Matewan; Norma Rae; Pride (okay, that takes place in Thatcher’s Britain). A fictional story emerging from contemporary workplace concerns: Sorry to Bother You.
Sam Wineberg argues that the dismal test results don’t really tell us much about what is wrong with history education in America. Teachers should not be obsessed with cramming facts into their students’ heads so they will do well on the next blue-ribbon study of American’s historical ignorance. Instead, they should “help students construct a usable narrative that can inform their understanding of contemporary affairs.” In this he seems to agree with retired teacher Mike Maxwell, author of Future-Focused History.