Our tribe gets out over its skis: What should American public school kids learn about American history?
There is no perfect answer. When we were kids, the K-6 American history curriculum began and ended with this:
"In fourteen hundred and ninety-two,We had to memorize that. And let's face it—we turned out fine!
Columbus sailed the ocean blue."
In theory, it would be better if kids were given access to a wider view of the world. That said, the progressive wing of our liberal tribe may have a slight instinct for overreach, a matter which seems to have come to a head—where else?—in California.
Needless to say, we humans tend to show an instinct for overreach within all our tribes. It's certainly nothing unique to us liberals if we show this slight tendency too.
That said, our brothers and sisters in California have been fashioning a public school ethnic studies curriculum. The assistant, associate and adjunct professors have been deeply involved in the effort, and let's be completely frank at this time:
When the New York Times starts its front-page report on our project this way, our brothers and sisters in sunny Cal may have managed to get themselves out over their skies just a bit:
GOLDSTEIN (8/16/19): Discuss a recent instance of police brutality in your community. Read op-eds arguing for and against legal status for unauthorized immigrants. Compare and contrast border conditions in the Palestinian territories and Mexico.Depending on the grade level in question, there's nothing obviously wrong with those basic assignments in paragraph 1. But by paragraph 3, Dana Goldstein was saying that the proposed curriculum was "unapologetically activist"—and even that it was "jargony."
Those are some of the lesson plans suggested in a draft of California’s newly proposed ethnic studies curriculum for K-12 public schools. The documents have led to bitter debate in recent weeks over whether they veer into left-wing propaganda, and whether they are inclusive enough of Jews and other ethnic groups. Now, amid a growing outcry, even progressive policymakers in the state are promising significant revisions.
The materials are unapologetically activist—and jargony. They ask students to “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression.” A goal, the draft states, is to “connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice.”
When the heavily woke New York Times is saying such things in paragraph 3, Rancho Cucamonga, we may have a problem! Some of the curriculum's "jargony" instincts were on display in that third paragraph, and Goldstein soon came back for more:
GOLDSTEIN: It did not help that some of the terms used throughout the more than 300 pages of documents—“hxrstory, “cisheteropatriarchy,” “accompliceship”—were inscrutable to many in Sacramento and beyond.According to oral tradition, you can't tell the players without a scorecard. Even at the fully woke Times, you won't know how to pronounce “hxrstory" without consulting that glossary!
According to a glossary included with the documents, “hxrstory,” pronounced “herstory,” is history written from a gender-inclusive perspective. “Cisheteropatriarchy” is a system of power based on the dominance of straight men who are not transgender. “Accompliceship” is the process of building relationships grounded in trust and accountability with marginalized people and groups.
Does this proposed curriculum make good sense overall? We can't tell you that. In her own eye-rolling critique for the Washington Post, liberal education writer Valerie Strauss reports that the state's new education director has sent the proposed vehicle back to the shop for "major," "substantial" repairs:
STRAUSS (8/19/19): Linda Darling-Hammond, who was appointed president of the state Board of Education by Brown’s successor, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), said in an interview that the draft would undergo major changes. The board has not officially been given the draft from the state’s Instructional Quality Commission, which received it a few months ago, made some changes and posted it on the state Education Department’s website for public comment through Aug. 15.Strauss notes the problem with jargon too. Before we move on a larger complaint, let's note an irony in the proposed curriculum's use of so many new words.
Darling-Hammond issued a statement with Ilene Straus, vice president of the Board of Education, and board member Feliza I. Ortiz-Licon, saying, “A model curriculum should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state, and align with Governor Newsom’s vision of a California for all. The current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.”
In her report for the Times, Goldstein quotes a co-chair of the ethnic studies commission defending the proposed curriculum. We were struck by one phrase he repeatedly used:
GOLDSTEIN: Drafters of the proposed curriculum and their supporters say it is important for students to view the world in a way not promoted by the powerful.As an academic field, does ethnic studies have "its own academic language?" For better or worse, we'll assume that it very much does. All in all, Cuauhtin seems to think that the new curriculum should proceed in a whole set of ways which are very much "its own."
The Cal Matters website quoted R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a member of the advisory committee that worked on the draft, as saying, “Sometimes people want to approach ethnic studies as just a superficial diversity class and that’s it. Ethnic studies is an academic field of over 50 years that has its own frameworks, its own academic language, its own understandings of how it approaches subjects and our world.”
We'll assume that may be a problem. As is true with people all over the world, our more progressive sisters and brothers have long displayed a powerful tendency to keep changing the language in ways which are ever more stunningly woke.
This tends to create and promote a type of tribal bond among those who speak the new language. For better or worse, it tends to make everyone else feel that a revolution is happening of which they may not be a part.
Having said that, alas! According to Darling-Hammond, this curriculum is meant to "align with Governor Newsom’s vision of a California for all" (our emphasis). It's meant to be "appropriate [and presumably welcoming] for all learners in our diverse state" (our emphasis).
All that jargony folderol may fly in the face of those ideals. And according to both Goldstein and Strauss, the proposed curriculum is being widely challenged for its alleged lack of inclusion in ways which are even more basic.
Alas! We liberals today are strongly inclined to slice and dice the population into identity groups. At our least sensitive, we believe your "identity" is your race and your gender, full stop, and that we are the ones empowered to tell you what your "identity" is.
A certain Maoist feeling may seem to intrude at such junctures. And in the current case in Cali, our tribe may be learning a tragic fact—once you start slicing and dicing the world, it's hard to know how to stop:
GOLDSTEIN: The California course materials focus on people of color, such as African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Central American immigrants and Pacific Islanders. Much of the material is uncontroversial...Uh-oh! We need to add units dealing with mistreatment of Armenians, Greeks, Hindus, Koreans and Indian-Americans. Cali's kids may be sitting in school all summer long trying to finish their work!
But after California released the draft of the materials for public comment in June, some Jewish legislators and organizations complained that anti-Semitism was not an area of emphasis, while the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel came up repeatedly. Armenian, Greek, Hindu and Korean organizations later joined the Jewish groups in calling for revisions.
Shereen Bhalla, director of education for the Hindu American Foundation, said the curriculum should include information on the contributions Indian-Americans have made to the United States, and on the discrimination they have faced through immigration restrictions and hate crimes.
What should American public school kids be taught about all these matters? That question isn't easy to answer, as this current episode shows.
Arguably, the episode also teaches the occasional tendency of our vastly self-assured tribe to lapse into forms of self-parody. At one point, Goldstein quotes a Republican legislator making that claim with respect to this curriculum, and that claim will strike many as accurate. Here again, Tucker Carlson is being provided with segments in which he won't clearly be wrong.
In our view, it's important to help kids learn about the real ways our history works. That said, it's also important to remember that California's kids are just kids; that their parents are actual people who may not agree with our deeply woke views; and that all residents of the state count, not just those who have achieved a state of accompliceship with our deeply woke version of hxrstory. Those on the verge of abandoning Trump may decide to hang on after all.
Might we close with two thoughts which popped into our heads as we read Goldstein's report? We'll start with the first of these thoughts:
Might a California curriculum include the historical experience of the so-called Okies? One of California's greatest writers wrote a very great book about the way they were treated in California during the Dust Bowl years.
It was made into a beautiful film in 1940. Mightn't the (fictional) experiences of Ma Joad's boy add to the ability of Cali kids to empathize with the mistreated? In some cases, to empathize with someone who (allegedly and supposedy) doesn't "look like them?"
Here's our second suggestion. Might someone tell California kids than this isn't just an American thing?
When our brothers and sisters get out over their skis, they tend to say or suggest that persecution was invented by the Amerikan people. But this isn't an exclusively Amerikkan phenomenon. It's part of our deeply flawed human inheritance. It exists, and has always existed, all around the world.
In that very famous California-based book. Tom Joad speaks it like this:
"Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there... I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry n’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there."Presumably, Cesar Chavez will be there too, and so will Dr. King. Mandela will also be present, saying that he and his imprisoned comrades "identified with" a frail Euro girl, Anne Frank.
Kids need to be told that things of the type under review haven't just happened here in Amerikkka. They happened where Hitler went after the Jews; where the Khmer Rouge cleansed the countryside; where Mao sent folk off for re-education; where the Hutus decided to take out the Tutsis—or was it the other way around?—and the world largely stood by and watched.
Lincoln said we all did this; children deserve the chance to think about that statement too. Over here, in our floundering tribe, our jargon, and our sense of certainty, may sometimes suggest that we are almost capable of loathing The Others too.
Children should get the chance to think widely. Also, in a system like ours, the views of their parents must count!
Tomorrow: What's in a couple of words?