Educators call them “teachable moments.” Circumstances accidentally cross paths, creating the opportunity or need to learn about a certain topic.
We might have witnessed such a moment this spring on a national level after Fox News aired short video excerpts from sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Senator Barack Obama’s minister and friend. Right-wing talk-show hosts had a field day and YouTube buzzed as people viewed Wright’s denunciations of U.S. social ills.
Obama rose to the occasion, and on March 18 delivered a 37-minute nuanced speech about race and racism in the United States.
The speech was an anomaly in U.S. history. How refreshing to have a mainstream political leader speak so poetically and in such detail on a topic that at least in white and multiracial settings is rarely discussed.
This national silence about race is especially apparent in the school curriculum. A case in point is the recent controversy in Milwaukee over the potential multimillion dollar social studies textbook adoption. Activists pointed out that none of the four major publishers’ books on U.S. history for the 5th grade-some over 600 pages long-ever mentions the words “racism,” or in the case of two of the four, even the word “discrimination.”
Such omissions are not only factually inaccurate and a sorry commentary on the scholarship behind such books, but more importantly they teach children not to notice the silences surrounding key social concerns.
The issue involves more than acknowledging the stain of racism in our country’s past. When texts don’t talk about racism, when standards don’t mention racism, when teachers don’t teach about racism, they automatically eliminate any discussion of anti-racism. For if there is no racism there is no reason to be anti-racist. As a result, kids rarely learn of moments in U.S. history when people worked against racism-especially times they worked across racial lines.
This is a particularly unfortunate omission for white students who need examples of their “moral ancestors” acting as allies in the battle against white supremacy. Few kids know of whites in U.S. history who dedicated their lives to the struggle against racism: John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Prudence Crandall, Theodore Weld, Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Elijah Lovejoy. But all students, regardless of their own racial identity, need a curriculum that names racism and highlights the struggles against it.
But race is not the only social and curricular silence. Another is empire. In Howard Zinn’s essay in this issue, he laments the silences and distorted characterizations of U.S. foreign policy from the first Indian wars through today’s Iraq war.
If textbooks, Weekly Readers and other classroom materials mention U.S. imperialism at all, it’s most likely a mere hiccup starting with the Spanish-American War in 1898 and perhaps continuing through Teddy Roosevelt’s interventionist “Big Stick” policy in Central America and the Caribbean. Rarely is “Westward Expansion” regarded as “imperialism,” as empire building. It’s a similar omission when it comes to the 1846-48 War on Mexico, after which the U.S. seized almost half that country’s territory-albeit “legalized” in a treaty. And Vietnam-if history teachers make it that far-is more often portrayed as a “mistake” than as part of a pattern of U.S. imperial policy.
But curriculum begins not just with textbooks. The renowned educator Asa Hilliard, who passed away last year, was fond of saying, “Curriculum is what is inside a teacher’s head”-and, we might add, what’s not inside a teacher’s head. Many are unaware of the long history of imperial conquest that preceded the Iraq war. The World War II fight against fascism seems to have shaped the way too many educators view the United States in the world: at best, a fighter for freedom and democracy, at worst, a well-intended blunderer.
Educators’ classroom approaches often reflect one-sided textbooks that neglect the dozens of overt and covert U.S. military and CIA interventions since World War II. Few know, for example, of the 1953 U.S. intervention in Iran at the behest of the oil industry that overthrew the democratic reformer Mosaddegh; and yet this historical fact is crucial to understanding that area today. Other interventions-Guatemala in 1954, Cuba in 1961, Brazil in 1964, the Dominican Republic in 1965, the secret wars in Cambodia and Laos, Chile in 1973, Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s-rarely appear in textbooks or classroom discussions. Other “soft interventions” also go unmentioned, such as the U.S. “constructive engagement” policies that propped up the apartheid regime in South Africa, and our elected officials’ refusal to sign international treaties ranging from child labor and women’s rights to global warming and international war crimes.
And there is a corresponding curricular silence about the long history of opposition to imperial policies. Henry David Thoreau’s opposition to the U.S-Mexico war occasionally gets a sentence in some texts, but for the most part the rich history of anti-imperialist activism is forgotten-whether it’s the Anti-Imperialist League formed by Mark Twain and others to protest the U.S. war against Cuba and the Philippines, the massive antiwar movement during World War I, or the significant role the anti-war movement played in Vietnam (and in the U.S. military itself). Absent these voices of dissent, the curriculum implicitly tells children that “we” were the ones fighting wars and planting flags. But, as Howard Zinn wrote in his book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, “If patriotism in the best sense is loyalty to the principles of democracy, then who was the true patriot, Theodore Roosevelt, who applauded a massacre by American soldiers of 600 Filipino men, women, and children on a remote Philippine island, or Mark Twain, who denounced it?”
These two silences-race and empire-are intimately connected. An honest appraisal of one, cannot proceed without an examination of the other. The ability of this country’s rulers to successfully use jingoism to generate support for the many U.S. imperial ventures is tied to the racialized portrayal of the “other.” This began with the dozens of wars to steal this continent’s land from the original inhabitants, but is also manifested in the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments that fuel the current conflicts. When the curriculum fails to address race and empire, our students are ill-equipped to face a world where both are very much alive.
We need an extended teachable moment in our schools-collective efforts on the part of educators, parents, and social justice activists to expose and eliminate these silences in our curriculum and teaching.
On the national level, we need courageous leaders willing to put the issue of race on the table along with the equally difficult topic of American Empire. It is only when we begin to address both issues at a societal level that real change will come to our schools.