Letters to the Editors 19.2

Standards Challenge Status Quo

Christine E. Sleeter makes some valid criticisms of the California History-Social Science Framework and Standards in “Standardizing Imperialism” (Vol. 19, No. 2). The framework could certainly improve its treatment conolonialism/imperialism; it could lessen its emphasis on overly simplified dichotomous analyses of political and economic systems; and it could more even-handedly deal with the virtues and pitfalls of American democracy.

However, Sleeter’s general characterization of this document as a tool of conservative historical analysis undervalues the critical teaching language in the standards.

While critical pedagogists such as Sleeter may fault the document in its entirety, it does challenge the educational status quo more than Sleeter suggests.

Sleeter asserts that colonialism is slighted in the standards. Yet the framework overview suggests that when students study imperialism in India, students “should view British imperialism both from the perspective of the peoples of India and of the colonial rulers.” And Standard 10.4 indicates students should be able to “[e]xplain imperialism from the perspective of the colonizers and the colonized and the varied immediate and long-term responses by the people under colonial rule.”

Sleeter also asserts that the Framework “encourages [students] to regard the U.S. political economic system as the best possible.” While the framework does impress upon students that free market economies and democracy tend to run hand-in-hand, the framework does not assert the superiority of any particular economic system. In fact, the narrative that precedes the standards asks students to consider the social ramifications of a capitalist system, namely “the persistence of poverty in a generally productive economy” and “underemployment and labor.” Students are also asked to understand “the role of the transnational corporation” in the global economy and “the distribution of wealth and resources on a global scale.”

Sleeter suggests that the dominant view is emphasized in the framework and standards and that “[w]e need to offer our students multiple narratives and viewpoints.” Yet the framework is more balanced than she implies. Historians of varying approaches contributed to the document. Writers of diverse viewpoints—Studs Terkel, Jeremy Rifkin,Thomas Sowell, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. among them—are noted in the appendices. The often-slighted United Nations is part of 10th- and 11th-grade standards. The standards require students to study maps of colonialism, but students are also asked to understand how “European colonization and economic exploitation” led to “social, cultural, and economic disruption of West Africa.” Sleeter picks and chooses elements of the standards and framework to buttress her contention that the standards reinforce a jingoistic, culturally imperialistic worldview.

In the hands of a good teacher who wishes to instill critical thinking in her students, the California History-Social Science Framework and Standards can be used to teach the very values Sleeter articulates. Students can still read an anti-colonial novel such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or learn about the colonial legacy of the Dutch and British by reading Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy (a book the standards suggest students read). Teachers—such as those at my school—can use textbooks such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to teach to these standards. Teachers can also use ideas from magazines such as Rethinking Schools to structure activities that will help students critically analyze their world.

The history framework and standards in California are certainly political, as are any documents related to how we educate our children. But these standards are not the darling of the right wing, as Sleeter implies. Nor are these the critical pedagogical standards Sleeter might like them to be. But in a society built upon compromise, these standards are about as good as it gets.

— Chris Davis
La Crescenta, California

Don’t Forget Youth Resources

Terry Burant listed many excellent sources of information on social justice issues in “What Are You Reading?” (Vol. 19, No. 1). But she left out one major category: material produced by teens themselves. For teens, stories by their peers are often more credible and compelling than information from any other source. Fortunately, a growing body of teen-produced media is now available. Much of it is on the web, free or cheap. Here are a few suggestions, starting with our own site: www.youthcomm.org has several hundred personal stories by teens on topics like serving in JROTC, getting arrested at the Republican National Convention, the impact of NCLB on students, why a Muslim student chooses to wear a hijab, and what happens when a friend contracts an STD. Youth Communication’s site also includes a special section with stories by teens in the foster-care system. The teen portal on the Alternet site is www.alternet.org/wiretap. It focuses on teen perspectives on major news stories and youth culture.

Other sites with lots of teen writers include www.layouth.com (Los Angeles), www.youthoutlook.org (San Francisco), www.newexpression.org (Chicago), and www.mygumbo.com (Milwaukee).

www.appalshop.org has a wide selection of multimedia materials on issues facing rural youth.

Teen-produced videos on social issues are available at the Educational Video Center (www.evc.org) and Global Action (www.global-action.org). For excellent teen-produced radio/audio, try www.youthradio.org and www.radiorookies.org.

Many of these sites include teacher guides. For teens who feel that nothing can be done to create change or who simply tune out when teachers start talking about social issues, youth media is the antidote. Stories by and about youth can grab their attention, inspire them—and give them information in a way they are more likely to absorb.

— Keith Hefner, Executive Director
Youth Communication, New York, N.Y.

Open-minded Reading

I agree with Terry Burant in the essay “What Are You Reading” (Vol. 19, No. 1), but only to a certain point. While I feel we should read progressive journals, such as

those she mentions, I think it wise to read other viewpoints with a more open mind than she suggests. Burant writes that reading other viewpoints is “an important intellectual exercise . . . to suspend judgment and follow the argument of someone with whom I radically disagree.” The author is reading more to see what the enemy is up to than to expand her own mind.

I have found it much more rewarding, and progressive to read a wide range of views, including columnists with whom I have not agreed in the past, but who approach an issue from an angle I hadn’t thought of.

There is the possibility that some of my views are wrong! If we get so mired in our issues and stances that we are unable to evolve our views over time, then we are as bad as those we disagree with.

I also feel that if we nurture relationships only with like-minded colleagues, we are stifling our own creative thought. Great leaders from all walks of life have assimilated all opinions and ideas, agreeable and disagreeable, to make up their minds for themselves. We need to trust our students and ourselves to do the same.

— Charlie Kahn
Versailles, Kentucky