Whose America is This Anyway?

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us, Mr. Sobol

By LynNell Hancock

In the early ‘60s a debate shook the shingles in my little Midwestern town: should the public school teach us about Russia? Most adults were afraid that, among other things, kids would mindlessly take to heart Marx’s dictum “Religion is the opiate of the people” and stop coming to Wednesday night choir practice. It was during the same time that our televisions showed us a dramatic commercial nearly every night for “Radio Free Europe”—a child wrapped up in chains standing behind the dreaded “Iron Curtain,” Russia, in my mind, was a scary country filled with children in chains, and I figured the adults in my town were just protecting us from having nightmares about it. Fear overcame the plea for a greater global understanding, and the matter died a polite, Midwestern death. I lost my chance to learn about a culture and a system of government different from United States and I never knew until much later how lopsided my education really was.

Today, in New York, children can learn about the Soviet Union, Gorbachev, and perestroika. But the “Iron Curtain” is still drawn over significant events from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean—places where many students were born. A senior in Queen’s Springfield Gardens High School noticed the gap. “The only thing we heard about black Americans in school was slavery, slavery, nothing else,” said Latysha Place, who writes for New Youth Connections newspaper. “I would be smarter if I was told the truth. I feel bad, I feel cheated out of an education.”

Thirty years after Russia rocked my Iowa hometown, a school curriculum debate is raging in New York State, on a scale larger than our town’s skirmish. Though it’s more complex, the current controversy is propelled by similar passions, and it could have similar ramifications for children. The questions in 1990 center around multicultural education: How much should children learn about minority cultures? How much damage is being done to children whose heritages are ignored in the classroom? Is a Eurocentric bias to blame? Whose America is this, anyway?

In Iowa only one brave social studies teacher was lobbying for our wordly enrichment. In New York, the official rabble-rouser is the state education commissioner himself, Thomas Sobol, the wry, white boat-rocker from Scarsdale. Sobol had finally responded to minority education advocates who’ve been lobbying for inclusion these past two decades.

Like that Iowa teacher, Sobol has not been embraced. Instead, the commissioner who dared to challenge the heart of unequal education by examining its curricula and biases under a microscope has been propped up for target practice.

Over the last 10 months, sharpshooters have taken aim from all these organizations: the American Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers, Time Magazine, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, the Daily News, and the New York Post.

Raw fear appears to be pulling the trigger—fear of people’s differences, fear that the American Way of Life, a/k/a Western Civilization, is about to be bagged and butchered before dawn.

“It looks like this has become a political football, a struggle over turf. It’s about power. It’s no longer about what constitutes a solid, fair curriculum,” said Dr. Virginia Sanchez Korrol, chair of Puerto Rican studies at Brooklyn College.

Curriculum of Inclusion is the report causing the furor. It was put together last July, by Sobol’s Task Force on Minorities: Equity and Excellence, and its recommendations were accepted by the Board of Regents in February. After Sobol first identified the two-tier educational reality in the state—one school system for whites, one for minorities, one successful, one a dismal failure—the commissioner began the quest for solutions. His first strategy was to examine just what the children were being taught.

Does it reflect, he wanted to know, “the pluralistic nature of our society?” Not surprisingly, the researchers found some gaping holes. The July 1989 report says, “the various contributions of the African Americans, the Asian Americans, the Puerto Rican/Latinos and the Native Americans have been systematically distorted, marginalized, or omitted. For a state that “welcomes” 90,000 new immigrants every year, the findings are alarming.

The report called for a recasting of the information children learn to include a perspective that doesn’t always place European values at the center. “European culture,” says the report, “is now likened to the master of a house ruling over a dinner table, himself firmly established at the head of the table and all other cultures being guests some distance down the table from the master, who has invited the others through his beneficence.” The task force is recommending a different configuration, one “likened to the fabled Round Table of King Arthur, with all cultures offering something to the collective good, each knowing and respecting others, and each gaining from the contribution of others.”

The multicultural approach, the report continues, “is seen as serving the interests of all children from all cultures: children from (minority) cultures will have higher self-esteem and self-respect, while children from European cultures will have a less arrogant perspective of being part of the group that has ‘done it all.’”

It’s an official state call to reexamine who really discovered America, to look at what groups were left out of our constitution, and to question why. It’s a call for more history, not less, for a more complete story of America’s diversity, not a narrower one. It’s a call for a more truthful curriculum that will create thinkers, not just spoon-fed citizens of a homogeneous land that, like it or not, no longer exists.

Multiculturalism in the Classroom

Some of our city’s finest schools have been quietly enriching curricula in the name of quality teaching for years. Take, for example, the Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem’s District 4.

The junior high humanities class at 106th Street and Madison Avenue is galaxies beyond the traditional school room—no bolted-down desks, no captive kids. A handful of word processors pepper the room’s perimeter. A time line streams the length of the back wall, marking the Great Migration of African Americans from the plantations to the North, the birth of the NAACP, Brown vs. Board of Education, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. A flexible globe is deliberately tilted to one side; Africa is, for the time being, the critical land mass where the North Pole is conventionally expected. A couch, draped in a pink-striped cotton spread from India sits under a window, inviting students to curl up with material on the Jamestown settlement; or The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton; or one of the classic volumes of race relations rarely available to social studies students.

Here, 12 and 13 year olds, mostly from El Barrio, a neighborhood ravaged by poverty and neglect, are engaged in multicultural learning in its most advanced form. Unaware of the debate swirling outside the classroom, the children and teachers are absorbed in a unit called “The Peopling of America.” They are exploring the roots of immigration, reading about Congo culture and Portuguese explorers, making connections between the “essential questions” taped all over the walls: Whose country is this? How do we know what we know? Does the nation change the group, or the group change the nation? What is an American?

“When we first asked the kids, ‘What is an American?’ many gave a legal definition,” said teacher Nancy Mann. “Then we studied the Harlem Renaissance as a kind of internal migration, a cultural evolution of sorts, and many came up with an emotional definition—it goes back and forth. They discovered that being an American is a complex idea.”

In later years, Central Park East students study justice, by enacting mock trials from two different cultures, one adversarial in the British tradition, the other, consensual, from the Ebo tribe in Africa.

“The point is not to teach facts to be memorized, but to teach connections between ideas, and to teach things that make sense to kids,” said Pat Walter, one of the team of humanities teachers.

Multiculturalism is, then, a natural extension of a thinking-student’s curriculum. It is this kind of expansive knowledge Sobol would like to see more of in classrooms all over the state.

Ravaged by Ravitch

But Sobol’s opponents must have read a different report. Leading the opposition, and providing its best ammunition, is Diane Ravitch, an educational historian affiliated with Columbia University’s Teachers College, who was a paid consultant to the task force. Ravitch is not alarmed by the report’s findings. She is, rather, alarmed by its language — too shrill, too angry, too divisive, she claims. “The tone of the report is consistently antiWestern and anti-white,” Ravitch wrote with impassioned prose in the Daily News. “It sees nothing in Western culture but racism, greed and intolerance. The task force thinks that white children are too ‘arrogant.’”

Dismissing the notion that omissions reflect bias, she said in a recent interview, “New York State’s curriculum is not biased. The task force didn’t come up with a shred of evidence to substantiate the claim.” Ravitch is the only white out of four experts hired as a consultant to the task force, and the only one quoted in the mainstream press. She is, by reputation and authored works, a neoconservative. As Brooklyn’s City Sun reports, Ravitch’s roots lie with Reagan Republicans like William Bennett and Lynne VB. Cheney.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has taken Ravitch’s side. In his January column called “A Curriculum of Fragmentation,” Shanker argued that Sobol’s report is designed to “make sure minority students get told nice stories about themselves.” Shanker’s opinions bear a marked similarity to those of Ravitch. “We most strongly oppose any rewriting of history that tries to divide our past up like a pie,” said the former president of the United Federation of Teachers, which is, to this day, over 70 per cent white. In her book The Great School Wars, Ravitch wrote sympathetically about the UFT in its battles with the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community.

The Wall Street Journal was one of the first to thumb its nose at the plea for cultural equity. In an August editorial called “Curriculum of Diversion,” the national journal said, “If schools spend their resources fretting over the worth of Western culture, it’s likely that children will be more woefully unknowledgeable in the basics than they already are.”

Newsday opinion writer Jim Sleeper gave the report a “D-” in February, “What the task force calls our ‘white,’ ‘Eurocentric’ society is part of a worldwide culture that kids must master to survive in the next century. The Japanese know this…” Earlier, in September, Newsday’s Ideas section led with an attack on the report by Queens political scientist Andrew Hacker. Hacker to support his argument that the European way of thinking is just fine with everyone, wrote, “The black and Asian and Hispanic students I see in Queens seem quite cheerful and self-confident.” Cheerful in Howard Beach? Self-confident in South Ozone Park?

A notable exception to the pack of whit editorial writers is Diane Camper, a black writer for The New York Times, who called Sobol’s report “ a sound approach to a laudable goal.” In the midst of her supportive February editorial she quoted Ravitch saying, “One of our strengths as a nation is our extraordinary diversity.” Ravitch, furious that her comments appeared in such a positive context, shot back a letter to the Times, correcting her image. “I have publicly opposed the plan,” she wrote, adding that her quote was “extracted out of context.”

Free at Last

The other task force consultants, all black and Puerto Rican, are puzzled by the bitter barrage. “I began wondering if I read the same report as Dr. Ravitch,” said consultant Asa Hilliard III, professor of educational psychology at the University of Georgia. “You have to be asleep not to see bias in our culture, in our history curriculum. African Americans have gone through 300 years of systematic defamation in history,” he said.

“One glaring omission is the failure to pay attention the the Haitian Revolution. It was a very influential event in world economics, but it’s overlooked,” Hilliard said.

“I have to question if Diane has been kept abreast of what’s happening in the field of history,” said Sanchez Korrol, a consultant. “We have been around for 20 years compiling research and literature. What the state syllabus tells you about Puerto Rico is practically nothing. Not knowing about it distorts all our knowledge.”

Sanchez Korrol is equally baffled by the objection to the report’s tone. “The language was personal. The language was strong… If they had put out neutral language, no one would have paid any attention to it,” she said. “We’ve been talking about this for a very, very long time. But no one listens to us unless they take over the university. The language said, ‘This is vital, the time has come for us to face what we are teaching our kids.’”

“We need to redefine what we mean by America,” Sanchez Korrol continued. “The symbol of the great Statue of Liberty does not carry the same connotation of freedom for us, for thousands of immigrants who came over the borders, not across the seas. Their reality is not addressed.”

To the argument that all minority groups will be lining up to get their piece of the curricular pie, Sanchez Korrol replied: “Nowhere does the report say curriculum should include ethnic groups in events where they don’t belong. Nowhere does it say curriculum should be dissected into equitable pieces. How can you fragment something when you are strengthening the whole? We should give every child a sense of participation, a sense that they have an investment in this country.”

Educators and students in New York City’s schools applaud the effort, even if conservative critics fear it. “There’s lots of material out there, isolated pieces of research about various American cultures that never made it into the textbook. Really good stuff,” said Maritza McDonald, a professor at Bank Street College. “Now they can begin pulling it together, putting more knowledge on the table.”

“It should be called Curriculum of Correction,” said Carmen Farina, a Brooklyn staff developer who focuses on multicultural materials in District 15. “There is so much left out, and so much wrong i what we have. Native Americans read an see that history didn’t start until the Europeans arrived. Kids don’t really know that Puerto Ricans are not foreigners. Multiculturalism is just common sense.”

David Hamilton, a senior at Adlai Stevenson High School in the Bronx, said “There was nothing about me, nothing about African Americans as a people” in the history books. “When I was in seventh grade, I was asking about Nelson Mandela in South Africa. I heard about him in a song. The teacher didn’t know. He wasn’t in the curriculum.”

LynNell Hancock writes on education and other matters for the Village Voice newspaper. Maura Burnett provided research assistance. Reprinted from the April 24, 1990 edition with permission of the author and the Village Voice.