CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.
Recently, I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States – a book detailing American history from the perspective of the most disadvantaged members of society. I really enjoyed reading Zinn’s book and felt that it lent me a better understanding of structural injustices in American history that were overlooked in my traditional schooling. However, a quick google search on the book will reveal that many do not share my opinion. In fact, although the book is historically accurate, many have called for its banning from schools.
Notably, lawmakers in the state of Arkansas tried to pass a bill to get the book banned from all curriculum. And even the former governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, attempted to create a plan to ban Zinn’s words from the classroom, celebrating Zinn’s death with the line “this terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.” Daniels is now the head of education at Purdue University. They justify their attempts to censor Zinn’s novel by characterizing it as unpatriotic and claiming that it is “too political.” But this argument flies in the face of the fact that schools are already highly politicized institutions.
When students sing the names of Columbus’s ships without learning that he enslaved people, that is political.
When students are taught that Galileo discovered astronomy without discussing the critical contributions made by Islamic scholars hundreds of years earlier, that is political.
When students learn that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence without learning that he raped a slave, that is political.
So, it seems to me that the problem is not that the novel is too political, rather that it teaches from a perspective that those in power do not appreciate. It is not anti-American; it just does not portray their specific viewpoint of America: the wealthy, white perspective.
Unfortunately, the attempted bans of Zinn’s novel are not anomalies. Around the country, the viewpoints of people of color have been suppressed in education. In Arizona, budding ethnic studies programs that taught history from diverse perspectives were made illegal by state lawmakers. These programs had clear positive effects, resulting in better educational outcomes for all students enrolled and a greater attendance and engagement of Latino students, the group suffering the most under the traditional education system. However, the powerful politicians in Arizona simply viewed the classes as communist and un-American, disregarding the benefits of learning from a new perspective.
When fighting inequity in the classroom, we should recognize that students are not only being marginalized by the structure of schools and standardized tests, but also by the actual content that is being taught or being hidden. As people in powerful places continue to attempt to create a monolithic school system that only teaches wealthy white culture, it becomes increasingly important that, as members of CCE, we try to include social justice and diverse perspectives in every part of our educational evolution.