Researcher Calls for Examination of Racial History Curriculum

By Alyssa Morones — December 20, 2013 2 min read
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With Nelson Mandela’s recent passing, a large amount of attention has been paid to his call for forgiveness and reconciliation. One researcher, though, is calling for greater attention to Mandela’s lesson of truth--a lesson particularly valuable to history educators.

For students to have a true understanding of American history, and current events, they need to learn the whole story, writes Richard Rothstein in the current issue of School Administrator. While the Civil Rights movement is often celebrated in American textbooks, key points that explain why it was necessary are often left out.

“We do a much worse job of facing up to our racial history in the United States,” writes Rothstein, “leading us to make less progress than necessary in remedying racial inequality.”

Specifically, Rothstein zeroes in on the nation’s history of segregation and the widespread belief that continued segregation, in both the North and the South, is not the result of explicit government policy. Rather, it is thought of as “de facto,” or as the result of private prejudice, economic inequality, or personal choice.

“But in truth, our major metropolitan areas were segregated by government action,” says Rothstein.

Rothstein cites several textbook examples. McDougal Littell’s high school textbook, The Americans, only devotes one paragraph to “Discrimination in the North” in the 20th century and a single sentence to residential segregation. Meanwhile, Prentice Hall’s United States History attributes segregation to what Rothstein deems “mysterious forces,” for its nonspecific and de facto citations.

“If we understood the important role that our government played in segregating our nation, we would feel a greater obligation to press our government to integrate it. But if we believe that segregation was an unintended byproduct of private forces, it is too easy to say there is little now that can be done about it,” he says.

“Such indoctrination of today’s high school students with racial falsehoods minimizes the possibility of progress towards equality when these students become our country’s leaders.”

Meanwhile, many history advocates are pushing just to keep the subject an area of focus in classrooms, in light of the increasing focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects. Efforts to ramp up the use of technology in the subject have become more prevalent in recent years and online history lessons have been crafted for students to analyze primary sources and critique different interpretations of historical events.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.