Books: Readings

April 22, 1992 6 min read

Acquiring “skills’’ should not come at the expense of acquiring knowledge. Students should finish high school knowing not just the “method’’ or “process’’ of science or history; they should actually know some science and history. They should know fractions and decimals, and percentages and algebra and geometry. They should know that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and they should know who said “I am the state’’ and who said “I have a dream.’' They should know about subjects and predicates, about isosceles triangles and ellipses. They should know where the Amazon flows, and what the First Amendment means. They should know about the Donner party and slavery, and Shylock, Hercules, and Abigail Adams, where Ethiopia is, and why there was a Berlin Wall. They should know how a poem works, how a plant works, and the meaning of “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’' They should know the place of the Milky Way and DNA in the unfolding of the universe. They should know about the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and about the conventions of good behavior. They should know what the Sistine Chapel looks like and what great music sounds like.

Our students should also know our nation’s ideals and aspirations. We believe in liberty and equality, in limited government and the betterment of the human condition. These truths underlie our society, and though they may be self-evident, they are not spontaneously apprehended by the young.

These are things we should want all our students to know. We should not hold some students to lesser goals, pushing them into educational backwaters while everyone else is advancing upstream. Albert Shanker once asked a class of average and less-than-average students: “What should we ask you to read?’' After a pause one student raised his hand. “Mr. Shanker,’' he asked, “what do the smart kids read?’'

The De-Valuing of America: The Fight For Our Culture and Our Children, by William J. Bennett. Summit Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 271 pp., $20 cloth. Copyright 1992 all rights reserved.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has interwoven the various strands of debate surrounding the country’s upsurge in ethnic awareness to form a concise, powerfully reasoned essay on what it means to be an American. The Disuniting of America is both explanatory and cautionary. Mr. Schlesinger uses his own ethnic background and his sense of American history to relate the natural progression of individual groups into the societal “melting pot.’' But he warns of the divisive and distracting effects of a “cult of ethnicity’’ that has taken hold today in many school systems and in society at large. Using an ill-conceived “feel-good history’’ as an antidote to past wrongs, he says in the excerpt below, will subvert the true purpose of history:

Like any other excluded groups before them, black Americans invoke supposed past glories to compensate for real past and present injustices. Because their exclusion has been more tragic and terrible than that of white immigrants, their quest for self-affirmation is more intense and passionate. In seeking to impose Afrocentric curricula on public schools, for example, they go further than their white predecessors. And belated recognition by white America of the wrongs so viciously inflicted on black Americans has created the phenomenon of white guilt--not a bad thing in many respects, but still a vulnerability that invites cynical black exploitation and manipulation.

The black American predicament is another variation on the familiar theme of nationalism. No American scholar has written more fondly about the Arab quest for identity or has more sharply accused the West of imperialism and racism than the Palestinian-American Edward W. Said of Columbia. Yet Mr. Said sees in his beloved Arab Middle East the pathos of “an aggrieved and unfulfilled nationalism, beset with conspiracies.’' He warns against the “provincial and self-pitying posture that argues that a largely fictional and monolithic West disdains us. ... There are many Wests, some antagonistic, some not.’' He warns too against “thinkers who want to start from scratch and zealously, not to say furiously, take things back to some pure, sacred origin. This has given all sorts of pathologies time and space enough to take hold.’' Serious black scholars see the black predicament with similar clarity.

History as a weapon is an abuse of history. The high purpose of history is not the presentation of self nor the vindication of identity but the recognition of complexity and the search for knowledge.
“We need odes not to blood and mythology or uprooted mourned or dead plants,’' writes Mr. Said, “but to living creatures and actual situations.’'

The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., W.W. Norton & Co., 500 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10110. 160 pp., $14.95 cloth. Copyright 1992 all rights reserved.

The Queens College political scientist Andrew Hacker views Afrocentrism from a slightly different perspective in Two Nations, a book that charts the growing separation of the black and white spheres of American society in everything from employment to education.

Critics of the Afrocentric curriculum may be unintentionally underplaying, he says, the very real historical and cultural contributions of blacks. History lessons should recognize the considerable black influence on American life, Mr. Hacker writes, not only because of the benefits such recognition would bring to black students’ self-esteem, but also because of the greater understanding it would foster among white students:

... The traditional teaching of history has tended to focus on those who exercised power and formulated policy. In this reading, most major decisions have been made by white Christian men. It may be worthwhile to tell children from Chinese origins that laborers of their ancestry laid the tracks for the Central Pacific Railroad. But they should also learn how Leland Stanford and Collis Huntington conceived of the project and supervised its completion. Is wielding a pickax as significant a contribution as syndicating debentures? This is not simply an academic question, but has ideological overtones as well.

We can all agree that minority groups have done their bit. At the same time, since Americans of European origin got here first, they have tended to be the ones in influential positions. Students will hardly understand how this country evolved to its current shape--or, indeed, how power works--if they are taught that all ethnic groups have played equally important roles.

Established scholars worry lest lessons may be turned into ethnic cheerleading, laced with indictments of Europe’s culpability for slavery, colonization, and the decimation of native populations. At the same time, most scholars are willing to admit that there can be no such thing as an “objective’’ history or “neutral’’ social science. All depictions bolster some interests; all interpretations support some present views. Even such praiseworthy precepts as “individuality’’ and “freedom’’ arise and are sustained in specific settings. And those contexts often embody systems of privilege.

Certainly, schools at all levels can and should be doing more about teaching black history, African culture, and the contributions of black Americans in the nation’s life. After all, white children have been learning about their own race’s history, and its culture and contributions, for a very long time. Most educators will grant that having a pride in one’s people plays a vital role in building self-respect, and this can translate into academic achievement. As one scholar put it, youngsters “do better academically when they see themselves in the curriculum.’' That does not happen often for black children. The chief message they still get, in school as elsewhere, is that this is a white country, to which they do not fully belong.

Two Nations, Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, by Andrew Hacker. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 866 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022. 257 pp., $24.95 cloth. Copyright 1992 by Andrew Hacker. Reprinted by arrangement with Charles Scribner’s Sons, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Company.

A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 1992 edition of Education Week as Books: Readings


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