Aside

Black with a Capital B

 

Rethinking Schools began as a newspaper—a tabloid. Most newspapers followed the Associated Press Stylebook, so we did, too. That included a lowercase b when referring to Black culture or individuals. Over the years, that made various writers and editors uncomfortable, but we pointed to the problems with inconsistency in our archives as a reason not to change.

Prompted in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, we decided to revisit our usage at a recent editorial board meeting. We based our discussion on a 2014 op-ed piece by Lori L. Tharps in the New York Times, “The Case for Black with a Capital B.” She builds a strong historical and political case:

Ever since African people arrived in this country, we have had to fight for the right to a proper name. Upon arrival in the “New World,” we were all collectively deemed Africans, even though we came from different countries, cultures, and tribes. Very soon after, British colonists borrowed the Spanish term for black, and we became negros, negars, nigras and blacks—anything oppositional to the supposed purity of whiteness.

After emancipation, as many individuals replaced their slave surnames with ones of their own devising, like Freedman or Freeman, they still bore the painful legacy of the labels they’d been given: black, negro, and colored. . . .

In the mid-1900s, W. E. B. Du Bois began a letter-writing campaign, demanding that book publishers, newspaper editors, and magazines capitalize the N in Negro when referring to Black people. . . . The New York Timesrefused his request, as did most other newspapers. In 1929, when the editor for the Encyclopedia Britannicainformed Du Bois that Negro would be lowercased in the article he had submitted for publication, Du Bois quickly wrote a heated retort that called “the use of a small letter for the name of 12 million Americans and 200 million human beings a personal insult.”

Tharps says that editor changed his mind, as did many other mainstream publications, including the New York Times. She then notes the changes that the Black Power Movement of the 1960s had on how African Americans see and name themselves. She concludes: “If we’ve traded Negro for Black, why was that first letter demoted back to lowercase, when the argument had already been won?”

We found her arguments convincing. Editorial board member Jesse Hagopian explained it well: “Black with a capital B was won through political struggle. If we lowercase the b, we’re minimizing the importance of that collective, historical struggle.” In this issue of the magazine, and henceforth, we will write Black with a capital B. As always, we’re interested in your comments.  

From Rethinking Schools latest summer issue.

“What Do You Mean When You Say Urban?” and other resources for multicultural teaching

Earlier this month, we set up shop at the annual meeting of the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME). It’s always a joy to see old friends and meet folks who are new but no less passionate about multicultural education.

If you follow our blog, you likely share this passion, and know that Rethinking Schools has offered insights and resources on critical, multicultural teaching since our inception in 1986.

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Here are a few examples, free to all friends of Rethinking Schools:

Decolonizing the Classroom: Lessons in Multicultural Education,
by Wayne Au
Multicultural education has to be based on dialogue, both among students and between students and teachers.

“If There Is No Struggle…” Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement, by Bill Bigelow
Students “become” members of an abolitionist organization and grapple with the strategic dilemmas faced by one of the most significant U.S. social movements.

Multiculturalism: A Fight for Justice, by the editors of Rethinking Schools
The introduction to a special report on multicultural education.

Precious Knowledge: Teaching Solidarity with Tucsonby Devin Carberry
A high school history teacher centers a study of social movements on the fight over the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. His students spread the knowledge.

These articles are free to read for our subscribers. Subscribe today to gain access! (All subscribers enjoy access to our online archives. If you have a subscription, but are not sure how to activate your online account, please call customer service at 1-800-660-4192.)

What Do You Mean When You Say Urban?: Speaking honestly about race and students, by Dyan Watson
“Urban” has become one of a series of euphemisms for African American and Latina/o students. What preconceptions hide behind the language?

The Other Internment: Teaching the Hidden Story of Japanese Latin Americans during WWII, by Moé Yonamine
A role play engages students in exploration of a little-known piece of history-the deportation of people of Japanese origin from Latin American countries to U.S. internment camps.

Diversity vs. White Privilege: An Interview with Christine Sleeterby Bob Peterson and Barbara Miner
Christine Sleeter explains why multiculturalism, at its core, is a struggle against racism, and must go beyond an appreciation of diversity.

Putting Out the Linguistic Welcome Mat, by Linda Christensen
Honoring students’ home languages builds an inclusive classroom.

Welcome Our New Editors!

You may have noticed from Rethinking Schools Facebook page that four new editorial associates have joined our volunteer editorial board.

photoMoé Yonamine, from Portland, Ore., was born in Okinawa and brings the insights of someone who has lived in a place bullied–but not defeated–by colonial powers. Moé teaches and Oregon’s most racially diverse high school, Roosevelt. She has authored two articles for Rethinking Schools: “The Other Internment: Teaching the Hidden History of Japanese  Latin American Internment During World War II” and “But You Guys Wanted Us Here,” a review of the film ANPO: Art X War about the 1960 so-called mutual security pact between Japan and the United States. Moé has also written for our Zinn Education Project’s “If We Knew Our History” column. Recently, Moé gave birth to her fourth child. To give you a sense of her remarkable dedication, she drafted an article for Rethinking Schools as she was on hospital bed rest prior to delivery. Now that’s commitment!

AdamSanchezAdam Sanchez teaches social studies at Madison High School in Portland. He is also an accomplished Rethinking Schools contributor, having written both policy and classroom pieces: “For or Against Children? The Problematic History of Stand for Children,” (written with Ken Libby); “Te Tremble: An Unnatural Disaster,” a trial role play on the Haitian earthquake; and “Oregonians Vote to Tax the Rich.” Adam is also a contributor to the books Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation and 101 Changemakers. He is active in social justice union work in Oregon and co-founded the Portland area Social Equality Educators.

GraceGonzalezGrace Cornell Gonzales current teaches Spanish immersion kindergarten at a public elementary school in San Francisco. She became interested in teaching through working in adult education and with immigrant advocacy groups. She is trilingual (English, Spanish, and Portuguese), and has traveled extensively through Latin America and taught in Brazil. Grace is the author of “An Unfortunate Misunderstanding: Saga of a Promising New Charter” in our spring issue, “Who Can Stay Here? Documentation and Citizenship in Children’s Literature,” “Sin Fronteras Boy: Students Create Collaborative Websites to Explore the Border,” and the Good Stuff column “Literature for Young Bilingual Readers.”

jesseheadshotEarlier this year, you may have seen Jesse Hagopian with Rethinking Schools editor Wayne Au on Democracy Now! Jesse was one of the lead organizers of the inspirational boycott of the MAP standardized tests at Seattle’s Garfield High School. He reflects on this struggle in an article in the spring issue of Rethinking Schools. Jesse is an experienced activist and frequent public speaker, a found of Seattle’s Social Equality Educators, a regular contributor of wildly popular articles at Commondreams.org, author of the chapter “Teacher Unions and Social Justice” in Education and Capitalism, and a contributor to 101 Changemakers. He is also a dad. Satchel, his second child, was born during the frenetic first days of the test boycott at Garfield.

This introduction first appeared in The Insider, a publication especially for donors to Rethinking Schools. Consider joining this circle of friends and supporters with a donation to Rethinking Schools today. 

Howard Zinn at 90: Lessons from the People’s Historian

Howard Zinn was a great friend of Rethinking Schools. He generously allowed us to reprint articles of his in the magazine and our books. He agreed to be interviewed by Rethinking Schools editors.  He gave us kind blurbs for our books. He mentioned our work in his talks and referred teachers to us. Most important, Howard Zinn taught us about the world and inspired us to think more deeply about social change. To commemorate his 90th birthday, Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow wrote this article as part of the Zinn Education Project’s article series, “If We Knew Our History.”


This Friday–August 24–would have been the 90th birthday of the great historian and activist Howard Zinn, who died in 2010. Zinn did not merely record history, he made it: as a professor at Spelman College in the 1950s and early 1960s, where he was ultimately fired for his outspoken support of students in the Civil Rights Movement, and specifically the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); as a critic of the U.S. war in Vietnam, and author of the first book calling for an immediate U.S. withdrawal; and as author of arguably the most influential U.S. history textbook in print, A People’s History of the United States.

“That book will knock you on your ass,” as Matt Damon’s character says in the film Good Will Hunting.

Painting of Howard Zinn by Robert Shetterly

It’s always worth dipping into the vast archive of Zinn scholarship, but at the beginning of a school year, and as the presidential campaign heats up, now is an especially good time to remember some of Howard Zinn’s wisdom.

Shortly after Barack Obama’s election, the Zinn Education Project sponsored a talk by Zinn to several hundred teachers at the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Houston. Zinn reminded teachers that the point of learning about social studies was not simply to memorize facts, it was to imbue students with a desire to change the world. “A modest little aim,” Zinn acknowledged, with a twinkle in his eye.

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In this talk, available as an online video as well as a transcription, Zinn insisted that teachers must help students challenge “fundamental premises which keep us inside a certain box.” Because without this critical rethinking of premises about history and the role of the United States in the world, “things will never change.” And this will remain “a world of war and hunger and disease and inequality and racism and sexism.”

A key premise that needs to be questioned, according to Zinn, is the notion of “national interests,” a term so common in the political and academic discourse as to be almost invisible. Zinn points out that the “one big family” myth begins with the Constitution’s preamble: “We the people of the United States…” Zinn noted that it wasn’t “we the people” who established the Constitution in Philadelphia — it was 55 rich white men. Missing from or glossed over in the traditional textbook treatment are race and class divisions, including the rebellions of farmers in Western Massachusetts, immediately preceding the Constitutional Convention in 1787. No doubt, the Constitution had elements of democracy, but Zinn argues that it “established the rule of slaveholders, and merchants, and bondholders.”

Teaching history through the lens of class, race, and gender conflict is not simply more accurate, according to Zinn; it makes it more likely that students — and all the rest of us — will not “simply swallow these enveloping phrases like ‘the national interest,’ ‘national security,’ ‘national defense,’ as if we’re all in the same boat.”

As Zinn told teachers in Houston: “No, the soldier who is sent to Iraq does not have the same interests as the president who sends him to Iraq. The person who works on the assembly line at General Motors does not have the same interest as the CEO of General Motors. No–we’re a country of divided interests, and it’s important for people to know that.”

Another premise Zinn identified, one that has become an article of faith among the Tea Party crowd, is “American exceptionalism” — the idea that the United States is fundamentally freer, more virtuous, more democratic, and more humane than other countries. For Zinn, the United States is “an empire like other empires. There was a British empire, and there was a Dutch empire, and there was a Spanish empire, and yes, we are an American empire.” The United States expanded through deceit and theft and conquest, just like other empires, although textbooks cleanse this imperial bullying with legal-sounding terms like the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican Cession.

Patriotism is another premise that we need to question. As Zinn told teachers in Houston, “it’s very bad for everybody when young people grow up thinking that patriotism means obedience to your government.” Zinn often recalled Mark Twain’s distinction between country and government. “Does patriotism mean support your government? No. That’s the definition of patriotism in a totalitarian state,” Zinn warned a Denver audience in a 2008 speech, included in a new volume, Howard Zinn Speaks, edited by Anthony Arnove (Haymarket Books, 2012.)

And going to war on behalf of “our country” is offered as the highest expression of patriotism–in everything from the military recruitment propaganda that saturates our high schools to the social studies curriculum that features photos of U.S. troops heroically battling “enemy soldiers” in a section called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in the popular high school textbook Modern World History.

Howard Zinn cuts through this curricular fog: “War is terrorism … Terrorism is the willingness to kill large numbers of people for some presumably good cause. That’s what terrorists are about.” Zinn demands that we reexamine the premise that war is necessary, a proposition not taken seriously in any high school history textbook I’ve ever seen. Instead, wars get sold to Americans–especially to the young people who fight those wars — as efforts to spread liberty and democracy. As Howard Zinn said many times, if you don’t know your history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. Leaders can tell you anything and you have no way of knowing what’s true.

Howard Zinn wanted educators to be deeply critical, but never cynical. When speaking to the teachers in Houston, Zinn insisted that another premise we needed to examine is the idea that progress is the product of great individuals. Zinn pointed out that Abraham Lincoln had never been an abolitionist, and when he ran for president in 1860 he did not advocate ending slavery in the states where it existed. Rather, it was largely the “huge antislavery movement that pushed Lincoln into the Emancipation Proclamation–that pushed Congress into the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments.”

Zinn urged educators to teach a people’s history: “We’ve never had our injustices rectified from the top, from the president or Congress, or the Supreme Court, no matter what we learned in junior high school about how we have three branches of government, and we have checks and balances, and what a lovely system. No. The changes, important changes that we’ve had in history, have not come from those three branches of government. They have reacted to social movements.”

Thus when we single out people in our curriculum as icons, as “people to admire and respect,” Zinn advocated shedding the traditional pantheon of government and military leaders: “But there are other heroes that young people can look up to. And they can look up to people who are against war. They can have Mark Twain as a hero who spoke out against the Philippines war. They can have Helen Keller as a hero who spoke out against World War I, and Emma Goldman as a hero. They can have Fannie Lou Hamer as a hero, and Bob Moses as a hero, the people in the Civil Rights Movement — they are heroes.”

And to this, there is one final “people’s history” premise we need to remember — whether in education or the world outside of schools. As Howard Zinn reminded the audience of social studies teachers in Houston: “People change.” Zinn did not look to President Obama to initiate social transformation; but in 2008, he saw the election as confirmation that the long history of anti-racist struggle in the United States produced an outcome that would have been inconceivable 30 years prior. And this shift in attitude should give us hope.

As we remember Howard Zinn on what would have been his 90th birthday, let’s count him among the many social justice heroes who offer proof that people’s efforts make a difference — that ordinary people can change the world.

Related Resources:

A People’s History for the Classroom helps teachers introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of U.S. history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula.

It includes a new introductory essay by veteran teacher Bill Bigelow on teaching strategies that align with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Spotlight on Dyan Watson

Dyan Watson joined the Rethinking Schools team as an editorial associate last year. You’ve probably noticed her wonderful articles in the magazine: “What Do You Mean When You Say Urban” (fall 2011) and “A Message from a Black Mom to Her Son” (spring 2012).

What you may not realize is that she co-edited our new publication, Rethinking Elementary Education. We thought you might like to know a little more about Dyan, who is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

Q: How did you get involved with Rethinking Schools?

When I was a junior at Portland’s Jefferson High School, I had Bill and Linda as my teachers in a combined U.S. history/American literature class. They introduced us to Rethinking Schools and a new way of learning and teaching. At some point, they included a poem I wrote in Rethinking Our Classrooms. My first subscription came with acceptance of that poem and I’ve been hooked ever since. Then, this past year, the board invited me to participate. As an RS fan—and
someone who wanted to participate in making the positive difference in others’ lives that Linda, Bill, and Rethinking Schools has made in mine—it was an easy choice.

Q: How have you felt about being on the editorial board?

My writing and ability to give meaningful feedback have improved tremendously. Listening to others critique and praise the submissions makes me a better writer and a more compassionate reviewer. This spills over into the classroom as I provide feedback to my students. I often feel my brain growing.

Q: Which articles in Rethinking Elementary Education would you especially recommend to teacher educators?
I think that a teacher ed program preparing elementary teachers couldn’t go wrong with any of the pieces. Taken as a whole, Rethinking Elementary Education is a powerful work that helps teachers think deeply about the impact they have on kids’ lives.

Q: How did you come to write “A Letter from a Black Mom to Her Son”? Why do you think it has resonated so strongly with parents and teachers nationally?

I didn’t think we had enough pieces in Rethinking Elementary Education that addressed race. After some discussion, the co-editors of the book decided I needed to write a piece since this is my area of research. I tried to put what I’ve learned in laymen’s terms, but it was boring and flat. The piece started with a story from my childhood, and that’s what captured the other editors’ interest.

Linda said, why not write it as a letter? After many drafts and tears—some of the stories were hard to put on paper—I had
a letter to Caleb, my older son. In the letter, I explained that there were many things about my education that I loved and am happy to have experienced, but there were some lessons that were unnecessary and painful. I don’t want Caleb or his baby brother Nehemiah to have to go through those kind of experiences. So this is a letter to their future teachers as much
as it is to either of them or any of our collective children.

I think the letter resonated with folks because of the Trayvon Martin murder. Even though it was written before this tragedy, the message in the letter and the experiences described are not unique to me or a small group of people. Folks from all over the country have written me to express their gratitude and how it summed up what they felt. For many folks of color, my letter is their letter. Many white teachers and folks who work with them want all teachers to be better than the majority of the teachers I describe. As one principal told me, they struggle with how to broach the subject and, fortunately, my letter to Caleb helps.

Zombie NCLB still stalking our schools

Stan Karpby Stan Karp

Anniversaries are often cause for celebration… but the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind is mostly a time for damage assessment. A new report from FairTest sums up the fallout from the “lost decade of NCLB:” stagnating test scores, narrowed curriculum but not narrowed achievement gaps, extra collateral damage for the most vulnerable students and communities.

This massive, bipartisan, wrong turn in federal education policy has been a colossal failure, even on its own test-score terms, and the damage will continue until we force a change in federal policy.

NCLB dramatically expanded the federal role in education, but transformed it for the worse. It shifted federal policy away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity in public education through support for things like school integration, Title I funding for high poverty schools, and services for students with special needs. Instead, it mandated top-down micromanagement of assessment and “accountability” policies that Washington had no clue about or capacity to do well. This bad law helped consolidate the shift of decision-making about teaching and learning away from educators and classrooms to state and federal bureaucracies.

NCLB’s mandate to test every kid every year in every grade and measure the results against benchmarks that no real schools had ever met was never a credible “accountability” system. It was an enabling mechanism for creating a narrative of public school failure and imposing sanctions that were not educational strategies at all, but political strategies designed to promote privatization and market reform.

This approach predictably produced profiteering and educational chaos. “This reads like our business plan,” said the CEO of Pearson, Inc., when he first saw the plans for NCLB. It’s been a gold-rush decade for textbook and test publishers.

But for schools, teachers, parents and students, it’s been a nightmare. NCLB’s testing mania seeped into every classroom and its sanctions fueled the rush to deregulated charters and teacher bashing. By the end of 2011, nearly 50,000 schools failed to meet NCLB’s absurd annual yearly progress targets. All 50 states had considered legislation rejecting all or part of NCLB and the law was almost as unpopular as the Congress that created it. The bipartisan coalition that originally passed NCLB was in shambles and the law was collapsing of its own weight.

Yet NCLB continues, zombie-like, to threaten schools with sanctions and bombard them with mandated tests. Like a bad Hollywood horror movie, it is also spawning sequels. Given an opportunity to learn from a decade of policy failure, the Obama Administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan instead doubled down on NCLB’s “test and punish” approach to reform. Much as it traded one destructive war in Iraq for another in Afghanistan, the Administration morphed one counterproductive set of education policies into another.

Obama-Duncan’s Race to The Top uses the same flawed test score tools to drill deeper into the fabric of schooling. Where NCLB imposed penalties on schools and students (e.g., grade retention, diploma denial), test-based sanctions are now increasingly targeted at teachers. Left unchecked, these trends will undermine the teaching profession and create a less experienced, less secure, less stable and less expensive professional staff.

Duncan has also pioneered new directions in bad policy, distributing federal education dollars through “competitive grants” to “winners” at the expense of “losers,” and bribing states to adopt the Administration’s unproven pet reforms. Unable to secure Congressional agreement to reauthorize NCLB, Duncan devised a dubious waiver process that will increase the pressure on 5,000 schools serving the poorest communities at a time of unprecedented economic crisis and budget cutting. While the waiver plan rolls back NCLB’s AYP (adequate yearly progress) system as it was about to self-destruct, Duncan’s new guidelines require states to identify up to 15% of their schools with the lowest scores for unproven “turnarounds,” “charterization,” or closure.

It’s increasingly clear that we will only get the changes we need in federal education policy when pressure forces them from below. We need to occupy education policy the same way we need to occupy Wall Street. This is one reason we should mark the 10th anniversary not only by redoubling efforts to get rid of this bad framework for federal education policy, but by remembering those who saw the disaster coming and sounded the alarm from the beginning.

While politicians and pundits led the race over the cliff, there were many educators and advocates who were speaking truth to power: the much-missed Jerry Bracey, Susan Ohanian, Alfie Kohn, Monty Neill and FairTest, Deborah Meier, Bill Mathis, Richard Allington, George Wood, and many others, including Rethinking Schools, saw through NCLB’s false promises and hollow rhetoric from the start. That’s worth remembering too as we chart the way forward to a better, post-NCLB future.

 Related Resources:

Rethinking School ReformRethinking School Reform puts classrooms and teaching at the center of the debate over how to improve public schools. This collection offers a primer on a broad range of pressing issues, including school vouchers and funding, multiculturalism, standards and testing, teacher unions, bilingual education, and federal education policy.Informed by the experience and passion of teachers who walk daily into real classrooms, Rethinking School Reform examines how various reform efforts promote — or prevent — the kind of teaching that can bring equity and excellence to all our children, and it provides compelling, practical descriptions of what such teaching looks like. Edited by Linda Christensen and Stan Karp.

Failing Our Kids

The long arm of standardized testing is reaching into every nook and cranny of education. Yet relying on standardized tests distorts student learning, exacerbates inequities for low-income students and students of color, and undermines true accountability. Failing Our Kids includes more than 50 articles that provide a compelling critique of standardized tests and also outline alternative ways to assess how well our children are learning. Edited by Kathy Williams and Barbara Miner

Coming soon!

Pencils Down: Rethinking High Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools, edited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel.

‘Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country—Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War’

By Bill Bigelow

You may have seen that an administrative law judge in Arizona, Lewis Kowal, just upheld the decree by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction that Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program violates state law. Judge Kowal found that the Tucson program was teaching Latino history and culture “in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.” According to CNN, one lesson that the judge objected to taught that the historic treatment of Mexican Americans was “marked by the use of force, fraud and exploitation.

Try this “history detective” experiment. Ask the next person you encounter to tell you what they know about the U.S. war with Mexico. More than likely, this will be a short conversation, because that war (1846-48) merits barely a footnote in U.S. history textbooks. The most recent textbook I was assigned when I taught high school history in Portland, Ore. was American Odyssey. In 250 pages devoted to pre-20th century U.S. history, the book includes exactly two paragraphs on this war. (The district’s new adoption, History Alive! Pursuing American Ideals, doubles the coverage to a whopping four paragraphs.)

(Download Teaching Activity PDF from the Zinn Education Project: “U.S. Mexico War: ‘We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God’“)

And yet this is the war that “gave”—in the words of American Odyssey—California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado to the United States of America. And the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, formally ending the war, ratified the annexation of Texas, which had broken away from Mexico largely because of Mexico’s policies against slavery.

Most Mexicans know that the war against Mexico was another chapter in U.S. imperialism—a “North American invasion,” as it’s commemorated in a huge memorial in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. But don’t take Mexicans’ word for it. Here’s what Col. Ethan Allan Hitchcock, aide to the commander of U.S. forces Gen. Zachary Taylor, wrote at the time in his journal about the war’s origins:

“I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors. … We have not one particle of right to be here … It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.”

Exactly. President James K. Polk, himself a slave-owner, had ordered U.S. troops into an area claimed by Mexico and inhabited by Mexicans and waited for them to be attacked. And when they were, Polk claimed aggression and the U.S. had its war. The invading U.S. Army actually called itself the Army of Occupation.

The abolition movement regarded the war as a land grab to expand slavery. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass denounced the Mexican invasion as “a murderous war—as a war against the free states—as a war against freedom, against the Negro, and against the interests of workingmen of this country—and as a means of extending that great evil and damning curse, negro slavery.”

Henry David Thoreau coined the term “civil disobedience” in defense of his position that people should not pay taxes to support the war against Mexico. Thoreau argued that a minority can act against an unjust system only when it “clogs by its whole weight.”

Students enrolled in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program would likely have known this history, because, after all, this is the story of how people living in Tucson no longer live in Mexico. But according to Judge Kowal, the program violates state law. That law bans curriculum that might “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” And, as mentioned, Kowal complained that the material in Mexican American Studies was presented in “an emotionally charged manner…

I have not seen the full Mexican American Studies curriculum, although I know it includes important texts like Rudolfo Acuña’s classic Occupied America and Paulo Freire’s A Pedagogy of the Oppressed—a book studied in every teacher education program worthy of the name.

But I’m wondering how one can teach about the history of the U.S. relationship with Mexico in a manner that is not “emotionally charged.” You want to talk about “bias”? What about the bias of a textbook that can “cover” a war like that waged against Mexico in two paragraphs, or four paragraphs, and fail to so much as quote a Mexican, an abolitionist, a soldier, a woman, an African American, or a Native American—or fail to describe the death or injury of a single human being? What about the bias of a textbook or an entire curriculum that can discuss invasion and war in a manner that is not “emotionally charged”?

Here’s a U.S. infantry lieutenant who wrote his parents after a U.S. officer named Walker was killed in battle, quoted in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States:

“Gen. Lane … told us to ‘avenge the death of the gallant Walker’ … Grog shops were broken open first and then, maddened with liquor, every species of outrage was committed. Old women and girls were stripped of their clothing—many suffered still greater outrages. Men were shot by dozens … their property, churches, stores, and dwelling houses ransacked … It made me for the first time ashamed of my country.”

In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant wrote that this was “one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation …”

The problem with the school curriculum in this country is that it is not emotionally charged enough. Poverty rates are skyrocketing—especially for children of color. People are losing their homes because of the criminal behavior of huge financial institutions—and race has a lot to do with who profits and who suffers. This country’s military is still being sent to invade and occupy—and murder people with silent, invisible drones. The rich and powerful poison our atmosphere, our water, our food, and our children.

So, yes, let’s have a curriculum that gets emotional—and that tells a fuller truth than is offered in our textbooks. And let’s stand in solidarity with the teachers and students in Tucson who are demanding to teach and learn about things that matter.

Bill Bigelow is Curriculum Editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-directs the Zinn Education Project. He is author of The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

Related Resources:

The Line Between Us The Line Between Us explores the history of U.S-Mexican relations and the roots of Mexican immigration, all in the context of the global economy. And it shows how teachers can help students understand the immigrant experience and the drama of border life. Using role plays, stories, poetry, improvisations, simulations and video, veteran teacher Bill Bigelow demonstrates how to combine lively teaching with critical analysis.
A People's History for the Classroom A People’s History for the Classroom helps teachers introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of U.S. history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. Teaching articles and lesson plans — drawn from an assortment of Rethinking Schools publications — emphasize the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history, and raise important questions about patterns of wealth and power throughout U.S. history.

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