As Black History Month comes to a close I’d like to spend a few minutes addressing controversy over Black Lives Matter being used in the teaching of black history. This discussion must include a brief explanation of the purpose of history education in the schools, the growing cowardice of school administrators across the country, and how this is borne out by our discussion of BLM and law enforcement in public discourse.
History education is, and has always been, one of the primary motivations for funding public education. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the state must sponsor education so that citizens could rely on “the experience of other ages and countries” to more justly guide their policies (Report of the Committee of Revisors Appointed by the General Assembly of Virginia in MDCCLXXVI, Richmond, 1784, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/images/vc64.jpg). Indeed, as Jefferson argued in his oft-quoted 1816 letter to Charles Yancy, this is a fundamental aspect of a functioning democracy:
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information.
Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancy, 1816, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5), volume 11.
While the information considered to be essential to teaching the experiences of other ages and countries has changed from generation to generation as new facts, problems, and cultural adaptations arise, the role of formally transmitting our best understandings of how the past created the present remains an essential task for education in the 21st century.
With that in mind, we must look critically at how we are teaching history in the schools. The piss-poor nature of textbook publishing is well known so I will treat it briefly– trust me, as someone who works in that industry I could write about it all day. Special interests, from religious institutions and economic lobbies, pressure publishers to frame the discussion of their institutions in a favorable light. Politically motivated civic leaders– overwhelmingly from the right end of the political spectrum– hijack adoption boards and force publishers to create narratives that promote their uninformed fantasy of the past. And publishers acquiesce. Selling books is our job. Teaching something resembling the consensus of scholarship and the major points of conflict is for the schools.
To put it bluntly, the same spinelessness and fear of losing money that dominates the publishing industry largely controls principals and superintendents when it comes to controversy over history curriculum in their schools. All too often they kowtow to ignorance in their community, throwing good teachers under the bus, robbing their students of meaningful engagement in the name of funding (and/or their political future). Fear of public backlash for teaching tough subjects or making unpopular political statements causes these jellyfish to abandon the mission of their institutions and pander to people who have not the training, knowledge, or experience necessary to provide valuable feedback to the education process.
Take this example from Rowlett, Texas (note the cowardly reporting here– the presentation was “reportedly” tied to Black History Month? Come on). Students at Coyle Middle School participated in a presentation that honored black history and tied it to contemporary events. This is literally how history is supposed to be done. The significance of history is to see how events in the past created the world you live in. It allows you to think about what the consequences, intended and unintended, of your own economic, political, and social choices may lead to based on careful consideration of how similar choices in the past played out. Historical analysis is always political.
Thin-skinned police chief, Mike Broadnax, was not amused. He claimed that allowing black students to hold up signs that said “Black Lives Matter,” “I can’t breathe,” “the whole system is guilty,” “hands up don’t shoot,” and “just young black and walking” promoted discontent and hatred for the police and was a direct attack on the police. The messages on the signs, the whiny Broadnax said, “could be misconstrued as advocating for and encouraging students to take a political stance. It could also be taken offensively by law enforcement who risk life and limb daily for our personal well-being.” Boo-hoo. Because educators should definitely take into account how law enforcement might respond to their curriculum. I’m sure Bull Connor didn’t like the curriculum showing his officers beating black children or turning dogs loose on non-violent protestors. Better not talk about it.
Take a look at the portion of the demonstration in question:
If the point you took away from this image is to hate the police you are an idiot. This is a social studies based event. They are connecting the struggle of blacks historically for civil rights to the BLM movement that is agitating for change today. This is relevant and logical. It is exactly how history is supposed to work in the schools. The point of this demonstration is clear– many in America today feel that the criminal justice system is racially unjust. And statistics and history back them up. Which of these signs advocates hate against the police? Or calls for attacking the police? These signs ARE critical of the police. And they should be. Public institutions in a democracy must answer to the people.
Now take a look at how the school’s principal, Michael Bland, responded to this pathetic attempt by the police chief to act as the arbiter of effective and appropriate history education.
While our campus celebrated the accomplishments of African Americans past, present and future, an unfortunate event occurred during the first performance. There was a sign used in one of the skits that displayed a highly politicized message. Although the intent of the performers was not to offend anyone’s political views, the use of a politicized message on a middle school campus was not the best choice. The message displayed on the sign had political, social and cultural relevance as it relates to social studies curriculum and academic discourse, but was not appropriate and could be misconstrued as advocating for and encouraging students to take a political stance. It could also be taken offensively by law enforcement who risk life and limb daily for our personal wellbeing.
If any of the political messages on the signs offended anyone, I apologize on behalf of the administration. In closing, the Black History program was a success! The cultural exchange was embraced by the staff, students and community members that attended. I hope this apology finds everyone in the best of spirits. Have a great weekend!
I realize that running a school in white, conservative parts of Texas as a black man is no easy task. But this is a shameful response. Bland knows damn well that you cannot teach black history (or any history) in a non-political manner. How can anyone with a functioning brain fail to see the connection between things like the march on Selma and protests for black rights today? Which sign was highly politicized? Tell us what is “not appropriate” about the signs, other than the local LEO’s objection to it. Tell me how taking the side of the law enforcement community and silencing your students concerns is not a political statement on your end.
He can’t answer these questions. There is no answer, save not wanting to face the political backlash of the white conservative community and local law enforcement. I don’t want to pick on Principal Bland– his response is in line with what most administrators would do in the same situation. Therein lies the problem.
Public education has been on the defensive for so long that school leaders have lost the ability to discern legitimate public complaints from mindless rabble-rousing. Stop letting noisy outsiders dictate the curriculum. This police chief’s complaints are garbage. You want people to treat law enforcement institutions with respect? Then act like it. Mike Broadnax is a grandstanding asshole. He hijacked your school event to get more airtime for himself. Here he is last September making a big public stink over “radical groups” who are forcing the police to respond more aggressively because it is so much more dangerous to be a cop today.
This is patently false. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund the total number of police killed in the line of duty over the last decade is 1466, or roughly 147 a year (http://www.nleomf.org/facts/enforcement/…). This comes out to roughly 0.016% of all sworn officers in a year. If you are inclined to believe that the police are sitting ducks out there, as Mike Broadnax would have you believe, you have to ask how does this data match up to death rates in years past?
The truth is that police death rates are below what we saw from the late 60s through the 90s (indeed, the death rate was higher from 1910-1942 as well), when more cops were being killed in raw numbers despite both a much smaller population and fewer sworn officers in the community (http://www.nleomf.org/…/officer-fatalities-data/year.html). Mike Broadnax and other “pro-police” groups (given the way this term is used almost exclusively when discussing BLM it seems awfully close to being a new dog-whistle for “anti-black”) are claiming that we live in a particularly dangerous era for cops, brought on by divisive racial politics, Obama, the mainstream media, and now apparently middle school children. If this is true– if these deaths are attributed to those causes– what was killing cops before? And why have those sorts of deaths stopped and been replaced by the new “anti-police” animus caused by BLM? These are the sort of questions a good history teacher would ask you to consider. If you cannot answer these questions with facts in a way that supports your hypothesis that pro-civil rights protests are causing police deaths to increase you have to come up with an alternative theory. The more logical conclusion would be that none of these things are the causal factor behind police deaths and that what we are seeing is a continuation of typical occupationally related deaths common to being a police officer in the modern era of relatively cheap, highly lethal firearms. I’m going to guess that Broadnax, Fox News, and the Blue Lives Matter folks won’t like that interpretation. They are free to mount a counter explanation. But they have to actually answer the critical questions about their suspect hypothesis if they expect to be taken seriously.
Put more simply, the idea that support for BLM and other civil rights causes that has raised scrutiny on LEO in the last several years has led to some kind of increase in police being killed is simply not borne out by the facts. These deaths, tragic though they are, are a natural consequence of policing a nation flooded with weapons. This is what using history to inform a discussion looks like.
In essence, this is what social studies in the schools is supposed to teach us. As Jefferson suggested, we must hold public institutions and policies to a high standard of scrutiny. A cursory examination of the number of police killed in the line of duty quickly shows that there has been no uptick in police deaths. In fact, this entire campaign claiming that Black Lives Matter and other civil rights protests are creating an anti-police environment that makes a dangerous job more dangerous is not borne out by facts. Use what you were taught in your history, geography, economics, and government classes. Take a few minutes to think critically about issues that are important to you. What are the relevant facts and statistics to this discussion? Where can I find them? How do they stack up to other historic trends? Then draw a conclusion about what you are being told. That is what history and social studies classrooms are all about. Defend your process, Mr. Bland. Don’t let loudmouth activists like Mike Broadnax shutdown good teaching because it doesn’t fit into their fantasy narrative. You are teaching your students an awful lesson if you do.