U.S. history books are filled with pristine role models, complains Jonathan Zimmerman in the LA Times. He blames our infatuation with psychology, which was cited in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. Segregation was wrong, said the court, because it made black children feel inferior.
By the 1960s, African Americans and their liberal white allies would use the same rationale for desegregating American history textbooks: Black kids needed to “see themselves” in the books or their self-esteem would suffer.
. . . Up until this time, we should remember, most American history books either denigrated or ignored African Americans. In the South, textbooks called slavery a benevolent institution, and Northern books were little better, depicting slaves as childlike victims who morphed into marauding savages during Reconstruction. Today, our students no longer read such racist drivel in school; instead, they learn about great African Americans like Martin Luther King. This reform is one of the great achievements of that same history.
But these gains came at a cost. For whenever a new racial luminary moved into our textbooks, he — or, increasingly, she — also moved beyond reproach.
. . . Before long, of course, whites began complaining that accounts of slavery and racial violence harmed their kids’ fragile minds. “Education is getting a positive image about oneself,” fumed a white Michigan parent in 1974, condemning a textbook that described white attacks upon blacks during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. “No child, white or black, will get a positive image by reading about stabbings, war, the problems.” Once Brown enshrined self-esteem as the highest American value, in short, an honest American history became impossible.
To understand history, students must do more than simply “see themselves” in it; they need to grapple with its enigmas, its ambiguities and its inconsistencies. But they’ll never do that if we’re overeager to protect their psyches, which are far less delicate than most adults suspect.
I also strongly dislike the idea that children require role models of matching race, ethnicity and gender.