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June 27, 2005

African American History vs Afrocentric Curriculum

I probably don't have as much to say about the issue of the curriculum changes in Philadelphia as my colleagues. My opinion on the matter pretty much hinges on one question which is unlikely to be answered to anyone's satisfaction.

African American history is a critical dialog on American history, and in the hands of a capable instructor can give students an opportunity to learn a great deal about this country. Or it could be used to boost the self-esteem of 'inner-city at-risk youth'. It is the presumption of the latter that disables a sensible discussion in most places because when it comes down to it, there is no reason not to study African American history. It's history, therefore it should be studied, period end of discussion.

So weighing in on this early, I'm going to pull a lamer and say there is no hope when issues like this get political, as they are bound to. However this can be properly interpreted as a Conservative argument, because I am one who believes that there is no need to saddle the educational system with courseware that caters to the epistemological health and well-being of the students. People who flunk, flunk.

The other day on NPR, I flunked yet another of the BBC World's Geo Quizzes. Every day, they describe some remote point on the globe and delve into some current event going on there. This day, it was one of the centers of Mediterrenean culture, a great city on Sicily that shared a name with a city in upstate NY. Troy? Nah. It was Syracuse. And we're supposed to know Greek and Roman history right? But the fact of the matter is, we use Greek and Roman history less than we use Algebra. So understand from jump street that I am not buying any arguments about African American history not being 'practical'. There is no practical use for history at all in this world, because the very nature of information is undergoing a revolution. If we were Civil War surgeons, we might as well be talking about the value of teaching the history of leeching.

Which brings me to my final point, if I have one to make at all. The only value in teaching history is to get people to think critically about the value of material presented to them as truth. Considering the controversy surrounding African American history, that makes it probably the most valuable historical subject of all.

Posted by mbowen at June 27, 2005 07:57 PM

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it should be said, as a point of departure, that schools do not teach history - but rather social studies, and spend as little time on conflict as possible...the aim of the curriculum is not to explain history, but to align perspective through a common lens. to the extent that your views align to the common lens, you are allowed to shut off or "close" your eyes/mind to people/culture/events/situations/paradigms beyond the common frame...

to the extent that your views do not align to the common frame, the world is a different place...take the example of the 4th of July - it's a great way to start the summer and spend time with family, but it is not an appropriate way for me to mark time as a symbol of freedom - because the date and concept have no direct correlation - for black folks. in fact, for black folks to celebrate the day means we either lack historical knowledge or choose to ignore history - neither situation is healthy.

history informs most of the disciplines in schools today (without being taught - because every discipline has roots in something else - and we are usually taught about the ideas of the time, the intellectual leaders, the cultural currents and social streams)- and it could be argued that folks use history (or their interpretations of it) infinitely more often than they use algebra. history not only provides a frame of reference for interpreting truth - but also for organizing priorities and just about everything else...after all, america's national myth is sustained because just enough folks recall just enough of the general bs claptrap they were taught in school...it's what folks retreat to in discussions about politics, war - invading new markets vs. carrying democracy to backwards people; trade - opening up new markets vs. protectionism and national competition...

imagine trying to run this thing if for the next 20 years the only history taught in school was from a fundamentalist muslim perspective covering only the years from the Hegira to today...it would be a different ballgame altogether - aside from the fact that principals and teachers would be getting capped in the streets.

with that being said, if black folks were to emerge as leaders in math and science, the history piece would take care of itself in short order...it should be taught, but the mastery of the material cannot be placed on the back burner...

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 6, 2005 12:59 PM

I would argue that blackfolks ought to have learned, starting with the Declaration of Independence, that complaint is the basis of action, and indeed that we have. There is no complaint in the Declaration against the tyranny of racism - if there were, the US would be as racist-free as it is king-free.

As for the disciplines of schools, I think you are right, but you are right in the context of the establishment of the institution. After all, whose schools are they? The reason to attend is for socialization. Why? Because we don't have our own society. The reason to attend is for eductation. Why, because we don't know anything. The reason to attend is for recognition of achievement. Why? Because we cannot reward ourselves. All this 'we' is not merely African Americans, but anyone who attends public schools in America.

If you really had a program and some power, you'd leave aside the entire question of public ed. I'm afraid that we're all way behind on that score. Thus all we're left with is the American public middle class. So multiculturalism and culture warring is all about position in that space. It's a morass by definition.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 6, 2005 02:15 PM

I also have to say - as one who gets up every day and stares at the top book on the bathroom shelf as I take my morning poop entitle 'how to encourage girls in math and science' - that math and science knowledge are only marginally useful as a race raising strategy. I would go as far as to say that they are a fetish of the American middle class and of relatively little value in absolute terms, but that's a very long and complex argument.

Suffice it to say that there is very little you can build, given math and science mastery, that doesn't cost more money than we have anyway. North Korea knows what it's doing, and it stole knowledge, it didn't grow it.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 6, 2005 02:19 PM

You still have to be able to apply that which you steal...the Russians were able to steal from the Germans following WWII and use the technology to build their armies - if not their economy.

With respect to schools, socialization is the biggest factor because the overwhelming majority of schools slow children down - the question is - can children be socialized beyond the context of public schools? I would argue they certainly can - as long as the adults in their circle don't treat them like special cases or prodigies with an overhyped sense of entitlement.

If math and science are the fetish of the American middle class, then alot of parents will be stuck watching other people's children in a sort of mind porn for underachieving white folks...american white children are not on the path to surpassing the math/science achievement of asian students...so, that race is over. it's a matter of time.

math and science are not a panacea - and i think this is where culture comes into play...history does not have to be falsified to build the self esteem of black kids...that's the red herring in the conversation...this is not a Leonard Jeffries, Steve Cokely conversation...it's an Arthur Schomburg-Cheikh Anta Diop conversation and it is not about self-esteem as much as it is about orientation - providing children (and adults)with a "cultural atlas and timepiece" to locate themselves in the world. american schools can't do that because the administrators and text book companies won't push for it...teachers lack the content knowledge and parents lack the will...but, impossible is nothing.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 6, 2005 06:17 PM

This conversation evokes a whole lot of 'why' questions that we'll probably never have time for in this medium.

What I want to know is what a finished American looks like and I don't think there are many discussions that get us there. So the context of African American history begs the question of why - why is it important to know - for who to know and for what reasons, and if the reasons are for any other purpose than just to know who did what and when, generic history, I don't think you're getting anywhere.

Fzample, why should Bill Cosby know African American history? Who cares if he does or not? Sooner or later, I percieve we get to a question of power and that's always evocative of a struggle between blackfolks and others. To what end? What do we get if we win? What is at the end of the rainbow of education?

I believe that a fully self-actualized person needn't bother. Ultimately for them, life is just an expression of will. they do what they like and nobody faults them for it. But they're still mortal and they still die. What is the reason for this specific knowledge? Is it to fulfill the dreams of Carter Woodson?

My original context was that of middle class American progress for what it's worth. I'm uncomfortable with that context.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 6, 2005 10:04 PM

The 'why' questions are as obvious as the answers. American conservatives clearly value history as a discipline...it is ALWAYS referenced as a means to build identity and organize collectives. What level of abandonment would be appropriate for conservatives...it would be great if you raised this question in a forum with more conservative responders - for example, should the work of hamilton, adams, jefferson, etc. be kicked to the curb - why bother teaching this stuff - why frame citizenship courses around this? what difference does it make? can't we get to the same point by shifting the curriculum in schools to one on fundamental islam or marxism? if you believe black folks are "all they can be" with this curriculum, then it obtains that white america should also be unchanged after a century of muhammad, bilal, karl and the boys.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 11, 2005 05:50 AM