Publication Date

December 1, 1990

Perspectives Section


Post Type

History Education


State & Local (US)

Towards the end of the Great Depression and just before the United States entry into World War II, African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson performed “Ballad for Americans” in a series of concerts across the country. In the song, a chorus questions Robeson, “Who are You?” At one point the singer responds that he is the “everybody who is nobody” and the “nobody who is everybody.” Later he asks rhetorically, “Am I an American?” And then he quickly answers, “I’m not just an Irish, Negro, Jewish, Italian, French and English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Polish, Scotch, Hungarian, Litvak, Swedish, Finnish, Canadian, Greek, and Turk and Czech and double-Czech American.” Finally, at the end of the ballad, Robeson answers, I’m as “strong as the people who made it. … And you know who I am, America.”

History tells us who we are and where we come from. It helps us figure out where we want to go and how we can get there. In an ethnically diverse society like the United States, a large number of groups are part of that history. A song like “Ballad for Americans” has to include everyone. And any accurate history of the United States must be “multicultural.”

Starting from similar assumptions about America and American history, the New York State Board of Regents is reevaluating the state’s social studies curriculum. A preliminary report, issued by the Commissioner of Education’s Task Force on Minorities was highly critical of what it perceived of as a “Eurocentric” curriculum containing “hidden assumptions of white supremacy.” Part of the report charged that the failure of the curriculum to teach adequately the histories and cultures of non-Western societies and American minorities was responsible for the low self-esteem and poor school performance of minority children in urban schools.

This report, issued in July 1989, set off shock waves that are still reverberating throughout the educational and historical communities. The competency of the task force members and their political motivations were challenged. One contributor to the report, a professor at the City University of New York, was denounced in the press as an “anti-white,” “Europhobic” racist. As result of the ensuing hullabaloo, Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol appointed a new task force containing a number of prominent historians and educators to do the actual curriculum revision.

But the controversy has not abated. A group of historians headed by Professors Diane Ravitch, Teachers College, Columbia University, and Arthur Schlesinger, jr., City University of New York, has formed the “Committee of Scholars in Defense of History” to monitor the revision process. In a published statement they accused the original task force of “contemptuously” dismissing the contribution of Western civilization to America’s heritage and they condemned it for promoting “ethnic cheerleading” in response to demands from unnamed “pressure groups.” While the group demands that “the history taught to the children of the state must meet the highest standards of accuracy and integrity” and they “steadfastly oppose the politicization of history,” their entry into this fray is by its nature a political act.

I am also disturbed by the strategy being pursued by the leadership of this group. They have launched a broad-based preemptive attack. Their manifesto constituting themselves as watch-dogs for the profession appears in a number of professional journals and newsletters, but I am still waiting for them to act as historians and educators, with a commitment to encouraging open reasoned discussion on the issues. Further, in the popular press, they have targeted advocates of “inspirational Black history” and “Afrocentrism” as if these positions represented the multicultural approach to social studies education. In a New York Times article (“Inspirational Black History Draws Academic Fire,” October 11, 1990, p. 1), Arthur Schlesinger jr. attacked the use of an Afrocentric curriculum because it makes history a “form of therapy” designed “to improve self-esteem.”

As a historian and as a former high school social studies teacher, I am glad that my academic colleagues are entering this debate. Conditions for education and academic performance in New York City have been poor for over a decade and the schools now face another round of massive budget cuts. Hopefully, controversy and attention to what is taught in the schools will lead to new financial investment in education.

But I also fear that hidden and not so hidden political agendas will tear at the fabric of an already ethnically divided and tense city and that important educational questions will be either ignored or distorted. One question that deeply concerns me as a teacher is whether multicultural education is capable of capturing the minds of young people and reversing the decline of our urban public schools.

I consider myself a strong advocate of multicultural education in the social studies curriculum, but I am not an ethnic cheerleader and I do not minimize the role of Western civilization in shaping today’s world. If anything, through nationalism, expansion, slavery, industrialization, colonialization, and imperialism, as well as through the development of democratic institutions, the West has reshaped much of our globe and the lives and cultures of its diverse people.

Whether we view the current crisis in the Middle East as a result of the desperate efforts of a dictator to retain control over a mismanaged country, the resurgence of Arab or Islamic nationalism, or the machinations of Western imperialists trying to control the world’s oil supply, the Middle East is incomprehensible without an understanding of how the West has dominated the recent history of our planet. And in our very interdependent world, the history of the West is also clearly incomprehensible without an understanding of the role and contribution of the other people inhabiting planet earth.

My main area of study and teaching has been American history. Up until recently, most high school social studies focused on America’s political and economic institutions and the nation’s “heroes.” Students learned about the constitution, the government, the presidents, the wars, and industrial development. They learned that George Washington never told a lie, that Davy Crockett conquered the West for a democratic America, and that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Generally, students did not learn that George Washington was also a slave owner and land speculator, that Davy Crockett died defending the “right” of Americans to bring slaves into Mexican territory, or that no slaves were actually freed when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the traditional curriculum, history was not seen as a process to unravel and understand or as the story of the people who made up the country. Instead, history was two things. It was a set of events that politicians, historians, and sometimes educators, decided were important for all of us to know. If students wanted to pass the class, they had to memorize the facts. History was also a morality play; intended to teach young people the “right way” to act.

The idea of broadening the social studies curriculum to include other topics and groups of people was advanced in the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to the Black Nationalist movement of that period. Nationalists argued that black Americans had been stripped of their history, and this was a major reason for poor performance by minority youngsters in school. In order for black youngsters to feel a part of America, education had to be made more relevant. The nationalists and their supporters wanted new events and people included “in the list we all had to know,” and they wanted some new morality lessons reflecting a more “accurate” picture of the nation’s past.

According to this wave of historical revisionists, the social studies curriculum had to include black, Latino, and women heroes. They wanted Crispus Attucks to join George Washington as a revolutionary leader. They wanted Roberto Clemente given recognition as an international humanitarian. And they wanted Harriet Tubman, the “Black Moses,” presented as the liberator of slaves.

The inclusion of achievements by women and minority group members in the history curriculum was certainly long overdue and it helped a generation of young people realize that their ancestors had played important roles in the development of our nation. However, it did not alter the basic framework in the teaching of history. Social studies education was still the study of heroes. History was still presented as a morality play.

Meanwhile, critics responded to proposed curriculum changes by arguing that the contributions of minorities and women to American society were being blown way out of proportion. Historical accuracy was being sacrificed for political reasons. Of course these critics were not just educators and historians concerned about the integrity of knowledge. They were politicians themselves, with their own constituencies, and generally they opposed the political advances being made by minority groups in America’s urban centers.

Paralleling these developments in social studies education was a new movement in history itself. Social historians argued that undue emphasis was being placed on political and economic institutions in our study of the past and they called for a rewriting of history to include the contributions of previously neglected groups and cultures. The social historians claimed that historians had to study people, their lives, their struggles, and their cultures, if they wanted to understand the history of our nation and how its institutions were actually created.

Social historians argued for history “from the bottom up.” They wanted working people and the mass of immigrants, minorities and women recognized for their contributions in building America. Social historians recognized that Africans, working as slaves, created the wealth that made possible the European settlement and development of the new world. And while an African did not write the Declaration of Independence, during the last 150 years, descendants of Africans led the struggle to redeem its promise, to create a nation where all people are created equal.

The social historians also recognized that men didn’t settle the continent by themselves. Women and men cleared the land and built the farms and created this country. Women raised children and worked in homes and in factories. While struggling for the right to be full citizens, women helped to organize our unions and win our wars.

Social history is multicultural education in its most genuine sense. It doesn’t have to look for heroes to promote. Its exploration of America is based on the idea that all of our people contributed to making the nation, not just presidents, generals, and “heroes.” For social historians, the history of the United States is the history of Africans, Latinos, Poles, Slavs, Italians, Germans, Jews, and the Irish and English, as well as the history of the Hopi, the Sioux, and the Cherokee.

Over the last twenty years, changes in social studies curriculum have gradually reflected this new tendency in the study of history. New York City has repeatedly revised and expanded its curriculum to reflect the new knowledge and ways of looking at the world generated by social historians. Both New York City and New York state social studies curriculums highlight the contribution of different groups of people to our country and the strengths and problems that result from being a multicultural society. Unfortunately, many of these changes have not seeped down into the social studies classroom. Curriculum produced by the New York State Education Department are not mandatory and to begin with many teachers have limited knowledge of history. Much needs to be done to educate teachers to what is known about the past and about the materials that are available for them to use with their students. This will take money and an investment in education that the city and the state have been unwilling to commit in the past.

If the debate over the legitimacy of the social studies curriculum and multicultural education gets more money into the schools, it will be a major achievement. Controversy will have served a valuable function. But I am concerned that too many of the participants in the debate have other goals that have little to do with educating youngsters or defending the integrity of the historical profession; and I am concerned that in the end the schools and our children will suffer.

Some proponents of multicultural education are offering its “relevance” as a panacea to our urban educational problems. They argue that multicultural education is the missing ingredient to get youngsters to want to learn. This argument tends to ignore the last twenty years of experience in New York City, where educational performance has declined despite efforts to introduce minority history and culture into the curriculum. Youngsters now know who Martin Luther King was, and this is certainly significant, but they still can’t read very well.

Some of the advocates of a new multicultural education present it as an antidote to the racism they see endemic in American society. Many of these people are engaged in political struggles for control of school systems and municipal governments and multiculturalism is part of their political agenda. Unfortunately, when they politicize the issue to rally their supporters, they remove it from the realm of educational discourse. Multicultural education becomes intertwined with the rest of their program and is targeted by their opponents.

I am also suspicious of elected officials and educational leaders who are jumping on the multicultural bandwagon. In a time of educational budget cutting, multicultural education is being offered as an inexpensive solution to solving major educational and urban problems. No curriculum revision can do this, and our schools will not be resurrected without infusions of money to rebuild the economies of our nation’s cities.

Meanwhile, many opponents of multicultural education are also politically motivated. They argue their opposition is part of the struggle for “educational standards” and a return to “basics.” Of course, they also like the old morality tales and they want history to indoctrinate patriotism. For them, difficult issues from the past, like discrimination against blacks, Catholics, and Jews are better forgotten.

These “conservatives” are not above playing ethnic politics. They can’t openly use direct racial appeals anymore, so their opposition to “curriculum changes” becomes a platform to rally white constituents who fear the growing political power of urban minority groups.

Social history and multicultural education have much to offer the social studies curriculum. They contribute to our recognition of the value and contribution of all people. By focusing on the actions of ordinary people, they enhance our understanding of democratic values and the democratic process, especially the idea that people can struggle to change their world. They also help demonstrate the mutuality and interdependence of people in our communities, states, country, and world. Perhaps, and this is a long shot, they can secure greater recognition for the importance of social studies and of education in a democratic society, and help win increased funding for our schools.

Social history and multicultural education are good history and good social studies. But that is all they are. No matter what claims are made, by themselves they will not solve the problems of our schools or of our world. And no matter what the fears, they will not undermine traditional American values, unless we want to include racism, sexism, and ethnic bigotry in the pantheon of ideals to be preserved.

Alan Singer is an assistant professor in the School of Education, Department of Curriculum and Teaching, Hofstra University. He has taught at the junior and senior high-school level in the New York City public school system for over ten years and is currently serving as a curriculum consultant to the Social Studies Division of the New York City Board of Education.