HTA News

Making Latin American History Part of the Curriculum

Susan Shapiro, October 1989

An unwritten law of teaching is that we must find a way to reach every child in our classes. Last year my bag of tricks didn't have anything for Juan (fictitious name). I quickly realized I had no tools to break through his recalcitrance, his aloofness. No amount of encouragement, no appeal to his need for academic help worked. I didn't understand him or from where he had come. He understood that better than I.

It's no surprise that I should be so ignorant. Most of us have had woefully deficient instruction in Latin American history and culture, even though nationally Hispanics now account for 7.9 percent of our population and are its fastest growing segment. Now more than ever the experiences of nations and people in Central and South America require our attention. Pedagogically we cannot ignore such a significant part of our world; we must prepare our students with the tools for intelligent analysis of the problems that face the Americas today.

Even in our small community we have seen significantly more children of Hispanic heritage in our classes. These children are a welcome addition to the cultural diversity of our school, and the beauty and uniqueness of their ethnic heritage is as important as those traditionally acknowledged and supported. But we as teachers need to be aware of familial and cultural factors distinct from our mainstream cultures that may inhibit or enhance an Hispanic child's experience in school. We need to be informed, but how?

The very terms "Hispanic" and "Latino" present a problem for understanding Latin American culture. They leave an impression that there is one, dominating culture that exists south of the Rio Grande river. In truth, the history and experiences of each nation south of the United States border make for a different blend of characteristics that prevent easy generalizations.

Realization of my professional impotence in dealing with children such as Juan only highlighted the problem I had in developing the new curriculum for an early world history class at the ninth-grade level. If world history is not only the history of the Eastern hemisphere, what needs to be examined in the Western? Where and how should it be approached in the curriculum? What should students read, study, know about the West? And, initially, what should the teacher read, study, and know about the West?

The premise of this new freshman course is that the complexities of the modern world can be better understood if we examine the breadth and diversity of human experience in ancient times. Using a model for examining culture, we study the development of each civilization as it moves toward modernity. Religion, in particular, plays an important role in our study of evolving cultures. Students move toward an increasingly sophisticated and sensitive understanding of the peoples who make up our pluralistic world, even our classrooms. How does the history of the Americas fit into the model and does it?

I resolved my immediate concern (general ignorance of the Hispanic world) by applying for and receiving a fellowship to study Latin American history at Loyola University during the summer. The program allowed me and fourteen others to study intensively the history and development of Central and South America through monthly meetings, guest speaker presentations, and ongoing discussion of pertinent issues in Latin America today. For example, our October speaker, Tom Sheehan, from the department of philosophy, Loyola University of Chicago, gave an extraordinary presentation on the situation in El Salvador. Professor Sheehan is also a freelance journalist and writer on Central American affairs.

Questions about the nature and extent of coverage of Hispanic history and culture still remain, but I now have some ideas about what is important to know—e.g. simple histories, differences and similarities, changes over time, transference to North America, etc. Much is left undone. I do look forward to grappling with the rest of the task.

—Susan Shapiro teaches in The Laboratory Schools of the University of Chicago and has taught history for fifteen years at both the junior high and the high school levels. She is member of the Organization of History Teachers, the American Historical Association, the World History Association, and The National Council for Social Studies.