There is no greater investment in our future than ensuring quality education for our children. In addition to teaching the mastery of skills needed to function in society, schools also serve to instill citizenship, teach democratic values and provide accurate historical overviews of the nation.
For these reasons, Texans should be concerned about the proposed new African American studies course.
The Texas State Board of Education will hold a public hearing Wednesday regarding the adoption of a new African American studies course. This is part of a larger movement connected to House Bill 5 to implement ethnic studies in all Texas schools.
What is a cause for concern are discussions on what the specific content and focus should be of these courses. They should reflect an accurate portrayal of history that is not distorted.
For example, schools have often failed in teaching the painful history of slavery. What students learn in school should not be beholden to teachers’ discomfort or the political whims of individuals who are not experts in the topics being taught.
As a professor of black studies and educational psychology and a longtime member of the National Council of Black Studies, I have had more than 20 years of experience teaching black studies courses.
Among the topics covered in my classes is a close examination of the enslavement of African people. The topic is provocative and often upsetting for students as they learn specific details about slavery that they report not having learned in their K-12 education.
Horrific details such as sleeping in vomit and human excrement on the slave ships or mothers throwing their babies overboard to a certain death. I do not spare the students from these details because it is important that students fully understand the brutal and inhumane acts that humans are capable of doing to other humans.
Students should have learned this in high school because when they learn about it in college, they often feel that their K-12 education did not adequately prepare them.
The explicit details of racial/ethnic oppression can make ethnic studies a lightning rod for controversy. The documentary “Precious Knowledge” illustrates the political repercussions when Tucson High School in Arizona implemented Mexican American studies into the curriculum. Opponents there called for a shutdown of ethnic studies, characterized the teachers as anti-American zealots and the ethnic studies curriculum as teaching hate speech and sedition.
Of course, none of these accusations is true. The nature of ethnic studies involves not only documenting the positive contributions of ethnic minorities but also addressing the not so flattering aspects of our histories. Teaching the history of slavery is pedagogically and emotionally challenging. It requires teachers to be more than subject matter experts.
Teachers are responsible for the accurate portrayal of the enslavement of people of African descent. The point in teaching slavery is not about assigning blame, but rather to educate students about one of the most important events of our nation’s history and how it informs our understanding of the sometimes contradictions surrounding the American value of equality.
Attempts to sanitize the history of slavery include one online resource that refers to the enslaved Africans brought to Jamestown as “lucky.” One attempt to make the teaching of slavery more “palatable” for some students is a desire by some to emphasize African culpability – the idea that Africans owned slaves and were complicit in European slavery.
Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed argued that slavery existed in Africa before Columbus, yet became a very different institution in the Americas.
It is misguided and misleading to make this a point of emphasis when teaching about slavery. To emphasize the role of collaborators in the oppression of their people is a distortion and misrepresentation of history.
As we approach this historic moment in Texas education, let us hope that the course stays true to the historical roots of ethnic studies in this country, one born of struggle and grounded in self-determination. It would be a profound mistake to allow ideological motivations to determine the content and approach of this course.
Kevin Cokley is the Oscar and Anne Mauzy Regents Professor of Educational Research and Development and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.