Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a law outlawing ethnic studies programs in her state. The law makes it illegal for a school district to teach any courses that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."
The history of education tells us why the multicultural ethnic studies and critical thinking approaches, held by the majority of current educators, is wrong and the culturist approach, embodied in this Arizona law, is correct.
As Arizona’s State Superintendant of Public Instruction Tom Horne put it, "Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals.” The most recent issue of the American Historical Association’s newsmagazine, Perspectives on History, condemns a recent Texas law that went against the multicultural and critical theory-oriented history in textbooks. The history of education shows that the American Historical Association is wrong and the traditionalists are right.
Bernard Bailyn’s seminal history of education text, Education in the Formation of American society, shows that the Puritans emphasized education because their distance from Europe made them fear their youth would not be civilized. Ruth Elson’s masterful examination of 19th century textbooks, Guardians of Tradition, concludes, “The purpose of nineteenth – century American public schools was to train citizens in character and proper principles.” These books taught that individual virtue maintains the republic via creating economic success and altruistic voters.
Indeed our Founding Fathers often spoke of the importance of education in instilling the virtue necessary to maintaining a republic. Noah Webster created his famous dictionary with American spellings of common words in order that we might separate ourselves from the dreaded British. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence included italics to make his point that, “Next to the duty which young men owe to their Creator, I wish to see a SUPREME REGARD TO THEIR COUNTRY inculcated upon them.”
R. Freeman Butts, a classic historian of education, in his 1955 Cultural History of Western Education, tells us that “culture” holds the key to understanding education. He defines it as “the whole way of life that is created, learned held in common, and passed on from one generation to another by the members of a particular society.” He shows this to be the western theme in education since our origins in the “Eastern Mediterranean World.” Indeed, historians of education in his generation routinely created global surveys going back to tribalism showing this to be the theme in education in all times and places.
As the name of their newsmagazine, Perspectives, indicates, the professional historians feel that perspectives exist rather than truths. Article after article in their May issue extols the virtue of teaching both sides of historical issues and letting students decide. And these professional historians think by critically attacking issues they can help students understand the way “real” history is made and teach real “historical” thinking. This critical approach, in the historian’s opinion, helps students see complexity, learn critical thinking skills, and, ironically, get closer to The Truth about issues.
Arizona’s activist multicultural backers of ethnic studies courses also think they provide a more realistic portrait of America. Multiculturalism’s narrative depicts America as neutral space where various random cultures meet. And these cultures should harmonize, except the “white” culture oppresses other cultures. Thus the story of America becomes the story of getting social justice and equal rights. That is the story of America becomes one of minorities rising up against the unjust American society. The fact that America continues to be unjust and racist provides the very necessity for the existence of these multicultural ethnic studies programs.
The history of education shows why the professional historians’ critical thinking platform and the multiculturalists’ ethnic studies programs are wrong. The traditional history of education approach tells us why these approaches are especially destructive in the high school setting at which the Arizona and Texas lawmakers aimed their laws. But it also shows us why their entire approaches to history, regardless of setting, are problematic.
The metaphysics behind the modern historian’s critical thinking approach are not historical. Classic historians of education created histories of incredible breadth; their surveys of history routinely included tribal times, Ancient India, Ancient China, the Roman world, the near-modern Middle East and more. And rather than emphasizing a triumphal narrative of progress, they would show that each peoples had their own particular cultural mindset and show how schools promoted it.
Current historians’ “social justice” orientation does not proceed from a historical perspective. Rather, it relentlessly criticizes us for not living up to standards that have never been found in the world anywhere. This unrealistic standard informs these teachers’ constant assertion that all evidence of inequality means a lack of “social justice.” Were they to employ a historical standard they would notice that inequality, even in the Soviet Union and tribal times, has been a historical constant.
Traditional historians of education conveyed the magic of history. Their histories took us to ancient and distant lands where strange, yet sometimes familiar, cultural practices dominated. This approach gave us critical distance on ourselves without denigrating the United States in isolation. In addition, it tied the history teacher to the long tradition of cultural transmitters; it bonded them with tribal elders who told tales around the campfire and gave them a heroic mission of perpetuating the progress of mankind.
Modern historians would cry “Propaganda” were they to publicly confront advocacy of the Founding Fathers’ approach to education. In fact, they would do so were they to come into contact with educators from any era other than our own. But, ironically for an organization with newsmagazine entitled “Perspectives” such a view assumes the existence of a True history without any bent. All history conveys an opinion. None is pure. The real question is to what end such “propaganda” will be used.
Herein we come to the crux of the debate. Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction has a photo of ethnic studies students dressed in revolutionary garb on his website. Ethnic studies do not truly purport to provide objective historical truths. As stated earlier, they exist to seek “social justice” against the inherently oppressive and racist system. The heavily left leaning American Historical Association knows that its critical perspectives approach is largely used to critique “The dominant paradigm” (ie: western civilization).
The legislators in Texas and Arizona have understood teaching that Texas and Southern Arizona were stolen from Mexico cannot make Latino students feel proud to be Americans. While there certainly are two sides to that story, our job is to teach ours. And the pretense that multiculturalist Chicano studies departments teach both sides in the name of objective history does not hold water. And critical theorist pretense to criticizing all truths undermines belief. And, in the end, teaching students to criticize and hate their society not only undermines society, it fosters alienation and anti-social attitudes in youth.
Traditional history of education writing shows that schools’ have been entrusted with the culturist mission of making their youth good members of the society they happen to be born into from tribal times on. By showing the ever-changing parade of cultures and social arrangements that have existed, these scholars made us understand the fragility of our own. And, in providing fairly accurate representations of these nations and proto-nations, they gave us real historical standards against which to judge the merit of our own civilization. Thus, they performed education’s universal culturist mission of fostering harmony between society and its inhabitants.