What About Learning?
Terry H. Schwadron
July 12, 2022
Given the campaign among Rightist politicians to control what they think our kids can read in schools about race and identity, a recent article drew my attention for the obvious question it posed: “What Happens When American Children Learn About Racism?”
The spreading culture war concerns being pushed by have resulted in challenges in several politically red states to have books removed from school and public library shelves, to hector school officials at local school board meetings and label opponents as anti-American or “groomers” for homosexuality.
The charge is that these books and ideas promote the idea that America has an ugly history with minorities and support the idea that policies that seek redress have no place in our collective thinking.
Indeed, along with constant complaints about inflation, supposed election fraud and immigration policies, these culture wars issues have emerged as the major reason
to bolster Republican candidates in November.
Still, from any political partisan viewpoint, race and identity are central to understanding the American experience.
So, it was refreshing to learn that there have been several studies about what happens to students who are assigned readings about American history that fit into a preconceived history racial cocoon.
The author, Neil Lewis Jr. is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University and Weill Cornell Hospital, who was curious about what scholars have learned about the role of education and racism. As it turns out, historians have argued over such questions for decades. A 2001 book called “Schoolbook Nation” by historian Joseph Moreau tracked that Americans have worried about the “wrong” versions of history being taught in our schools since the 1870s.
By exposing students to a more critical version of history, do we harm our children or help them?
Among the Research
Around Chicago, University of Chicago political scientist Matthew Nelsen randomly assigned nearly 700 high schoolers to read different versions of history textbook segments and then measured what effect they had on students from different racial backgrounds. Some students were assigned to read excerpts adapted from a history book that presents a relatively typical retelling of American history while others were given read excerpts from a more critical history book that included reactions from “marginalized groups, systemic injustice and grassroots political action.”
Nelsen found that in reading the more critical textbooks, Latino and Black students reported a greater willingness to participate in acts of political engagement and were also more willing to express their views on a variety of issues. Nelsen also found that white students reported a greater appreciation for the contributions that Black, Latino and Asian Americans have made to American society.
Does this sound controversial?
In a review of the literature on this topic conducted by a team of psychologists from Northwestern University, the University of Georgia and the University of Vermont, Sylvia Perry and her colleagues noted that teaching children about racism can actually increase the empathy they have for members of other groups, as well as their concerns about systemic racism. Studies showed that when white children learn about racism they are more likely to value racial fairness and show more positive attitudes and empathy toward Blacks.
But rather than promote such conclusions about teaching about racism, we’ve been busy squashing them. Between January 2021 and April 2022, almost 200 bills were introduced across the U.S. to ban the teaching of critical perspectives on the history of the United States.
According to Columbia University psychologists Ariel Mosley and Larisa Heiphetz, there may be an expansion of “moral circles” across different racial groups and become less tolerant of the social systems that maintain and reinforce perceived inequality. That idea apparently does not sit well with the political Right.
In a recent longitudinal study that followed over 2,600 white Americans over three years, New York University and University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologists Eric Knowles, Linda Tropp and Mao Mogami found that compared to white Democrats, white Republicans believed more strongly that minority groups would collude against white people. The result: Lessons about racism and other forms of oppression — might cause the nation to lose some of its traditions, and could even lead to “reverse discrimination” against white Americans
In other words, argues author Lewis, these studies suggest a fear about what this type of education might mean for maintaining power in society. “Teaching about racism could lead to greater cross-race coalition building and the expansion of rights and opportunities for racial minorities to participate in key decision-making systems, but that idea is interpreted by some Americans as an existential threat,” he argues.
Christopher Rufo, a right-wing education writer, filmmaker and provocateur, at the Manhattan Institute, has gotten the credit for political concern about teaching Critical Race Theory in our schools — even though no such course is taught in public schools below graduate level courses in universities. He has become a Pied Piper for his cause among Republican officials, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Rufo has expanded his efforts toward LGBTQ issues and coined the “grooming” thinking that has been picked up in Florida’s new laws encouraging parental challenges of school curricula and books. Over time, Rufo had promoted school voucher systems in lieu of public schools.
By whatever means, Rufo would eliminate any critical thinking skills from the American history he wants taught. If we see the studies about what happens when students do read critical history, what do you think happens when they are not exposed to such ideas?