Tag: Civics

Rick Hess’ DeVos (and White Supremacy) Problem

Hess Protests Too Much: Your editor keeps a few things in mind when it comes to American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess’ jeremiad in Education Week about a protest banner…

Hess Protests Too Much: Your editor keeps a few things in mind when it comes to American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess’ jeremiad in Education Week about a protest banner accusing U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos of being a White Supremacist during her appearance last month at Harvard University. The first is that AEI’s star-studded board includes the education secretary’s brother, Erik Prince, who is also a prime donor to the think tank. That conflict must be considered when reading anything Hess writes in defense of her. Secondly: Hess himself has earned a reputation for being racially myopic, especially in his dismissal of focusing on achievement gaps in transforming public education as well as his statement that expanding school choice rewards the supposed irresponsibility of poor and minority families. Simply put, when Hess discusses any issue involving race, he is often projecting.

All that said, let’s concede one of Hess’ key arguments in that piece: That the Harvard student who displayed the banner could used better choice of words. Not because, as Hess argues, accusations of White Supremacy are tossed around too liberally these days (more on that in a second). But because the protester could have offered more-direct complaints about DeVos’ tenure that are on the mark.

There’s the move made by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to reduce the scope of its investigations into systemic overuse of suspensions, expulsions, spankings, and even restraints and seclusion (solitary confinement) against Black, Latino and other minority children, essentially scaling back the agency’s mission of protecting the most-vulnerable children. There’s DeVos’ tepid response in August to the violence by White Supremacists in Charlottesville (which echoed that of the rest of the Trump Administration). There’s also her consistent failure to condemn the bigotry of her boss, the current Occupant of the White House, who has consistently accused undocumented Latino emigres of being rapists and members of gangs. Finally, there is her unwillingness and inability to stand up for other vulnerable children, from transgendered youth to the 800,000 undocumented youth and adults brought to America as kids who now face deportation thanks to the Trump Administration’s move to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

None of this, by the way, includes her general unwillingness to embrace the civil rights mission of the Department of Education as laid out in the Every Student Succeeds Act and other federal education policies. An issue made clear again earlier this week when her priorities list was revealed, none of which mentioned doing right by poor and minority children.

As you would expect, Hess didn’t mention any of those issues in his critique. After all, he would have to concede that those protesters would have a legitimate point to make, even if he disagreed with them. More importantly, in acknowledging those issues, he ends up weakening his main argument: That far too many people, including progressive and civil rights-oriented school reformers, are too willing to accept (and toss around) accusations of White Supremacy and racial bigotry.

This is because, like a number of prominent White intellectuals outside of education policy such as New York‘s Jonathan Chait, Hess fails to admit is that bigotry in general, and White Supremacy in particular, isn’t some binary thing. That is, White Supremacy isn’t simply about someone being an active bigot or professing their hatred of people from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

All racism, including White Supremacy, is a continuum of actions that are often divorced from personal and social intentions. A Klansman or Skinhead can occasionally do good for — and even save the life of — people who he generally hates. At the same time, a person who isn’t a bigot, even someone who has committed themselves to helping those who don’t look like them, can support or remain silent about policies and practices that maliciously or incidentally damage the lives and futures of poor and minority people. More importantly, as author Richard Rubin once surmised in his famous essay on the jurors who let off the murderers of Emmett Till, individuals regardless of their position and power can find themselves unwilling to challenge and oppose those policies as well as the men and women who are promulgating them.

This reality, of course, creates a conundrum for many White reformers, especially those of a conservative bent, who support practices done by others in and out of the movement that have been proven by data and evidence to damage the very children they proclaim their concern. In the case of Betsy DeVos, the reality is magnified by her decision to join a regime deliberately dead set on harming those very same kids.

Certainly, DeVos’ admirable record in expanding school choice does argue against her being an active White Supremacist. But since Trump’s election to the presidency last November, she has been unwilling to challenge him on his bigoted statements, both before and after being nominated to serve as the nation’s top education officer. More importantly, she has done nothing to intervene on behalf of children, especially those who are undocumented as well as native-born children of emigres, as they deal with the Trump Administration’s active efforts against them and their families (including moves by the U.S. Department of Justice to deny due process in deportation hearings).

In fact, by simply joining Trump’s administration, DeVos tacitly agreed to not stand up for the children Black and Brown whose families (along with their futures), the regime has essentially targeted for condemnation to the economic and social abyss. Even worse, as a philanthropist who already had an influential role in shaping education policy through roles such as chairing the American Federation for Children, she didn’t need to join. DeVos made a calculated decision to associate herself with the likes of Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who was once denied a federal court judgeship because of his rank bigotry) and Trump himself, whose long record of racism existed long before he decided to run for public office.

While DeVos may not be a bigot or a White Supremacist, she is a willing collaborator with one. That Hess fails to realize or accept this speaks more about his issues than about others within the movement who have been unwilling to defend his favorite education politician.

More on Making History and Civics Personal: There have been plenty of responses to this month’s essay on how genealogy records and other data can be used to help children better-understand American history and civics. One of the questions raised was what are other ways can teachers make history personal and relevant to the children they teach. Just as importantly, beyond understanding the nation’s tangled racial legacy, how can they gain empathy and insight on how the nation’s wars have affected society, and even understand current geopolitical issues facing us today.

One idea lies with the monuments our nation has erected to the men and women who have died in the wars of the last century. This can easily be done by teachers in places such as Indianapolis, Ind., which is home to the more war monuments than any other part of the nation.

A teacher at North Central High School in the city’s Washington Township district can take her class down to the Vietnam and Korean War memorials where the letters of soldiers killed in action are etched on the walls for contemplation. There, they can read the letter of Frederick Ben King, a native of Hammond, Ind., who was killed by sniper fire in 1968. Through a Google search, they will learn that King had a mother named Rosell and a father named Floyd. They will also find a Chicago Tribune article that will mention that he was 17 years old (and attending Oliver P. Morton High School) when he chose to enlist in the army. That article will also tell them that he had told his mother that he planned to be home by Christmas — and that he was killed one month before he could see them.

In researching Frederick Ben King’s story, the students will learn in a personal way how devastating Vietnam was on the lives of young men and women, both those who never made it home and the ones who came back scarred physically and emotionally. Through that, they will also understand how that devastation led to the end of the involuntary draft, which had been previously used to staff our armed services during times of war, as well as the passage of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in reflection of the reality that those who can serve the nation should also be able to pick its political leaders.

Students can then go the letter of another Indiana native, John E. Welches, who was killed in action during the Korean War in 1951. Through Census data as well as state death records, they can learn that he was the only son of a machinist named August, who never left the Hoosier State and outlived his son by 29 years. By looking at online archives on the Korean Conflict, they will also learn that John spent his last days in the Haean-myon Valley, the infamous Punchbowl, which was located just miles from the now-demilitarized zone that separates South Korea from North Korea.

Through that research, students can then learn more about the origins of the Korean War, how the United States entered into the conflict, and understand why the sparring between the Trump Administration and the government of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, is so perilous for Asia and the rest of the world.

This isn’t to say all monuments are useful in instruction. The Confederate war memorials littering the nation, for example, have little use outside of showing how people use public spaces to reshape understanding of the origins of wars and debates over civil rights. Other memorials, including many devoted to the Second World War, leave out the roles of Americans of Japanese descent who were forced into concentration camps by  the federal government after Pearl Harbor, as well as the American Indians who fought ably for the nation despite the federal government’s genocidal acts towards them and their tribes.

Yet there are plenty of monuments, including the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, and the monument dedicated to Japanese-American war heroes of World War II, that offer plenty for students to contemplate and reflect upon. Which makes them useful in helping those kids gain greater understanding about their nation and its long struggle to bend the arc of history towards progress for all.


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Making History and Civics Personal

The most-important way to learn and appreciate the fullness of American history, to fully understand how we have both lived up to its ideals and yet remain far from making…

The most-important way to learn and appreciate the fullness of American history, to fully understand how we have both lived up to its ideals and yet remain far from making them real, and to comprehend how the past shaped our civics, won’t from simply reading dusty history books. It comes from looking at the graves of people named John and Monica, from visiting the lands owned by women named Eliza and Mary, from reading deeds and Census records that detail their lives, and from understanding how our own family histories intertwine with the nation’s struggles towards progress and liberty for all.

This is a lesson our teachers, school leaders, and school operators must embrace in order to help all children gain the proper civics and history education they need to be the leaders and citizens their communities need them to be, as well as to continue bending the arc of the nation’s history towards progress.

Prompting this discussion was last month’s Dropout Nation essay on one of my ancestors, Sampson Moore, and how learning about the lives of enslaved Africans, as well as the oppression they endured, is critical to improving history, civics, and social studies. More than a few readers thought it would be interesting if children learned about American history through their own genealogies. Which makes sense. The more-relevant we make lessons to the lives of the children in classrooms, the more-likely they will gain the knowledge and understanding needed to be fully part of the great experiment called America in adulthood.

Making history and civics relevant and personal is especially important in a time as turbulent as those of the past. Even as think tanks and pundits such as the Brookings Institution and Chester (Checker) Finn, Jr. bemoan polls showing that some collegians have little understanding about the Bill of Rights and civil liberties (as well as the usual and often overblown complaints about freedom of speech on college campuses), they fail to grasp an important reality: That many adults have little understanding about American history and about the development of civil liberties. This is because they were never properly taught in the first place, and because such exercises such as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance are mere propaganda exercises that don’t build proper appreciation. Proper teaching of American history – and ultimately, a strong appreciation of its past and present – begins with placing their lives and that of their families in the contexts of those developments.

The best part is that making history personal and relevant doesn’t take that much effort. Thanks to professional and amateur genealogists, the wide array of historic preservation efforts, the digital release of narratives such as those of former slaves recorded by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s, and even works of scholarship from historians such as Wilma Dunaway, any teacher, school leader, or operator can craft history and civics curricula that make cold facts personal. This can easily be seen in Bowie, a city in Prince George’s County, Md., that is also the home of this publication.

Documents such as the U.S. Census Bureau’s schedules of slave ownership can be used along with other sources to make American history relevant to the lives of children.

A teacher at Samuel Ogle Middle School in Bowie, Md., the home base of this publication, could begin that education just by taking children to one of the many old churches and grave sites in the community. There’s the famed Sacred Heart Catholic Church. There, the teacher can tell children how it played a role in advancing religious freedom, especially as the site of the founding of the nation’s first Roman Catholic diocese in 1789, and the consecration of John Carroll as the nation’s first bishop.

She can also explain how the church and the priests who worked there maintained the institution of slavery that is at the heart of America’s Original Sin, as the centerpiece of the White Marsh plantation that financed Georgetown University and, through a series of sales, breaking up Black families and sending them as far as Louisiana, where they endured even more oppression. Thanks to Georgetown’s project on the slaves owned by the Jesuit order (as well as by the priests personally), the students even see if their ancestors were enslaved on that plantation.

At Sacred Heart’s cemetery, a teacher can go to the grave of John Hawkins, which sits separate from those of White men and women who passed on to the hereafter. She can talk to them about how to research Census data from 1870 into 1910, two years before John died, and they can learn how had a wife named Hannah, had eight children. They can learn why we know so little about his life before 1870 — because Black people enslaved weren’t considered human beings, and thus, unworthy of having their lives recorded for posterity.

They can learn how he started out being illiterate, but ended up being able to read by the 1900 Census. They will also find out that John eventually managed to own his own land. They will also learn that this was a rare thing. Because of Jim Crow segregation laws that emerged amid Reconstruction in the 1870s, most Black people were forced into sharecropping, a system of renting land, equipment and even feed from former masters that often deprived them of the ability to earn a profit.

A teacher can then travel around some of the areas in their communities where people once lived and what used to be there. The Samuel Ogle teacher can take her students to a stretch of Gallant Fox Lane (named after the Triple Crown-winning horse bred on the nearby Belair Plantation), and talk about how it was once owned by Eliza Isaac, who was one of the few women in her time to own property of her own, and about a woman named Mary Brown, who managed to do the same. Back in the classroom, children can look up the acreage on Prince George’s County’s online atlas, then compare the current land to old maps dating back to 1861, and see how the community was mostly plantations and farms.

By researching the U.S. Census slave schedule for 1860, the students can learn that Mrs. Isaac owned 1o human beings as part of her worldly goods — including three little girls aged 4, 5, and 6. Through other books, the class will learn how those little girls had only a 50 percent chance of living beyond age 15 because they were often malnourished by slaveowners, and their mothers were forced to wean them off breastfeeding so they can feed the children of those who enslaved them. The students would then learn that if those little girls made it to adulthood, they were doomed for lives in which they would be passed down by the slave master to their children or worse, sold to another slave owner as if they were common goods. And if not for the Union’s victory in the Civil War, those little girls would have never become free.

A trip to both historic places and land that has never been marked as historically significant such as this tract here can help children understand the development of American history over time.

But teachers and schools don’t even need to always go out in the field to provide children a comprehensive and personal understanding of American history. They can simply have children and youth trace their own genealogy to comprehend how the nation’s past affects their present.

During this exercise, a child may go on Ancestry or Family Search and learn about the life of an ancestor named Jacob. He will learn from the 1870 Census that he was born in Halifax County and lived in nearby Martin County. A search of Civil War records will tell him that Jacob fought for the 37th Colored Infantry, one of the first U.S. Army units that allowed Black people into the ranks, and that he likely fought in the Siege of Petersburg, one of the deadliest and most-important conflicts in the War Between the States. That child and his peers will learn in a personal way how Black men and women fought for their own freedom and for this nation even when it had no interest in making them full citizens.

Another child may research the 1860 Census and learn about an ancestor named Duncan, who was also born in North Carolina, but had arrived in Attala County, Mississippi by the 1850s. She will learn that Duncan was a White man who fought for the Confederate cause to keep Black people in bondage – and later helped enact Jim Crow laws that kept them from being full citizens for another century – even as he had 12 children with one of his slaves. Along with her schoolmates, the young woman will learn how the contorted, hypocritical situations in which more than a few White people owned their own relatives made slavery the peculiar institution. She will also gain an appreciation of how her ancestors (and even herself) benefited from institutions that oppressed enslaved Africans — including people who were also her family.

A third child may go to the passenger lists of immigrants arriving to the United States through New York City and learn about an ancestor named Francis, who arrived in this nation from Ireland during the Great Famine of 1845-to-1852. After learning about the bigoted policies that led to an economic and social catastrophe that included the deaths of one million people, he will learn how the lack of immigration laws allowed Francis and others were able to flee to safety in this country. The child will then learn how Francis and other Irish emigres were discriminated against by Protestant native-born Americans because they were Catholics — even when they volunteered and fought for the nation in the Civil War — and how bigotry towards them, as well as Chinese and Jewish emigres, led to the immigration laws and policies that deny people in situations just like that of Francis the ability to flee oppression and poverty.

Certainly there will be some who will object to such approaches to learning history. Some will say that such lessons are too harsh and traumatic for children to learn. Others will complain that it may paint a negative picture of the nation’s history. What the first group fail to understand is that children are incredibly capable of dealing with harsh knowledge about life. As for the second: The lack of honest knowledge not only contributes to their ignorance of history and civics, it even makes them unable to fully appreciate how far the nation has come (as well as how far it has to go).

What we owe to children as well as to our nation is history and civics instruction and curricula that makes the facts real and relevant to their lives. If we are to keep progressing as a nation, our education must also do better than be dusty and lifeless.

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