Earlier this year, Bowdoin College announced a plan to adopt a new distribution requirement to its core curriculum. Difference, Power, and Inequity—or DPI for short—will replace the former Exploring Social Differences (ESD) label and marks courses meant to help all Bowdoin students “shift from awareness to active antiracist practices,” according to Jennifer Scanlon, Senior Vice President and Dean for Academic Affairs at the college. As an educational institution, this was a necessary step for Bowdoin. It recognizes that as undergraduates prepare to enter the workforce and the world more broadly, they must internalize the calls for racial justice that reverberate across our country. The pandemic, which has laid even more plain the systemic racism of America, has only served to underline the necessity of action in response to such calls. In requiring students to pursue at least one such course, Bowdoin signals that we must learn about pervasive racial inequity in order to go out into the world and take appropriate anti-racist action against current, inequitable power structures.
Education in the United States, specifically public education, is often seen as some sort of great equalizer. The infamous notion of the American Dream, that any person in this country can make a comfortable living for themselves through hard work and determination regardless of background or starting point, is inextricably bound with this narrative. With this frame of reference, individualism is a primary tenet of education, in which each student could make a better life for themself based on how hard they work.
But views of public education should not operate on a foundation of individualism. The existing achievement gaps between black and white students alone put the individual equalizer narrative into question; these gaps, as well as gaps based on income, have not closed significantly over the last twenty years. American society has systemic and racist inequalities baked into its structure, and many young black students are not afforded the opportunities to achieve at the level of white students, regardless of how hard they work individually. When a biased system is working socially and economically against Black students, hard work cannot always be enough to ensure cushy rewards of individualism.
With this in mind, our public education system must be geared toward shared goals, teaching students how to be good people and thoughtful citizens in a world where they will inevitably have to interact with others to meet common ends. This includes the civic duty of addressing massive structural inequities. It is imperative that schools recognize anti-racism as the common good of our nation and instill their students with the power to take action in fighting for justice, unlearn ingrained biases, and have difficult conversations with peers and family members. Inevitably, this means curriculum in schools must make a concerted effort to uplift black voices, especially in their teaching of history. Students young and old must look racial injustice in its grim face and then learn how to become adults who can help uplift their fellow citizens by working together against unequal systems rather than working individually within them.
This optimistic, holistic viewpoint on education’s purpose makes the recent tale of the Maria Montessori Academy even more distressing. The name of this public charter school erupted across the internet of early February 2021 after their baffling decision to allow parents to opt their children out of the Black History Month curriculum. Maria Montessori is located in North Ogden, Utah, a district that is 94 percent white and 0.8 percent black, according to the most recent census data. Of the 322 students at the school, three are black. While the decision has since been reversed and all students will now follow the Black History Month curriculum, this opt-out moment still has alarming ramifications about the state of anti-racism education in schools.
The opt-out should not have occurred. Director Micah Hirokawa stated in an initial justification on Facebook that “families are allowed to exercise their civil rights” in choosing to opt their children out of the curriculum. Herein lies another great danger American individualism poses to anti-racist education: in painting the choice to ignore the role of Black people in our country’s history as an exercise of “civil liberties,” the white families who opted their children out of the curriculum essentially absolve themselves of their obligation to help their children learn about the systemic racism that constructs their white privilege.
The individualistic attitude of being able to do what one wants behind the shield of “civil liberties” is a primary reason why systemic racism continues. There is less accountability for hateful actions, and no obligation to confront deeply rooted biases. Executive director of the American Montessori Society Munir Shivji points out that the Utah opt-out story “sets a clear and dangerous precedent that the rich and robust history of Black Americans and other marginalized groups can be ignored.” Indeed, turning a blind eye to the fact that American history is rife with the marginalization of people of color is what perpetuates privileged individualism, chalking up white American success in an economy built on the backs of the oppressed to luck, convenience, and hard work.
It is the job of American schools to shine a light of truth through the fog of these false narratives. When it comes to educating all students to be anti-racist, the individual cannot be isolated from society at large. Individualism is incompatible with anti-racism because each and every person contributes to the current societal structure, and each and every person has the power to address these systemic inequities. Psychologist Dr. Beverly Tatum describes this best with her analogy which describes racist behavior as “a moving walkway at the airport.” In this image, active racist people are those who are “walking fast on the conveyor belt,” yet similarly dangerous is passivity: the bystanders whom “the conveyor belt moves along to the same destination as those who are actively walking.” Thus, anti-racism has to be an active practice of stepping off the conveyor belt and working against the system—for each individual white person, the conscious choice to move “actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt” rather than doing nothing and advancing by the benefits of privilege. Black history must be a living and breathing part of the curriculum in public schools that teaches white students at a young age to recognize the origins of their privilege and why they not only must use this privilege to elevate black voices but also to step aside and create more space for black voices to be heard.
Public schools are already meant to be a place for young students to learn tolerance and respect for different backgrounds. The Radio Atlantic podcast “What Are Public Schools For?” emphasizes that the goal of public schools should be “moment to moment, day to day integration” in all areas, from classes to sports and extracurriculars. What inevitably follows is a citizenship lesson for these impressionable minds. Children gain the opportunity to see more of the people with whom they share in the world. They gather stories of diverse experiences and spin them into the inevitable conclusion that American citizens weren’t meant to rely on individualism alone. Instead, essential understandings of who people are and where they come from—on a personal and societal level—is the surest way to raise children who carry anti-racist, actionable goals for dismantling systems of privilege.
Obviously, making extensive Black history an integral part of public school curriculum is also to the benefit of Black students. As it stands now, the Eurocentric focus of the telling of history in schools can be detrimental to the ability of Black students to see themselves in the curriculum. High school teacher Jesse Hagopian, who teaches in Seattle, asserts that “when Black students don’t see themselves in the curriculum, it’s truly destructive to their sense of self…oftentimes, the only time they see themselves in the curriculum is when slavery is being taught. And you cannot reduce our existence to the enslavement of African people.” An important part of anti-racist work is protecting the mental health of blacks, and proper representation in school curricula is essential to delivering self-worth and the promise of potential.
Any Black history curriculum must also include extensive and diverse Black perspectives if it is to be successful in its anti-racist aims. Specifically, when it comes to learning about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, solely learning about activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, although important to the advancement of civil rights, is not sufficient for teaching Black history. Homogenizing the entirety of this movement behind a few activists whose tactics are more palatable to white citizens of today is dangerous; it effectively erases perspectives that students need to gain a holistic view of racial justice calls of today. Any Civil Rights curriculum would be incomplete without including extensive studies on concurrent movements such as Black Power and the Black Panthers and their notable figures, including Huey P. Newton, Malcolm X, and Stokley Carmichael. The history of movements for racial equality must be told in all of its multifaceted truths so that the totality of modern movements such as Black Lives Matter aren’t funneled into one convenient label, and so protests can’t be dismissed with complaints that protestors should “just act more like MLK.” Students need to think critically about why certain narratives are being hidden, and how the burying of Black history that doesn’t align with MLK’s version of the Civil Rights Movement helps people ignore disruptions to racial power structures today. Finally, Black history must more frequently include opportunities to learn about figures who achieved highly in spite of working against an inequitable system. Such figures could include Katherine Johnson, a mathematician at NASA, Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress, and olympian Wilma Rudolph, to name only a few.
How can the American public education system put anti-racist curriculum into practice? As with any issue of addressing systemic racism, there is no direct solution that can easily be immediately implemented across the entire nation. This is especially true of the education system, where the fragmented control of schooling will inevitably lead to conflict between leaders at the district, state, and federal level. Individualism makes the fight for equity an uphill battle; it is plausible that certain districts would drag their feet against federal or state efforts to instill aggressive anti-racist coursework into public schools. The existing individualism in educational institutions is especially apparent when considering that different school districts sometimes tell history in completely different ways. Textbooks are far from standardized across the nation. Some states will cherry-pick the information that goes into history readings, conveniently leaving out Black voices from primary sources or emphasizing that “economic considerations” such as raised taxes along with racial resentment were responsible for stalling progress toward racial equity, as the example of Texas demonstrates.
Two potential paths to implementing lessons of anti-racism through Black history in public schools have recently emerged. The first comes in the form of the Black History is American History Act, a bill introduced to the House of Representatives by Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH) in May of 2020. This bill aims “to authorize the Secretary of Education to award grants to eligible entities to carry out educational programs that include the history of peoples of African descent” in public schools. The bill also notably amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to include specific references to the inclusion of Black history. The eighth finding of the bill lists twelve states (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Texas) that have already required incorporation of Black history into the curricula of their public school systems, and proposes Federal pressure to help teachers “incorporate historically accurate instruction on the comprehensive history of African Americans” with the end goal of recognizing Black history “as an integral part of American history.” The findings of the bill concisely reinforce the need for comprehensive Black history in anti-racist education. The dual approach of uplifting Black excellence and illuminating structures of racial privilege and disadvantage at America’s core is necessary for encouraging anti-racist action.
The other approach is to redefine the thought process behind “Black history” and the way it is taught to students. LaGarrett J. King, an associate professor at the University of Missouri’s College of Education, created a curriculum titled Developing Black Historical Consciousness, which aims to redefine the focus of Black history curricula toward a more holistic view of black people throughout history. He argues that instead of only assimilating Black people into Eurocentric history as is the status quo, educators must “reconcile that Black history has its own historical entry points, its own historical timelines, historical perspectives, and historical people.” In King’s eyes, this includes teaching students about Africa and the African Diaspora as crucial parts of understanding Black history in America. He proscribes “project-and problem-based assessments, media development, community engagement, and action research” as “more appropriate goals” to Black history curricula, solidifying the idea that anti-racism education must be predicated upon action steps.
He states that an inclusive history curriculum presents “a history that is comfortable with competing perspectives about the ethos of America.” Anti-racism education can only work when students see that there is no one truth to the character of America, and that steps can always be taken to improve the systemic racism that is at the basis of the nation.
America is in the midst of a national reckoning on race; the public education system is inevitably at the epicenter. Public schools have a responsibility to teach students how to be good citizens who fulfill their civic duties to fight for the common good. Now and forever, anti-racism is that common good. Children need to be educated thoroughly on the systemic racial inequalities that are pervasive in America’s structure—specifically as they harm Black Americans—in order to become actionable supporters of dismantling these systems. Public schools should never simply be asking themselves what they can teach students; rather they need to ask themselves how they can teach students to help others, to think beyond themselves and take action to make public education’s dreams of equity come true.