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Feel-Good History Hurts Kids

April 23, 2004|Jonathan Zimmerman | Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University.

Seventeen years ago, as a social studies teacher in Baltimore, I led a class of sixth-graders through a lesson on the civil rights movement. We had just reached the 1963 March on Washington when one asked a question that I hadn't expected. "Is it true," she asked, "that Martin Luther King cheated on his wife?" Yes, I replied, and then I explained how we knew it was true: The Federal Bureau of Investigation bugged King's hotel rooms.

"Why," another student asked, "would the FBI do a thing like that?" It wasn't hard for this highly diverse group of kids -- mostly African American and white, with a sprinkling of Latinos and Asians -- to come to an answer. By challenging segregation, King threatened the very root of white supremacy in the United States. "So, he was an enemy of the state!" one student concluded. Yes, I said. That's exactly what he was.

The next day, I received a call from an irate African American parent. "My daughter's feeling very upset," the parent said. "You've taken away her hero, her role model." Several other black parents called the principal, who summoned me to his office for a stern warning: Stick to the textbook, or else.

Suffice to say that the textbook didn't have anything bad to say about Martin Luther King -- or about anyone, really. The book presented Americans in all of their wondrous racial and ethnic diversity, highlighting the contributions of notable minorities to politics, literature, athletics and the arts. But each group in society remained pure, pristine, immaculate, unblemished.

How did we get here? Why do schools teach history as a pageant of diverse "heroes" and "role models," a multicultural Hall of Fame? Partly it's an American thing: We tend to see the world without a lot of subtlety or moral ambiguity. We like our heroes heroic, not muddled.

But it also reflects the American postwar embrace of psychology, which has become our dominant idiom for thinking, talking and knowing. This emphasis on the individual psyche was highlighted in, among other places, Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark decision that the Supreme Court handed down 50 years ago this spring.

Listen to the language of Brown: "To separate [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." In other words, segregation is wrong because it hurts black self-esteem.

Here the court cited new "psychological knowledge," starting with research by the renowned Harlem psychiatrist Kenneth B. Clark. In a series of experiments conducted with his wife, Mamie, Clark showed that African American children preferred white dolls and pictures to black ones.

By the 1960s, African Americans and their liberal white allies would use the same rationale for desegregating American history textbooks: Black kids needed to "see themselves" in the books or their self-esteem would suffer.

"We have no way of knowing how many potential Negro scientists, scholars, doctors, teachers and businessmen have been swept into the ditch of oblivion by the psychological backlash of the Negro history gap," cautioned Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1967.

Up until this time, we should remember, most American history books either denigrated or ignored African Americans. In the South, textbooks called slavery a benevolent institution, and Northern books were little better, depicting slaves as childlike victims who morphed into marauding savages during Reconstruction. Today, our students no longer read such racist drivel in school; instead, they learn about great African Americans like Martin Luther King. This reform is one of the great achievements of that same history.

But these gains came at a cost. For whenever a new racial luminary moved into our textbooks, he -- or, increasingly, she -- also moved beyond reproach.

Minority students needed unblemished heroes, the argument went, to feel good about themselves. Who cares if King cheated on his wife? Good kids must have role models, after all. And all role models must be good.

So textbooks depicted the evils of slavery at great length, but rarely mentioned that Africans practiced it themselves. The books tempered their descriptions of Indian massacres by the Spanish Conquistadors, lest Latino students take offense. And so on.

Before long, of course, whites began complaining that accounts of slavery and racial violence harmed their kids' fragile minds. "Education is getting a positive image about oneself," fumed a white Michigan parent in 1974, condemning a textbook that described white attacks upon blacks during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. "No child, white or black, will get a positive image by reading about stabbings, war, the problems." Once Brown enshrined self-esteem as the highest American value, in short, an honest American history became impossible.

To understand history, students must do more than simply "see themselves" in it; they need to grapple with its enigmas, its ambiguities and its inconsistencies. But they'll never do that if we're overeager to protect their psyches, which are far less delicate than most adults suspect.

Let me be clear: I regard Brown vs. Board of Education as one of the triumphs of U.S. history, but the psychological presumptions of Brown have prevented an honest exploration of that history. Nothing in our past is purely good or bad -- not even Brown vs. Board of Education.

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